By OOI KEE BENG
Editorial for Penang Monthly, September 2013
I remember spending a lot of time in my teenage years wondering how societies are possible. Noticing how difficult it is for people to get along, I wondered what the key mechanisms are underlying the impressive stability one finds in societies whose members can number in hundreds of millions, and even over a billion.
It took me a while to realise that this apparent achievement had been puzzling humanity practically since the first complex societies began appearing.
There is the Hobbesian idea of the social contract where there is some giving and there is some taking. Theoretically, individuals are parties to social contracts where the positive effects of compromises outweigh the constraints that they – in giving up certain rights for other rights to be protected – put on themselves. Often thought to be an ultimate argument for absolutism, the main point in Thomas Hobbes’s explanation for the phenomenon of social cohesion and social harmony is that legitimate power must be representative. Such a notion must grant sacrosanct agency to individuals. They must be assumed to have natural rights (be these religiously termed or not). Without that, they would have no rights to give up in the first place.
That’s Western enlightenment thinking on the nature of societies.
In China, Confucius’s elucidation of the matter is one of the more articulate ones. Much of our social behaviour is actually the glue that conflates us, giving us personal comfort, identity and meaning. We are trained, over generations, to participate in rituals that give predictability to our actions, and in the process we develop a sense of togetherness. Our moves contain meaning – as in chess, or any other game for that matter – only if we sense their societal significance. Those with whom we can play these games are naturally those we feel close to in a basic sense. Thus, having more cultural exposure and knowing more games – i.e. being multicultural and multilingual – would necessarily inculcate in us a stronger sense of human universality.
It starts out like two dogs of equal size meeting for the first time. Each is potentially dangerous to the other, but an open fight between them may not be worth the risk. What to do? They growl at each other, and then they circle each other and try to arrive at some understanding. And they end up either leaving each other alone, becoming allies or fighting. The last can have fatal consequences for either or both of them. So rationally, they would prefer either the first or the second option.
Same thing for us humans, practically. We meet for the first time. If not introduced by a third party, we may actually growl in some sense, but otherwise, we raise our arm in greeting and we may shake hands. We may say a few words, providing vital information for the other to process. Such is the basis of social cohesion.
In both cases, the agency of the individual is essential and ineradicable; and society exists only because it is representative of its members.
OOI KEE BENG