Niebuhr: On Society and Unity

“Society itself is an expression of the desire of the many for oneness; its ills are all forms of dissension; peace is another name for social health.”

We’ve been talking – wow, since September – about H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. I don’t want to give too much background or context on the book; instead, let’s just start with that quote, from the third section of the fourth chapter (‘Christ Above Culture’), and see where we end up. Society is an expression of the desire of the many for oneness. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but just a few years back we hit a hundred years of women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom. 1918 was the Representation of the People Act, which allowed women to vote, provided they were over 30. Men could vote if they were over 21 – so it wasn’t really equality, per se – it would take another ten years for that to happen properly. It was only in 1928, with the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act, that women gained parity with men. So not quite a hundred years ago. Ninety-four. According to Niebuhr’s definition, the suffragette protests leading up to suffrage – the letter bombs, the arson attacks – are in a sense pro-social. They are expressions of the desire for oneness, of the desire for women to be enfranchised in the same way as men. At the base of the movement is recognition of inequality, of the failure of oneness – the failure of society as an expression of that desire for unity. People died in those attacks – at least five people between 1912 and 1914. The suffragettes were sending phosphorus and nitroglycerine bombs through the post to the Prime Minister. We’re not united. Let us be one, or we’ll burn your house down.

It’s not that I want to argue about the ethics of political violence, right – I just think it’s interesting that the basic impulse motivating this arguably anti-social behaviour is, according to Niebuhr’s definition, ultimately pro-social. At its heart is a vision of a better, fairer society – one that better deserves its name as an expression of the desire for unity. The second and third parts of Niebuhr’s quote could be marshalled against the suffragettes, of course: if all social ills are forms of dissension, then the suffragette movement – a protest movement, by definition a form of dissent – is a social ill. If peace is another name for social health, then political violence is a sickness – again, one embodied by the suffragettes. The suffragettes might in turn insist that the original or true dissent is that of patriarchy: that the men of Parliament dissented from the vision of unity by refusing to enfranchise certain sections of the population. The suffragettes might insist that the time before women’s suffrage was not peace, but rather a long, quiet violence. The conflict, then, is not over the basic impulse of unity, but in its specific articulation. It’s between competing visions of how unity is expressed, with the addendum that one of those visions is already socially entrenched; women start the conversation without the vote.

We can see, then, the tensions inherent in social or political change. It’s simultaneously anti-social and pro-social. It is a tool of disunity in the service of unity; it stands against established social structures – themselves an expression of the desire for unity – in order to uplift those structures into a better, more unified form. It’s exactly the tension that we see with the suffragettes, who firebombed postal workers in the name of equal rights. Social dissent is folded back upon society in its service, as something regenerative – as something that, if successful, will be looked back on as never really outside the bounds of society anyway. We recognise today that the suffragettes’ vision of society better expressed the dream of oneness. Our society, our oneness, is that which they fought to bring about. When we look back, it’s through the narrative lens of progress: we see a shedding of false, calcified social structures in favour of a truer, deeper vision of unity. People back then, you know, they had a vision of unity, but it was flawed. It had all these gaps – everyone was racist, and they all hated women, and nobody could vote except for billionaire landowners – and now we know better. Today our society, we say, the expression of our desire for unity, is better articulated. We’ve progressed. Crucially, there’s a thread of continuity. Those protests brought our society to where it is today. They are the foundations on which we articulate our own vision of oneness.

I think it’s natural to wonder if, when we incorporate the struggles of the suffragettes into our own history, we maybe lose some of the revolutionary potential of dissent. I worry that the force of their opposition to society’s norms is somehow lessened as we make them the foundation of our new society. But on reflection, maybe that’s not how it works. We don’t return to a state of innocence. We know that unity is sometimes achieved over the top of the systems and institutions in which it is supposed to be enshrined. We become critical of our society’s limitations, rejecting each vision as it is articulated, even as we affirm its ultimate importance. Anti-social and pro-social – we’re all suffragettes now.

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