Democracy Café: July

The chosen topic this month was ‘how to repair our broken society?’ The question was inspired by recent feelings of divisions in society which seem quite deep and unbridgeable. There was a sense that since 2008 it had got worse. Everyone seemed to be looking for scapegoats and Covid seemed to have made it worse still. We were reminded it wasn’t just the UK: look at the USA and the events surrounding the Trump presidency. On PBS TV the previous night, there was a programme about anarchist groups in the USA and their role in the storming of the Capitol. The far right seemed to be making progress in several countries, for instance, Hungary.

Opinion seemed more polarised. One person felt that the right wing had become more radical and that if you believed in broadly left wing causes you were somehow deemed unpatriotic. Those who shouted the loudest were the ones who got heard. This seemed to create sense of tribalism. There were likely to be large numbers of people on the other hand, who were perhaps the silent majority whose voices were not always heard.

Inevitably social media was mentioned and the way it was able to magnify voices and to create echo chambers. However, it was pointed out that this media did give the opportunity for people, who previously may not have been able to get their views across, to express themselves. Anonymity emboldened people it was noted. Perhaps there was a need for more curiosity it was suggested and the need for people to deliberately explore alternative views to break out of (their) echo chamber.

Brexit made an appearance and it was noted that friendships had ended because of it and families were also fractured. It seems that not just society was broken but there were breaks at the individual level as well.

Was it something to do with how the brain works someone wondered? The world was complex and yet we needed simple solutions to enable to understand and make sense of it.

Should ideas and methods of self-analysis be taught at school? Surrounded by all this ‘noise,’ children and young people needed these skills to be able to question what was coming at them.

The concept of the topic was questioned. ‘Repair’ implied that the society was once whole and unbroken and was now in need of repair. Our society has always been divided and in a sense broken. There have always been powerful people and groups who controlled the levers of power. For centuries we were essentially feudal. The industrial revolution created huge disparities in wealth and enormous poverty and misery for the majority. Burke’s concept of ‘little platoons’ was mentioned in this regard.

The conclusion was that although we lived in peaceful times (according to Stephen Pinker) we are perhaps more divided now.

The second question was: ‘Are we all hypocrites, if so does it matter and can it be beneficial?’ The first point to clear up was the meaning of the word ‘hypocrite’. One definition has it that a hypocrite is someone who expresses certain moral, political or religious beliefs whose actions belie those beliefs. The second, more common use is simply someone who fails to live up to their expressed moral beliefs and it is the second definition that the question was intended.

It was argued that in this sense the gap between beliefs and action can act as an incentive to close the gap. An example given was someone who is persuaded by moral and environmental arguments against eating meat but continues to eat meat. However, this hypocritical position may encourage the person to eat less meat and then only free range – maybe eventually given up meat altogether.

A wide-ranging deliberation followed that took in motivations and intentions and freewill versus determinism. One interesting question was whether we can ever know our motivations and desires because they spring unbidden from our unconscious. This prompted a common thread about self-awareness to the extent that the more you know about yourself more likely it is that you might be able to identify your motivations and intentions and choose the ones you want to deploy. Self-awareness, it was claimed, enables you to make the change you want to make.

Another interesting suggestion was that you should stop worrying about your intentions and consider only the impact of your actions on the grounds that good intentions on their own are not enough because they can go horribly wrong. There was also some discussion about whether all intentions are in some sense egoistic or self-centred or whether at least some can be altruistic in nature.

It was pointed out that we were in danger of letting politicians off the hook for being hypocrites because they are human like the rest of us, but perhaps that referred to the first definition of hypocrisy rather than the second.

The last word goes to the political journalist Michael Gerson: “Being a moral person is a struggle which everyone repeatedly fails, becoming a hypocrite in each of those moments. A just and peaceful society depends on hypocrites who ultimately refuse to abandon the ideals they betray.”

Peter Curbishley; Dickie Bellringer