I remember once hearing the late Margaret Thatcher claim “there is no such thing as society”.
This was a prime minister of a country speaking after being elected through a collective decision making process we call ‘elections’. A society that I as an individual foreign immigrant was struggling to feel a part of.
Turns out I was being stupid, and there apparently was no society to try and feel any soothing association with. Not according to its fundamentalist Prime Minister of the time, anyhow.
What is so complicated about seeing ourselves as free individuals within a collective or even a set of collectives?
Why can’t individuals and collectives both have rights as parts of a dynamic system?
In fact, this is what we have in most societies today. Yin and yang balancing each other out. ‘Contradictions’ coexist in all sorts of natural settings (hot & cold; male & female etc), and also when it comes to our personalities, beliefs and ideologies.
However, power-wielding purist ideologues like Thatcher, Bush and Bin Laden disturb the balance. Their inability to share and coexist with opposing forces in nature is an extremist and aggressive style of behaviour. It is based on sheer power and domination.
But do such people achieve their intended goals?
Thatcher destroyed British manufacturing, and caused major riots in the UK with her ‘poll tax’ folly to the extent that her own party removed her from power before she could get humiliated in the following elections. The rise and malaise of finance at the expense of manufacturing is her legacy.
Bush’s legacy is simple: he turned the US morally and economically bankrupt.
Bin Laden lured the US into bankruptcy and fanned the flames of sectarianism, just as he meant to, but his movement has made no discernible gains in the region. The Arab ‘Spring’ has brought the Muslim Brotherhood to the fore at the expense of Al Qaeda, which is also deeply divided in Iraq and Syria. Public support for AQ is negligible.
The term ‘ideal’ has such a nice tone to it that it is hard to know how to describe the destructive character of some idealists. Suffice to say that all three characters discussed above are of the type who mistakes violence for righteousness.
Their followers often call themselves ‘freedom fighters’, no matter of what ideology. People whose drive for ‘altering history’ is so strong as to make the end justify the means.
Fundamentalist idealists don’t see or concern themselves with costs. Only opportunities, even in death.
And while these fundamentalist idealists on all sides are busy painting a picture of some cosmic conflict that they absolutely ‘must’ win against their ‘enemies’, they have plenty in common in truth, particularly in terms of their personality types. People whose prime objective is to impose their own will on others.
In the meantime, the rest of us (unnecessarily) feel trapped by the extremist discourse of such false foes, with many ‘red lines’ in our ‘positions’ leading to a strangled atmosphere for discussion. So we end up ‘having to’ take a ‘position’, for example on men versus women; secularism versus religiosity; individualism versus collectivism; and gay versus straight.
But these ideas and ideals are no more than constructed approximations to reality that we use to help us discuss, analyse and understand our world. Problem is we usually take it all one step further to judge each other and our actions as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This then ‘compels’ us to take some form of retributive action for the sake of ‘justice’.
In truth, these hard conflictual positions are not reflective of reality in our lives. They may even be irrelevant to the establishment of a just and/or free system of governance.
For example, I may be a socially-oriented individual who sees little difference between having ‘faith’ in the existence or non-existence of ‘god’.
Surely, it is more important for one to be free and empowered to be individualistic or communal, religious or secular, or even both at the same time. Different situations may even require one to take different positions at different times.
But these red lines are so strongly drawn in our heads that we cannot fathom the coexistence of Yin and yang, or even the necessity of the coexistence of such contradictions for a dynamic system to work.
Simply put: One can’t know ‘hot’ without also knowing ‘cold’. Strictly speaking, neither could mean much without the other, and neither can be said to be inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’, as both can save your life or kill you, depending on the situation and how intelligently we handle it.
But people who insist hot is ‘good’ and are willing to fight for the idea are rather confused in the head. And dangerous to the rest of us.
The most deadly use of such false depictions is in propaganda. Political leaders and state and non-state activists alike manipulate the public by presenting false choices and trapping their public into adopting conflictual positions against false ‘enemies’.
Most wars are started in this manner.