What Forces lie behind Good and Bad human behaviour?
Below are a range of malaises that are afflicting the modern world. All of these are valid, but they do not afflict all countries the same. In this article we will review some of the worst examples of dysfunction, and some of the better examples of healthy societies. We will also attempt to explore some of the reasons that underlie the good and bad behaviours of humanity. There are many clues that lie deep in history and the human psyche.
What’s going on? Here are some examples……
Widespread destruction of the natural environmentIt seems that a combination of climate change, the dumping of millions of tons of waste, aggressive mining, overconsumption in rich countries are in combination threatening the natural environment, animal and insect populations and the very existence of many human communities in more marginal areas of the world.
Extreme misery, scarcity, starvation and inequality in many rich and developing countries.Whilst some economists would have us believe that the path of the human race is towards ever-increasing prosperity, the facts seem to demonstrate the opposite. Maybe the average wealth of the human population is showing improvement, but this disguises the fact that increasing inequality often means that wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small minority. This phenomenon is common amongst developing countries and wealthy countries alike.
Oppression and curtailment of political and social libertiesMany countries across the world manifest signs of oppression. This can take many forms; from exclusion of women from political, economic and social life, to violence aimed at foreigners, immigrants. In some instances, people suffering from psychological and physical disabilities have been separated from the social mainstream. Not so much an issue nowadays was the dreadful treatment of children, forcibly taken from their parents and locked away in workhouses – but the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland was adjudged guilty of such behaviour.
But much more common is the repression of the press and media, and imprisonment of political dissidents and oppositions to the ruling party.
Wars and violenceA quick scan of the world news reveals an alarming amount of violence, warfare, physical aggression and even the build-up of nuclear weapons. Most of the Middle East: Iraq, Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Palestine, Israel and several others, are involved in aggression or are victims of state-sponsored violence. The behaviour of the United States (and Britain) in invading Afghanistan and Iraq, rather than fostering peace and democracy as promised by the perpetrators, has been the catalyst for rapidly spreading chaos and violence. The current behaviour of Russia in attempting to destabilise some democratic countries, invading others and fighting in such hotbeds of violent chaos as Syria only serves to emphasise the breakdown of world order.
TerrorismThe growth of groups, both on the right and left extremes, is a truly alarming phenomenon. In some cases, violence begets violence, so the actions of Muslim terrorists has, it seems, been a root cause of a right wing, White supremacist movements. Underlying all of this in some cases is probably poverty and oppression. No part of the world is immune from state, political and religious terror. The recent attack on two Mosques in New Zealand is a terrible example of what twisted and sick people can do in otherwise decent and peaceful countries.
Domestic Political and Social SchismsNation on nation aggression is mirrored by internal schisms and violence in a surprising number of countries. Most African and Middle Eastern elections are accompanied by violent disagreement by the competing parties. The terrible state of Venezuela can hardly be accounted for by rational political behaviour. It also appears that US society is deeply riven by cultural and political schisms. The positions of refugees, minorities, and the deep rifts caused by gross inequality are a blot on society – all of this richly leavened by crime, violence, drugs and local instability. President Trump’s behaviour seems to have increased the schisms in American society, whilst worsening relations with previous allies. In the United Kingdom, the chaos of the Brexit process, and the apparent inability of the parliamentary party system to cope with agreeing how and whether Britain should leave the European Union has caused many in Europe to wonder whether the nation has lost its mind. The rapid increase in far-right politics in many European countries, exemplified by Italy, Hungary and Poland, seems to be threatening the functioning of the European Union as a coherent body
Periodic banking and economic crises – signs of breakdown in established systems of international trade.The behaviour of President Trump seems to have gone some way towards undermining long-established trade agreements, Britain’s exit from the European Union; linked to nascent trade wars between the US and China, all seem to point at something……? For example, the crash of the global banking system, predicted by very few economists and politicians – and the pathetic responses of politicians, bankers and politicians in the immediate and subsequent periods following the crash – may be partially explained by analysis of the power dynamics and narrow interests of a small elite; but observers are left with an uneasy feeling that they are missing something deeper…
Is there Meaning behind these phenomena?
