17/03/19: What is the social fabric and how can we make is stronger?
We have all heard of the social fabric. But what actually is it? Let’s build it up from scratch.
Values are the elemental building block of social DNA.
We have dozens of individual values, such as respect, kindness, compassion, trust and joy. Each value represents a different principle that guides our thinking and our behaviour in particular circumstances. It is kind to help someone across the street who may be blind or elderly, but only if they want to cross the street.
We learn how to apply each value through experience. Since we all have different experiences, it means we understand how to apply our values in our own unique way. We have so many values because we live amongst so many different people, in so many different ways. The example of kindness above is a simple illustration that we apply several values at a time to help guide how to respond to any given situation. Kindness depends on the value of kindness, but also on respecting the wishes of the person we are trying to help, as much as compassion, understanding, acceptance and togetherness.
Individuals are part of many different communities, such as families, various social circles, sports teams and workplaces. We are able to adapt our values combinations to each of our communities, injecting our individual adapted social DNA to each.
Values live deep in our humanity. Our values are deep within us whether we understand them or not. The values words help us understand what our values are and whether we are able to live our values as we choose. They do not explain what we do, they help to explain why we do what we do. The huge range of values we have is a testament to how complex human relationships are, because most of our values guide our relationships with ourselves and with each other. Examples of self-related values are self-compassion, self-esteem and hope. Examples of interpersonal relationships are respect, integrity and love.
Communities are made up of many people. Some communities are small, with just three or four people in smaller families. Some are vast, with more than a billion in some nations. What every community has in common is the DNA each member of the community brings to the whole. The community has its own set of values and objectives, into which each individual DNA is sewn. This creates the social threads from which social fabric is woven.
The nature and mix of each person’s individual set of values sets the tone for the fabric, determining how strong and flexible the thread turns out to be.
Each community develops its own set of social threads, to meet the various situations it encounters. These values-comprised threads define the community’s culture.
The way the values are understood and applied, by each individual, and by the way members of the community relate to each other, sets the template for how the community will react to different situations, and how each of its members fits in within the whole. This communal weaving creates the community’s social fabric.
The nation’s social fabric is made up of thousands of interwoven threads, from individuals, our family, friends, work colleagues and people we see around us, and from the many communities we belong to. The threads of values-infused attractions and repulsions set the environment in which we experience life.
The threads are, of course, invisible. But every so often, we choose to wear physical clothing that expresses the values we aspire to, reflecting the threads that surround us.
Refreshing the Social Fabric
The key to changing the social fabric of society is experience. It is the single most important part of how we develop our values. The good news is that we are able to learn and adapt our values through experience. This is how humans are able to adapt to the wide range of people, communities and situations we encounter during our lives.
Experience is key to any policy that seeks to change a community’s or nation’s values. Values cannot be imposed or taught. They are learnt through trial and error. They change when people encounter new experiences, or when they re-assess a previous experience against later experiences. The way they change depends entirely on the circumstances. In order to achieve a closer social cohesion, people have to witness or experience the benefits of closer social cohesion, in a way that is relevant to their lives and to their way of thinking.
We have to create safe spaces for people to experience the warm and support from environments that are guided by positive universal values. This might be family units, schools, workplaces or local communities. Positive change requires people to experience positive environments first hand.
To illustrate, the human brain evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. Everybody’s brain follows similar patterns because we have evolved that way. We process vast amounts of information that bombards our senses every minute, by creating models and short-cuts in how we understand the world. If we see a spider, most of us are programmed to recoil without having to wait for the spider to bite us first. Some of these models/short cuts can be learnt, whilst others are hard-wired at birth.
One such process is found in the Anterior Insula of the brain. There is an Insula on both sides of the brain. It is responsible for creating a sense of disgust. It is what helps us gag when we eat something that tastes disgusting. It protects us from harm without our having to experience the harm ourselves.
Just as well for people staring a Black Widow spider in the face.
But this process works so well, and so deeply, it becomes a tool for people to manipulate us. If a manipulator wants us to hate a group of people, they have the powerful technique open to them to try to create a perception in your mind that the target of their hate is harmful to you. They want your brain to associate their target with the Anterior Insula — through a “them and us” narrative — by describing them in animalistic terms. During the Rwanda genocide, the Hutu hate leaders characterised the Tutsis as cockroaches. During the German genocide, the Nazi hate leaders characterised the Jews as rats and gipsies as thieves. In the USA, Donald Trump characterises Mexican refugees as rapists and murderers in the face of evidence to the contrary.
The antidote to social division is steeped in experience. Where we can provide first-hand experience of invalid characterisations, we can reprogram the divisive social fabric. Humans are immensely complex. One aspect of the complexity is a natural affinity to other humans. If we are able to create an environment that keeps artificial pressures out of the room, that allows people to engage with one another without being tainted by the prejudice of others, we can start to refresh and re-energise the cohesive social fabric, through the natural, positive associations evolution has programmed to humans have for each other.
The threads of each community wrap around society’s members, interwoven with threads of all the other communities to create the nation’s social fabric. They are the social ties that bind us together, or not, depending on the combined values immersed in each thread and ways they interact with each other. The nation’s character is moulded from the cohesive and adaptable nature of the social fabric from which it is woven.
The quality of the social fabric determines how effectively society is able to structure its organisations of people to deliver inclusive, sustainable prosperity. Social division and rivalries have the potential to hold society back from achieving its objectives. The key to creating stronger, cohesive social fabric is not in the creation of rigid, uncompromising values. It is through a conscious refresh and recharge of the cohesive values that underpin the social fabric.