by Nick Sallnow-Smith
Originally posted on Lion Rock Institute website

Open any op-ed page of most newspapers (at least the English language ones that I read) and you enter the world of “should” and “must”. Many, on some days most, of the opinions expressed are about what others should be doing, or must be compelled to do, to make Hong Kong/the world a “better” place.

Many of you in my age group may remember a world when the advice of our mothers tended to include well-worn phrases like “mind your own business”, “live and let live”, “don’t interfere” and similar pieces of ancient wisdom. Underpinning this view of society was the thought that you should look after your own affairs and not interfere with others in pursuit of theirs. This had the admirable result that one focussed on one’s own responsibilities, rather than spending energy trying to alter the activities of others. I think the benefit of that concern with one’s own life and accountabilities first has been lost at a great cost. Today, the focus is not on what you are going to do with your life but an obsession with why others are not helping you. I am not sure when this view of an individual’s role in society changed. But it seems to me that there may be a link between the public policy angle to this and the “social” aspect. Let me explain.

As expectations of the role of the state have changed, so has the focus of discussion in newspapers’ pages shifted. Politics in the West was largely a class-based debate in the postwar period; rights in the workplace etc. The idea that the state could have a role to play in all walks of life, including what happens within a family was not thought of. But as the interventions of the state have grown, then the need for ordinary citizens to take an interest in, and push for, policy changes has also grown. Because public policy will affect your daily life, the need to be heard grows. Op-ed writers accordingly appeal to you to support their pet way of changing the world. And you may take an interest, because if the state responds and enacts laws, then indeed your pet project may be forced on everyone. If you don’t take a position, then perhaps someone else’s pet project will be imposed upon you. What is, for many, a natural aspiration to want society engineered into a shape that they desire, leads politicians to propose such schemes for popular support.

The process becomes self feeding. The more states seek to enact legislation to intervene in more and more areas of previously private conduct, the more important it is to push parties to adopt your pet scheme. That “activism” then motivates and empowers the State to increase the intervention yet further.

As I indicated, this had gone far beyond the push to protect employees in the workplace. Today, well meaning folk will write urging parents to stop their children from using smartphones, urging laws against sugary drinks, and so on. Already in the West the range of behaviours in the home for which children can legally be taken into care is quite astonishing. Gradually as the spiral of ever more policy intervention gathers pace, what for all of human history has been the responsibility of parents is now being assumed by the State particularly in Europe.

The extent to which this assumption, that there must be intervention in every aspect of society, was borne out for me when reading an op-ed article last week on school curricula. Written from the perspective of desiring more “diversity” of thinking amongst the younger generation, the writer actually uses the phrase “schools must teach respect for different views”. There is no way, in that authors’ view, to have respect for diverse opinion unless we force schools to teach it. And of course there must be a common platform of curricula content and means of analysis. The writer seems not to see the irony in compulsory education on freedom of thought.

So much for the public policy aspect of this. What about the social sphere? My belief is that the “social justice warrior” world that Western societies have now entered is in effect an extension of this public policy dynamic into all of social life. Look at discrimination as an example, there are inevitably limits to the effective enforcement of anti-discrimination laws by the state, as these have grown since the 1960s. Those “should” “must” citizens, to which I alluded at the beginning of this piece therefore move into the social sphere. Enforcement can now move on from the state, to impose social penalties: ostracism, shaming, career destruction. Many have been claiming that this is somehow caused by social media. I disagree. It is of course enabled by social media but the cause is much deeper. If politics is conducted in a way that if your group can command enough support, it can enable you to enforce your mores on the whole community, this encourages behaviour in the social sphere towards imposition of your view. The effect is more frightening however. In politics, there are some institutional constraints on the speed with which this happens and on the levels of madness it assumes. In the social context, no such restraints exist.

In the West today, it is no longer enough to obey the law and “mind your own business” (and it is hard enough to know all the laws you are required to obey). Now you need to adhere to an ever changing morass of “social” codes of behaviour the breaching of which may lay you open to social exclusion. Even more concerning for freedom of thought and behaviour, is that these codes are applied retrospectively. Even the law is seldom does that. But today you can be found to have transgressed a new social code of behaviour 30 years ago and have your social standing destroyed. You should have known that, 30 years later, it would have become “politically incorrect”.

Now you might be thinking that this is only a problem in the West. The East is of a different culture and could never see such a transformation. I am not so sure. The media flows that influence so much of the thinking of new generations are now global, not local as they were 50 years ago. A slide into a world where your peers try to impose what you “should” and “must” do in every aspect of your daily lives, may not be too far ahead.

 

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