Conventional means of understanding what’s happening in Society do not seem to be adequate. Let’s try some more…
The roots of Northern European communities and the cultures harsh conditions engendered can still be found in the DNA and cultural behaviour of many societies in Scandinavia. This can be contrasted with the quite different settings in Southern Europe, which seem to have given rise to very different societies.
The foundation and growth of the United States of America include settlements by quite different waves of people from Britain in the seventeenth century. These include Puritans and Quakers, Royalists after their defeat by Cromwell, and settlers from Scotland and Northern Ireland. Each of these groups of settlers had quite different values. Huge influxes from Ireland, Germany, Sweden, the Baltic States and other European countries followed over the centuries. Maybe the biggest influence was the inflow of Negro slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which indirectly fuelled the American Civil War – of course this was preceded by the War of Independence from Britain. Add to this the conquest of the West, the defeat of native Americans – and the opening of America as an industrial power with increasing global influence; and it is not difficult to understand the strength of the centrifugal forces that are evident to this day.
Russia on the other hand is shaped by the vastness of the terrain, and the early development of autocratic rule, which has lasted for millennia. This of course was broken for a period by the Revolution of 1917, but it seems that the old patterns of autocratic rule and passive citizenry rapidly became established with the supremacy of the Communist Party, Stalin and the Soviet Union. When this broke down, it was rapidly replaced by the dominance of Vladimir Putin. The essential point is there is a culture that binds Russia which keeps asserting itself over the centuries.
So history offers some pointers to the past and maybe the future of Society, but maybe there is something deeper and more significant…..
So what is this “something”?
Let’s start small and work towards bigger and more significant issues….
The Cult of the “Big Man”
To start with some personal experiences.
Maybe a small beginning that could lead somewhere could be found several years back in a trip round Ireland on our boat. Several small clues can be found in a number of vivid experiences:
My wife and I were settling down at a comfortable table in a restaurant in a small Irish port – when in through the door came a man surrounded by what was obviously a family. Two girls, two young men and an older woman. Shortly after the restaurant manager came over: “Would you mind moving table” she said, “Mr X would like it”. I objected, saying I saw no reason to move, as there were plenty of tables. At this point the manager became visibly flustered, and went back to the new entrants. The man, obviously dominant, became very emphatic, and the manager more and more flustered, even frightened, so we moved to keep the peace. When we later asked someone else what was going on, they whispered that Mr…. was the local “BIG MAN”, who was used to getting his way.
Similar experiences kept cropping up in Southern Ireland, then in the North of Ireland – and then in Glasgow, Scotland, when the staff of a very up-market restaurant were despatched to fetch lager, followed by potato chips, these items not being on the menu. The people who caused the stir were an obvious “Big Man”, once again surrounded by wives, daughters, their boy friends, the usual retinue.
Experiences like this kept occurring at irregular instances, but gradually it started dawning on me that these were not solely isolated experiences.
Male Dominance on a bigger scale.
Then, on a totally different dimension; the behaviour of (mainly) priests and bishops in the Roman Catholic Church has been proven to be hugely dysfunctional. The results have been shocking – but usually result in sexual malpractice, repression of nuns, children, abuse of women generally – and, it would appear, systemic attempts on the part of the church hierarchy to repress publicity and avoid publicity and punishment of those found guilty.
As part of our search for the Meaning that may lie behind many of the phenomena we have described, it is worthwhile to take some “time out” to consider the case of the Irish Republic. In 1947, when my (Protestant) family left the Republic of Ireland, it seemed that Irish society was dominated by the Catholic Church. Alongside the dominance of the priesthood, there were also institutions that were run by nuns, such as schools and workhouses for young women. This might on the surface seem to have been a positive manifestation, until it became evident that the women and girls had “transgressed”, usually by bearing illegitimate children.
