Fracture Lines and Glue: the interplay of external threats and social cohesion

I was born towards the end of the Second World War and grew up during the 1950’s and 60’s. Naturally, my parents and all of my early mentors had strong memories of that war, and strong views of the tense world that succeeded it. The Cold War was a central feature of that era, and for my generation, there seemed to be nothing more important than finding ways to maintain peace, especially since the alternative seemed to imply a sort of global self-immolation. Isolationism was very much out of fashion, and internationalism was widely held to be at least one reasonable route to a less dangerous future. Starting in the 1950’s, Canada invested some considerable effort into trying to make supranational bodies like the United Nations into effective peace-makers and peace-enforcers. Some early partial successes encouraged my generation to think that, gradually, the world might become more peaceful as nation states ceded tiny bits of their sovereignty to supranational entities that would damp down the exaggerated fires of nationalism and make wars gradually obsolete, replacing them with negotiation.

A key feature of that era was that many of the nations of the northern hemisphere had gathered themselves (in one case) or been coerced (in the other case) into two great camps, NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Yes, the two great camps were, to a considerable degree, in dispute, but it was a frozen dispute, replete with ritual and ideological mudslinging as a substitute for actual conflict. And within at least one of those two great alliances, folks got along pretty well. European peoples, who had fought one another for two millennia, now cooperated, created an economic free trade zone, and eventually a sort of half-assed political union, with a European parliament (albeit with very limited clout) and, eventually, a common currency. For my generation, it did seem that our assumption of higher and higher levels of aggregation of human groupings was actually taking place.

And then a strange thing happened. By 1989, the Cold War had ended. That’s when slightly naïve optimists and progressives like me began to discover how wrong we had been about the path towards the unity of humankind. We had failed to notice that some of that coming together of various peoples in the previous forty years had been due not to maturity, or to respect for others who were slightly different, but rather due to fear. Within each of the two great camps, the disparate groups in each had huddled together and made common cause under their respective nuclear umbrellas out of fear of the other camp, and of an apocalypse held at bay by the terrifying nuclear standoff called deterrence, or MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). When, somewhat suddenly, that fear abated, the horrible truth which started to come to light was that people sometimes didn’t like their slightly different neighbors very much.

Countries started to blow apart along ethnic lines, sometimes peacefully (Czechoslovakia), and sometimes less so (Yugoslavia). Today, Belgium, created as a democratic state in 1830, is essentially two states, living like a separated couple that still shares a house. Separatist movements are flourishing in many lands. The so-called United Kingdom isn’t entirely united, or so the SNP would have you believe.

But even within developed countries that are not actually splitting up, consensus has become a rarity. Canadians watch with a combination of horror and smugness as polarization surges in the US, with some of the most extreme on both sides employing physical force rather than the ballot box as their tool of choice. Fortunately, Canada lags behind a bit in such matters, with our long tradition of making a mad dash for the middle, but even that is weakening. Both extremes have begun to make inroads in their shared project to shout down the centrists. And hate, of various types, is in the air, at both ends of the spectrum.

The discouraging conclusion that one might draw from all this is that social cohesion is bolstered by external threats, and has trouble sustaining itself when those threats are not especially evident. As reluctant as I am to say it, it seems that people need someone or some group to be angry at, and, if a suitably fearsome external entity is not available, they’ll find some entity at home to feel that way about, and make a new fracture line (or exacerbate a small existing one).

Thus, we arrive at the slightly disturbing hypothesis that fracture lines in social cohesion will normally arise with even inconsequential stimuli when people don’t have bigger things to worry about. As a corollary, significant external challenges can be part of the glue that repairs the fracture lines.

So, does that mean that Mr. Putin’s ill-considered and disastrous invasion of Ukraine, in addition to being a great tragedy and a great foolishness, may also be an opportunity? Certainly, it has already reinvigorated NATO and unified Europeans. That war may not end soon. It has ramped up tensions, with a few echoes of the Cold War, and its aftermath will require some rejigging of our postures abroad and enhancement of our defence preparedness. It is not a small matter. So, one wonders, might it be the external stressor that provides some glue to bind up some of the internal fracture lines that we now experience, all related to issues of minimal consequence that have assumed undue importance of late in Canada?

