“If someone wants to see and experience the world as it ‘really’ is, he can do so only by understanding it as something that is shared by many people, lies between them, separates them, showing itself differently to each and comprehensible only to the extent that many people can talk about it and exchange their opinions and perspectives with one another, over against one another.”
~ Hannah Arendt
Is it possible to examine the health of a group or society? Indeed we can, using the principles and theories of medicine, ecology, and anthropology. Evaluating what is “healthy” does not have to be subjective. The criteria used to evaluate biological systems are equally applicable to society; thus, we can judge the health of a social body the same way we judge the health of a human body.
The human body is a self-organizing collection of cells. Cells are fundamental to organic life. The body is healthiest when cells function in cooperation with each other and the whole system. The less healthy cells are, the more they begin to disconnect from their surroundings. Lack of cellular integrity and connections to other cells can lead to dysfunctions, and even disruption of the whole system. Non-functional cells eventually become toxic to the body. Dysfunction is the symptom—not the cause—of ill health. When the body can no longer regulate itself, autoimmune disorders develop. Autoimmune diseases are, essentially, the body at war with itself.
The stages of the process of breakdown in cell–body function also happen in society. Individuals, like cells, are key to a healthy social body. No matter their ideology or beliefs, if people do not feel connected, feel heard, and have their basic needs meet, societal disconnection and polarization increase. The more their self-expression and identities are repressed, the more toxic the environment becomes for people. Health is promoted not by suppressing ideas, but by strengthening the system so that it transforms out of its diseased condition.
The social body is a collective of individuals, self-organizing in a culture that is governed by the same processes as the biological body. The variety of cultures and societies around the world are a testimony to the creativity, adaptation, and diversity that is life. Like people, societies are unique, but function similarly to all organizations and living systems. Societies, like physical bodies, sometimes must change due to internal or external pressures. Demographic and economic pressures, cultural change, and environmental necessities sometimes require difficult changes. History is filled with examples of societies that failed because they were unable to transform themselves. Cultural exchanges, migration, global economic integration, and especially the Internet are forces pressuring humanity to change. People naturally desire personal freedom, which creates diversity. Real democracy isn’t a preordained, ready-made unity imposed from above. It requires cooperation, organization, and finding consensus for what is possible as a collective, from the bottom up.
Politics is how people position themselves in a community of others. There are a variety of political ideologies used to govern, from militaristic dictatorships to grassroots participatory democracies. No matter the form of government or ideology, diversity and differences can threaten unity if they are not well represented. When the differences between the majority and the minority become too great, polarization leads to conflict and violence. Increasingly around the world, populations are rising up and asserting their identities and desires. Long-established governments and power structures that historically suppressed freedom and diversity are being challenged. People see what is possible and are willing to risk their lives for it. Inevitably, in an information-driven global economy, the free flow of ideas will be used to challenge those who seek to control populations and diversity. Deep democracy allows us all to speak and can facilitate creative solutions to societal problems, which in turn promotes both individual and social health.
Diversity is what gives us options to adapt creatively to changes in the environment. But the more diversity and differences in the population, the more difficult it is to agree on how to adapt. This is precisely why we need more tolerance and creativity. The suppression of diversity and ideas only limits society and exacerbates internal polarization. Lack of representation and participation are the seeds of disruption. The more disempowered people feel, the more potential conflict there is. The more disunity in a group, the more conflict increases and the more likely scapegoating will occur—hence bigotry and racism. Scapegoating is a way of temporarily unifying a particular group’s identity. This universal human response creates more polarization and disconnection within a society and prevents creative solutions and cooperation.
The increased polarization we see in American and European politics is what happens when a system no longer serves an increasingly diverse society under pressure. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are ideologically very different, yet are similar in their opposition to the status quo and established power structures. Most of their support is from those who feel disenfranchised. Their popularity is an inevitable consequence of lack of representation in a system that does not respond to people’s needs. The same forces that created Le Pen in France and elected dictators like Mussolini and Hitler in the 1930s are at play now. If a way of bridging the polarization in society is not found, by increasing representation and cooperation, conflict and even violence are inevitable.
The best solution for creating a healthy social group is to bring back internal cooperation. This requires increasing participation and communication among all human beings. Unfortunately, it is easier to ignore these connections and base our actions on emotions instead; that is why politicians who appeal to emotions and engage in demagoguery and pandering garner support—even if people don’t agree with them! Facts are ignored; emotions and scapegoating rule. The solution is not to suppress or shut down opinions and free speech, even if we don’t agree with what’s being said, but to open up communication and freedom of expression. Tolerance creates a non-toxic environment where people feel they can be heard and represented. In this way, we can find creative solutions to the intractable problems we face today.
© Keyvan Golestaneh