Tight or Loose?

I have reading a number of articles by sociologists and others who have an interesting theory about “tight” against “loose” cultures. The tightest would be strict Muslim countries or the remaining Communist and totalitarian countries. The loosest would be New Zealand or the Netherlands. It is the old dilemma between individualism and collectivism, liberalism against conservatism, between those who see positive aspects in today’s world and those who would go back to the 1950’s or 30’s and force everyone else to do so. Such a study would be Differences Between Tight and Loose Cultures: A 33-Nation Study.

My curiosity into this subject was aroused when I was voicing my concern a few days ago over Brexit. People want to leave or remain for different reasons, but I can say I have personal experience of northern England in the 1970’s and smallness of mind. A film that deeply resounded with me in those years was Kes. Here is the trailer:

This is essentially a young boy from a working class background seeking and finding his own world against the smothering norms of social conformity and bullying by schoolmates and teachers alike. I would almost wonder if there were a trace of autism in Billy Casper and the need for different world from working class Barnsley. In my own experience, I began an apprenticeship in organ building in Durham in 1976, and I only stayed for three months. My problem was cultural and my disgust with that narrow parochial mentality of the petty self-righteous. It was not my world, and I remember my father idealising those men whom he qualified at the time as the “salt of the earth”. It’s great to have a pint down t’ local with the lads, but living and working with them is another matter! It’s a point of view, because I am not interested in conversations about sexy women or football. The politicians in Westminster appealed to such people to get their Brexit vote.

All my life, I have contended with this issue of strict conformity and social cohesion against finding self-knowledge and the stuff of which creative people are made. I’m not picking on the workers, because the French bourgeoisie can be horrible too. Oscar Wilde picked out the point beautifully as he compared them with the Scribes and Pharisees, all law with a cold heart!

The world is made of many dialectical opposites: rich and poor, urban and rural, religious and spiritual or materialistic, nationalists and globalists, conservatives or traditionalists and liberals. Some of the sociologists I have been reading suggest that our differences are less political and ideological – but cultural. What is culture? Culture is not only art, music and literature, the creativeness of the few, but it is also a code – differing from country to country, from one social class to another – determining rules for correct behaviour and dress. Most of us follow these norms without a second thought, and others are more critical and find themselves living on the edge or in the margins. In some countries, social norms are enforced strictly – Saudi Arabia or North Korea for example – and we can do pretty well what we want in most western countries within the limits of the law.

One thing that alienated me in northern England was the pettiness and intolerance. On the other hand, people will talk to you. Try opening a conversation in London and the response is likely to be a very stuffy “I don’t think we’ve been introduced“. Those are two different levels of social conformity and intolerance. When things go too far, we tend to yearn for a nostalgic idealisation of the 1950’s when there was less litter, rudeness, selfishness and lack of respect for other people. Men wore hats. Ladies wore dresses. Men had short haircuts and women tied up their hair and wore hats. Punctuality was the politeness of kings! No one was entitled to anything – you had to earn it, in your place. The cycle turns again when individuals are stifled and yearn for the freedom, not to harm others, but to be truly themselves. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis – in the way Hegel put it. History is cyclic and what goes round comes round.

The theory according to which an existential threat brings about a coherent society is interesting. England during World War II was a model of national unity and people pulling together to look after the victims of war and the common effort of beating the Hun! My grandparents and parents mocked Hitler by drawing his face on rubbish bins and in other ways. On the other hand, occupied France was a minefield of collaborators and resistants. One could find oneself betrayed to the Gestapo by one’s own family! Collaborators would sell out a person just for a few food ration stamps or some petty privilege. I don’t think that tightness was always so correlative with existential threats, but it is often the case. The present-day threat as perceived by some is the spectre of mass Islamic immigration and the islamisation of Europe. How real is that threat? Certainly much more in Paris or Marseilles than in my little village among the apple trees and cows of Normandy! We also have to take into consideration the fact that we have voluntarily relinquished our Christian culture in favour of materialist consumerism.

With Brexit and tendencies towards nationalism and so-called “populism”, many favour authoritarianism and tightness. Who knows, in the 2020’s and 30’s, we might see a repeat or a caricature of a hundred years before with full-blown totalitarianism. It suffices to see the old footage to see how popular Hitler and Mussolini were in the 1930’s before the war and without folk knowing anything about slavery, concentration camps and euthanasia programmes. After all, the word Nazi was simply a contraction of Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, a socialist notion made to appeal to the working class. Working class people could be counted on to obey the leader and repress original thinking. Without the workers, no one would have taken any notice of the ranting failed art student from Austria! That is the extreme. I felt the same “tightness” in Durham but at a more subtle and moderate level, but bullying and abuse are still serious matters.

The disciplined, clean and crime-free society is a temptation, as is a Church that serves as a “chaplain” to such a regime as in Spain under Franco. The loose society has its disadvantages and self-entitled “lazy bums”, but it also has tolerance and creativity. The totalitarian cult or sect works well for as long as the “guru” is reasonable in his demands and the adepts can be satisfied with life without criticising or asking questions. The “democratic” alternative community rarely lasts very long due to human nature. We are back to the old theme of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.

The only way out of this impossible situation is nobility of spirit, a subject I have written imperfectly about and which I am researching for my next Blue Flower. Few have it. Do I have it? It seems to be a quality like the State of Grace or humility! It is unredeemed against redeemed humanity. The dialectic is certainly to be found at the root of many problems in our world like terrorism, revolution or the road towards totalitarianism. The cycles of history turn and reaction follows action.

I see these things happening, and the truth is higher and more transcendent that any of this bloody mess. The aspiration to the wholeness of humanity in Romanticism happened in the wake of the French Revolution, as a reaction to Victorian hypocrisy and again shortly after World War II and the evaporation of European totalitarianism with the only exception of Communism in countries far away from us.

What about each one of us in all this? Be as harmless as doves and as cunning as wolves! We have to live in society and play the game, do the right things, but not believe in everything uncritically. That seems to be the difference. The Christian anarchist obeys the law and respects other people, but believes in a higher spiritual principle than authority, submission or law.

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One Response to Tight or Loose?

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks for this! In all my avid but unsystematic reading of things to do with political philosophy (and sociology in some senses), I can’t recall ever encountering this imagery. It makes me think of fabric, woven or knitted (my woven Scotch bonnets amazingly keep me warm, but when it’s mild not too warm, but a knitted one I have is too loose for as wide a range of conditions) – and wondering about the variety of ‘strands’ (and ‘handiwork’) that can make a culture at once ‘tight’ in some respects and ‘loose’ in others. That of the Netherlands as a whole as I’ve experienced it, and studied it, seems a striking instance of this. The 400th anniversary of the first sitting of the Synod of Dort is less than two months away – and what an assortment of Calvinists warring against each other it has known since then. And how strangely they, as individuals and groups can alter in – even reverse – ‘content’, while keeping the same complacent ‘form’. (The late internationally (in)famous theologian, Harry Kuitert, being one notable example of such.)

    “Culture is not only art, music and literature, the creativeness of the few, but it is also a code – differing from country to country, from one social class to another – determining rules for correct behaviour and dress” – and all sorts of other things, as well. I am, for example, astonished how comparatively rare sourdough bread and varieties of rye bread are in the Netherlands, when they are so common a few minutes away across the border in Germany.

    A line of Whitman’s comes to mind: “Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.” (Not that, as you observe, the local ‘game’ will always be inclined to permit that!)

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