Is it possible that a degree of solidarity on what we must do to meet external challenges might cause some of our fellow citizens to stop making a whole meal out of tiny differences at home? Will the loony right perhaps stop calling Mr. Trudeau a communist, or stop displaying bizarrely exaggerated anger over nearly every action taken by a duly elected government, when, in fact, they have every right to replace that government at the ballot box very soon, if they can so persuade the electorate. And might the loony left stop pretending that they are deeply offended or terrified every time anyone says something with which they do not entirely agree, and so they wish to curb that speech.

In real life, when there are tangible threats and urgent tasks, as opposed to imagined crises, no-one has time for nonsense like that.

In fact, a non-trivial part of the great tragedy of the fracture lines and the decline of social cohesion is, in fact, wasted time and wasted effort. The wasted time and effort of the thoroughly wacky truckers’ convoy protests is an example. And similarly, at the other extreme, we watch putative progressives waste the precious hours and minutes of their lives in the elaborate vilification of long-dead corpses whose great sin appears to have been their failure to invent and use a time machine, in order to modernize their opinions to meet the expectations of the present day. And, both the right and the left could profitably stop wasting time and effort on their new (but also old) hobby of gratuitous and pointless antisemitism.

Indeed, the very fact that these two polar opposite pseudo-political groups have the surplus time and energy to invest in such nonsense probably tells us a great deal about the real nature of the fracture lines of which I speak. What is clear is that, for the most part, the creation and exacerbation of the fracture lines is an amusing activity and a found purpose for people who haven’t got much else to worry about, have leisure time, and are reasonably well-fed. That is to say, essentially a First World luxury item for the bored, ill-informed, and self-righteous. These manufactured conflicts appeal especially to those who would like to feel more important than they are, but will not engage in the harder tasks associated with building cohesion, either because they do not feel a sufficient sense of community or they lack the skills, or both.

The external threats that seem to damp down such nonsense are not actually a complete cure for that particular malaise, but rather just suppress and diminish it, because, as we respond to grave external challenges, the public opprobrium levelled against those who encourage internal division increases. When we are under pressure from abroad, we tend to see our compatriots in a better light, if only because, as the old adage goes, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

But it would be so much better if only we could find ways of convincing people not to “sweat the small stuff,” and maintain a civil dialogue, even when there is no external threat. It seems, though, that people don’t know how to identify issues as “small stuff” if they have not, within recent memory, been exposed to genuinely serious challenges.

I recall, some two decades ago, being in an administrative meeting where some of the players who were in disagreement were obdurate, vehement, and testy. I was just getting ready to slip into mediator mode when a somewhat more junior colleague entered the fray, and with great brilliance and aplomb, cooled the situation right down, and worked the set of problems in such a way that all the protagonists got something they wanted, and nobody was irked. He seemed immune to the thinly-veiled insults flying about and made all the players feel valued. He took none of the imprecations or dubious behavior personally. The meeting ended with consensus, and I’d had to do absolutely nothing to help it get there. I was very taken with his handling of a fractious situation.

On leaving the meeting, I was walking along a corridor with that junior colleague, and I complimented him on keeping his cool in the face of obvious provocation, being the soul of moderation, and guiding the crankier players into a safe harbour, and I asked him how he had learned to do that while maintaining such a benign manner. He responded that it seemed pretty easy, because, after all, nobody was shooting at him, and his airplane wasn’t on fire. I thought to myself, “Well, there’s a chap who knows the difference between big stuff and small stuff.” Indeed, I had briefly forgotten that his prior occupation did encompass a fair bit of that big stuff.

So, now, as some big stuff looms on the horizon, and might require our focussed attention for a few years, perhaps it would be a useful to ease up on “sweating the small stuff.” There is serious work ahead of us; endless acerbic bickering about minutiae won’t get it done.