Human conflict often arises because people are conditioned to consolidate: to heap up ideas into ideologies, to stick flags on the top of them and defend them to the death. No solution is any good, according to this conditioning, unless it can solve all problems. Without such a universal solution, people have been led to believe that they will be inundated with every kind of problem and that pandemonium will break out.
The inventor of the catch-all solution must, of necessity, be all-wise and must be revered as the saviour of humanity. Inevitable conflict arises when other people make different consolidations, stick different flags on them and revere different consolidators.
This is, of course, a very foolish and very lazy way to go about things. The world is very complex and so are human interactions. There are no catch-all solutions and there is no all-wise inventor or prophet of any such solution. We have to solve our problems one by one. We have to continually review and modify our ideas as we learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of history.
Sometimes there is a certain amount of agreement and as a result concepts, protocols, and organisational methods have grown up and have become generally or widely accepted. Let’s call them human institutions as a sort of shorthand. They undoubtedly grew out of necessity but have become rather entrenched and inert. As human society has changed and has faced new challenges the old human institutions remain. The flaws in them become increasingly obvious but they are not seriously analysed and challenged.
Human thought tends towards the polar. It is either this or that; one thing or the other. We either take the left fork or the right. Much of our language reflects this approach – duality seems built-in. So, instead of challenging and analysing our institutions, we envisage what we think of as their polar opposites and set them up as Aunt Sallies to be knocked down to prove that, ‘for all their faults’ what we do have is the best we could have.
Let’s take marriage and democracy as examples of two of these flawed human institutions. The alternatives, it is said, lead either to immorality and social disorder or to tyranny. They are the only safe havens.
If we criticise, say, marriage, the question we are asked is, ‘Well, what is the alternative?’ The questioner implies, by using the definite article, that there is only one alternative. More often than not, the questioner already has an idea what that alternative might be: ‘If you didn’t have marriage, our society would collapse. If people could have sex with anyone they liked we would be no better than animals; sexually transmitted diseases would be rife and there would be no family, no commitment and children would be wild and uncared for. Marriage, for all its faults, is the bedrock of human society.’
Similarly, if we attack democracy our questioner will say, ‘I suppose you think that a benign dictatorship is better? No dictatorship has ever been benign. Absolute power corrupts absolutely and leads to tyranny. Democracy, for all its faults, is the bedrock of freedom.’
Let’s examine these institutions in more detail. What are they all about and what problems are they intended to solve?
It may seem trivial to say that before we start searching for a solution we must have a clearly defined problem. All too often problems are only vaguely assumed and infrequently re-examined or defined.