Church attendance by the faithful seemed to be mandatory, abortion and contraception forbidden, and it was said “good” Catholic women were expected to produce large families.
Of course, there were stories and rumours about murky goings on behind the scenes, and the role of the priest’s housekeeper was a common joke.
So, maybe the most marked feature of Irish society in the 1940’s and 50’s was the dominance of men in the church, of course, but also in politics. The behaviour of Taoiseach Charles Haughey in the 1960’s was that of a domineering male, much along the lines of the classical “Big Man”.
Change began to happen in the Republic of Ireland as stories emerged of the disgraceful malpractice of the Roman Catholic Church. This included abuse of children in Catholic institutions, by both priests and nuns, widespread sexual misbehaviour by priests, and more recently, abuse of nuns. These abuses were by no means restricted to the Irish Republic, but Ireland was a relatively small community and the “word” spread very fast. But what was particularly noticeable was the increasing influence of women, and the emergence of campaigns against abortion, pro contraception and then putting pressure on an initially unwilling church to investigate and publicise the multi-fold abuses by priests.
Gradually, the position of women in Irish society became more and more influential, and President Mary Robinson was able, despite some rear-guard actions, to exercise great influence.
Now the Republic of Ireland is a modern society, the influence of the church is considerably diminished, abortion and contraception are legalised, and the era of “Big Men” in politics is over. All in all, the Irish Republic appears to have shifted from a male Dominated society to on where men and women are regarded as having an equal influence.
In this sense, Ireland seems to have become more akin to the Scandinavian societies, with considerable influence wielded by women and young people than was the case 20 or 30 years ago.
But we have not by any means reached the end of the road…...
Gender at Work: International Monetary Fund and World Bank research.
Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary fund recently asserted that tackling sexism at work and employing more women is a key to making the world richer, more equal, less prone to devastating financial collapses. Lagarde said 88% of countries had restrictions against women in the workplace in the constitution or in law. “Some forbid women from doing specific jobs, 59% have no laws against sexual harassment in the workplace and there are 18 countries where women can be legally prevented from working”.
World Bank research indicates that there are only Six countries where women enjoy a completely equal legal footing with men. Having tracked changes in employment and gender laws over the past 10 years, the bank says Belgium, Denmark, Latvia, Luxembourg and Sweden are the most equitable under eight criteria ranging from freedom of movement and the absence of legal impediments to employment and starting businesses. The least equal economies are found in the Middle Eastern and North African regions. However, some very rich nations like Britain and America have not fully broken the cultural barriers which prevent women from playing a full part in economic and political affairs. Recent events in the US, which has witnessed a rise in female political candidates, probably a backlash against the sexist rhetoric of President Trump.
Here is an extract from a World Bank report:
“Globally, women’s labor force participation fell to 49 percent in 2016; women are more likely to work in the informal sector and spend at least twice as much time as men on unpaid domestic work and care activities. As women are more likely than men to bear childcare responsibilities, lack of access to quality and affordable childcare is a major barrier to female labor force participation.
Women in all countries face earnings gaps: countries are losing $160 trillion in wealth due to differences in lifetime earnings between women and men”.
The Big Man writ large?
There is growing evidence that societies that have histories of Male dominance seem to share certain characteristics. Some of these include, internal and external aggression, desire to dominate and conquer and oppression of opposition. Then there are many societies where the roles of women are strongly circumscribed in political, economic and social terms. This is the case in Saudi Arabia, where the ruling family oppresses women and also seeks to wipe out opposition.
But maybe less noticeably, it seems that Male dominated Societies also are very susceptible to ideas of economic freedom, which has morphed in some cases to strong beliefs in the virtues of unfettered competition, in the limited role of the state and a diminution of its capacity to provide a safety net for those members of society who are less able to compete and take care of their own welfare.
A strong majority of states and the institutions within them have been dominated by males throughout history. This includes most banks and large corporations in the developed world, and some political parties.
