Between tension and contradiction – the wonderful complexity of people

August 13, 2009 by
Filed under: Education Matters 

Let’s celebrate something. People are polymorphous – they take many shapes, and I don’t just mean their bodies. I mean, people, on average, can hold a variety of evaluative moods and attitudes; produce a plethora of responses to the ways of the world. They can see that sometimes one has to be disciplined and unforgiving, at other times compassionate and fraternal. They can see the need to stand up to a bully, but also to put an arm around him and ask what’s wrong. On people incapable of this polymorphous social and ethical engagement, we are none too keen.

There seem to be two crucial ranges of polymorphousness. The first is ethics. Most of us hold a certain set of values that pull us in different directions: we can see that bullys should be reprimanded, but also that they are probably hurting too. The second range spans methods. We hold to a certain set of rules of thumb, conceptual frameworks, nuggets of practical know-how and principles of thinking and doing. Some examples: don’t change everything at once; if ain’t broke don’t fix it; don’t bite off more than you can chew; don’t just treat the symptoms treat the cause.

Our view of the world is a complex plot of points on the ranges of ethics and methods. One range is in the domain of values, the other that of facts. And of course, these domains influence one another: punish too hard out of moral conviction and you may well increase the bullying you seek to stop; be too caught up in the empirical causes of bullying and you lose sight of the moral clarity that it is wrong.

So within a single person there will be conflicts in ethics, conflicts in methods, and an almighty conflict between ethics and methods. In all their wonderful polymorphousness, people constantly negotiate these conflicts. And hooray to that.

In politicians, it seems to me, people want to see individuals who recognise the complexities of this delicate process of negotiation. They don’t take kindly to John Redwood style neo-liberals and they don’t much like dyed-in-the-wool socialists like Bob Crow. In short, they don’t like ideologues: their certainty across the terrains of ethics and methods is disconcertingly simplistic.

But although people will welcome ethics and methods that are in tension, what they can’t stand are outright contadictions. For example, take the slogan ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. This acknowledges a tension that most people feel in terms of both ethics and methods. In terms of the former, that committing a crime is wrong, but that so is the fact some criminals have grown-up in awful circumstances. In terms of the latter, that tackling a problem properly requires getting to its root causes.

But within time, the tensions captured in this slogan become too great. It becomes apparent that people haven’t been sold a workable blend of values and methods, but an unworkable contradiction. For example, as was reported on the Today programme this morning, we now incarcerate children between twelve and fourteen years-old that don’t complete their community-based sentences. The idea of the latter is that they rehabilitate youngsters – get them to understand the consequences of their actions and to take into account their responsibilities to themselves and others. But incarceration just turns them into criminals. So being tough on crime actually means being pathetic on the causes of crime.

The way out of a contradiction like this is to convert the blend of ethics and methods back into a workable tension. One option would be to take the view that because crime is wrong, we are justified in locking people up and throwing away the key, and that since most criminals will be off the street, we’ll be tough on the causes of crime too. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, it is the causes of crime that are considered the real moral wrong, so let’s put much more effort into rehabilitation – spend more money on it, make the process far more thorough and multi-faceted.

Either kind of rebalancing will have to take into account both facts and people’s cherished ethics and methods. Both will run aground on these sandbanks. But people do want to see their own polymorphousness shone back at them from politicians. This makes the challenge the development of policies that accept the requisite tensions, but which don’t push as far as contradictions.