The "Center" of Society

What is "natural"

What is this "Center"?

It is astonishing how many people confuse a contingent state of affairs with the "natural" or "inevitable."

To understand this, let us introduce a concept I will call "Centering." The "Center" of society is the set of institutions, norms, technologies, etc. that are considered "normal." Our society ends up being built around this center. New technologies, institutional innovations, moral shifts: all of these can become incorporated into the Center.

Disruptions that seem to make our lives easier and increase our freedoms frequently end up establishing their own constraints. I discussed this with reference to cars:

Yes, the car made it faster to move from point A to point B. And yet, commutes appear to keep hitting new record highs.

The problem that we face is that the Car is now seen as normal. It is expected that one possesses a vehicle. And so society is built around them. What used to be 20 minutes away by foot can now be placed 20 minutes away by car, because who walks anywhere anymore? The car is no longer a way to explode boundaries: it has become the boundary-setter itself.

This dynamic of a new technology promising (and legitimately delivering) freedom before being “centered” by society and becoming the standard (a.k.a. the new constraints) is neither new nor uncommon. So often it seems that when we attempt to collapse the space-time continuum with a new technology (communication at the speed of light, travel at 500kmh+, etc.), the continuum pushes back savagely. And so commutes get longer as urban sprawl, impossible to conceive of without personal transportation (that doesn’t rely on human energy), proliferates. We are slaves to our inboxes, being expected to instantly respond to any request from a boss or a client, because their whole worlds are built around speed as well. And how many of us truly consented to this? Or were we simply thrust into a world where these were the rules and we just have to go along with it?

With every explosion of possibilities comes a new set of boundaries: for every window you open, you must keep another closed. Be wary of so-called "freedoms." Freedom is but one side of a coin; the other side has always been, is, and will always be, constraint.

Schemas and "Nature"

Now, that isn't intended to make a fatalistic argument. Change does happen. Innovation occurs and Centers shift. But how does this happen? Technological and material changes are incorporated within a pre-existing schema that establishes the framework of the Center. It is this schema that must be shifted.

Most of our norms, our institutions, and our technologies are heavily contingent. That isn't meant to say that "there is no such thing as human nature" or "everything is constructed hurr durr;" rather, it is intended to push back on those who claim that a particular set of norms or institutions are "natural." Usually this "argument" comes out when someone approves of the current Center but has no substantive way to defend it.

Role Conflict, Identity Politics, and the Center

"Role conflict" refers to a situation in which an individual is forced to allocate their activities and commitments according to one of two (or more) standards of obligation that might each apply to the situation. In this situation, different sets of norms and standards of evaluation might apply, and the individual has to figure out which ones to apply to this particular situation. The norms/standards that the individual deems most relevant will determine which actions seem appropriate and proper to the individual.

Individuals in fact have different interests in their roles as consumer, worker, parent, citizen, etc. They must decide which role is most relevant and therefore which corresponding interests weigh most heavily on their actions. And it is important to understand this: disagreements about norms frequently reflect conflicts of interest, but this does not mean norms are a thin veneer over a more fundamental struggle of interests. Conflicts of interests occur around normative arguments precisely because these norms do matter. Even when outcomes do turn largely on material interest, issues of identity are frequently still major determinants of the result. In the words of Mark Granovetter:

'The presumption that identity politics has little to do with the politics of material interest is generally false, and normative beliefs figure prominently in identity politics' in determining which interest identity is triggered.

(Granovetter, Society and Economy)

Those who have followed the blog will recognize echoes of the Charles Taylor quote I discuss so frequently:

“To know who I am is to know where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose.”

(Taylor, Sources of the Self)

What is important to understand here is that society tends to Center a particular hierarchy of identities (and therefore obligations) as being ideal. In other words, a Good Person would care about their family and then their job and then their friends, for example. Yes, the interests someone has as a worker or as a father may be identifiable, but which identity gets activated in any given scenario will reflect a combination of the individual's personal subjectivity and the society's pressures (delivered via socialization processes). Any system that fails to grasp this, that claims that one identity is more real than any other, will never be able to capture the human spirit. If you want to change the world, you need to start thinking about the ideas that shape it. Shift the Center, and Society will follow.

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