This tendency towards Male dominance can be seen in the United States, the UK, some Southern European countries, Russia, most Middle Eastern and African countries.
Whilst it is not possible to draw exact conclusions from such a complex of differences as well as similarities, some inferences can be drawn. Those societies that exhibit the strongest signs of male dominance may also exhibit extremes of inequality, corruption and political and social oppression.
Even those nations that have established strong democratic political systems, like the USA and UK, have strong traditions of male dominance, and the effects can be seen in social and economic inequality to this day.
Other societies with totally different histories manifest strong signs of a tendency towards male dominance. The Soviet Union and Russia had long histories of oppressive centralism, despite many attempts to ameliorate long histories of Autocracy. The autocratic behaviour of Vladimir Putin is by no means exceptional, as seen against the stream of Russian history. In the case of Putin, conquest is also part of his Greater Russian agenda, as can be seen from the invasion of the Crimea.
The behaviour of the regimes in Saudi Arabia, Iran and the majority of Middle Eastern countries is very interesting to examine. At one point, there seemed to be hope of reform and increasing equality of participation in several countries; but the backlash from the mainly male regimes has effectively squashed all hopes. Turkey also showed signs of reform, but the backlash from President Erdogan and his followers again has squashed hope.
It also seems that a majority of sub-Saharan African states are male-dominated, with frequent violence between ruling and opposition parties, especially when elections are held.
Across many parts of Africa, it has been found that women participate in politics less than men, undermining prospects for gender equality and shared development.
Societies that demonstrate different characteristics
Lest this is seen as an anti-male liturgy, there is hope!
Some Societies do exhibit quite different characteristics, such as:
- Collaboration and Sharing of power between different stakeholders
- Less inequality between actors in economic affairs. More equality of opportunity between social classes and men and women in education
- Positive male/female balance
- Social Markets: Regulation of financial and industrial markets to ensure that opportunity to participate in economic affairs is equable
The Scandinavian states and some others, have different histories and also seem to be more healthy societies.
The “Nordic Model”
Eindhorn and Logue* characterise the so-called 'Nordic' model as that in which:
- An active and interventionist state,
- Provides universal transfer payments to support the elderly, disabled, unemployed and families with numerous children and low market incomes,
- Provides universal social services for health, education, childcare, services for the elderly and the like,
- Uses national policy to achieve high rates of labour force participation and high employment on the national level, via both macro-economic and sectoral policies,
- Integrates major interest groups in making and implementing national policies (rather than the capture of the state structure by a single group of interests, or state capture of the interests’ organisations),
- Possesses a strong civil society with encompassing and democratic organisation of interests, but particularly the strong organisation of those otherwise weakest in capitalist society - family farmers and urban workers,
- Is underpinned by a set of values around empiricism and social trust; in particular solidarity and reciprocal responsibility are crucial concepts in the development of public policy
* Economic and social security in Scandinavia. Einhorn and Logue, University of Massachusetts. March 2006.
There is strong evidence that Societies which:
- Discriminate against Women in the workplace and Community
- Disadvantage minorities
- Manifest gross inequality economically, educationally and socially:
Are less productive, experience greater social stress and crime than those which are more equal, especially in their treatment of women and minorities.
Examples of more equable countries include The Scandinavian nations; Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, which also have high and equal standards of living, full participation in society by all stakeholders and near equality between men and women in the community. This is accompanied by relatively low rates of crime and violence and more communal cohesion.
Many richer countries are grossly unequal, including two of the richest; the United States and UK, which despite their aggregate wealth, have huge differences between rich and poor. It is interesting to note that these two countries have high rates of crime and violence and are showing severe signs of fracturing as overall societies.
Whilst it is not possible to make a firm distinction between Patriarchical Societies and those that are sexually more co-equal, it appears that some of the world’s most oppressive societies are those that have the most discrimination against women.
In balance, the most important variables that differentiate societies are inclusion of Women and minorities, leading to less gross inequality and full participation by all in the community.