The Two Sources of Social Consensus

2 February 2010


Ken Lay does the 'perp walk'.

Yesterday in Hang ‘Em High I wrote about popular expressions of discontent and the scapegoating of representatives of the financial services industry for the recent recession and its consequences. This is a topic that deserves a closer look because it points to structural problems that emerge in a society when social consensus is lacking.

In this forum I have several times written about the problems surrounding social consensus, for example, in Social Consensus in Industrialized Society. It has been my contention that the profound changes forced upon human societies by the industrial revolution have not yet fully played themselves out, moreover that industrialized societies have attempted several models of social consensus after industrialization but that none of these has proved sustainable, and that a sustainable social consensus remains to be achieved.

Contemporary industrialized democracies, while they represent the most advanced social organization in the world today, are the most likely to suffer from an absence of social consensus. The mobility of labor, now approaching a global mobility of labor, results in highly diverse societies that cannot simply return to a single paradigm of the past because there is no single paradigm from the past: there are many paradigms, each of which goes deep in the past of each social unit, but each of which applies to no other social unit. It is more difficult to achieve social consensus in a diverse society because people are coming from difficult backgrounds and have fundamentally different values and fundamentally different ways of thinking.

The western tradition in particular has cultivated its own internal diversity, and this in itself is sometimes offensive to new arrivals in westernized nation-states. In other words, there is no agreement on a particularly western way of achieving social consensus and domestic harmony. From a moral point of view, there are at least two fundamentally different ways of conceiving the very essence and nature of social consensus. In my Variations on the Theme of Life I wrote the following:

There is a profound difference between, on the one hand, the man who sees the absurd rhetoric of public morality as a necessary façade, an appearance that must be maintained for the edification and instruction of the young, without which the unsteady norms of society would collapse and take all of us with it, and, on the other hand, the man who sees this keeping up of appearances as intrinsically dishonest and inauthentic, and any delay in its demolition as contributing to the depth of our corruption. Both genuinely believe in the good (unlike the nihilist), and both recognize the façade for what it is (unlike the dupe or the fool), but these similarities are insufficient to bridge the chasm between the mundane goods of stability and prosperity on the one hand, and on the other the ideal goods of principles for their own sake. (section 122)

Depending upon which of the two moral attitudes outlined above that one takes in regard to social consensus, certain judgments about appropriate public policy will follow. One’s attitude to issues of justice, and more especially to exemplary justice, are a function of whether one considers public life to be a necessary façade, as as-if believed only by fools, or whether one considers public life to be sacred and therefore to be maintained above any possible reproach.

When there is a high degree of public discontent, as we see today in regard to both the economy and political life (such as I discussed yesterday in regard to fantasies of exemplary justice meted out to CEOs and bankers who are believed to have hoodwinked the public), a public exercise of exemplary justice can have a cathartic effect, dispersing energies that might otherwise erupt violently in riots or revolution.

A little exemplary justice can take the edge off an angry crowd.

There is a limited (very limited) recognition of the need for cathartic exemplary justice in the contemporary industrialized democracies. In the US, I have in mind what the media calls the “perp walk.” Wikipedia defines the perp walk thus: “A perp walk can be intentional disregard for the privacy of a suspect, for the purpose of bolstering the image of law enforcement, to humiliate a suspect, both, or neither. Perp walks are often done to politicians or businesspeople accused of white-collar crimes (whose reputations may be susceptible to damage by public spectacle).” I especially remember the perp walks of Jim Bakker, disgraced televangelist (if memory serves he was in leg irons and a bright orange jumpsuit), and Ken Lay, former CEO of ENRON, who was convicted but died before he was sentenced.

Politicized show trials have long been a staple of exemplary justice.

Compared to the kind of exemplary justice the world witnessed with Soviet and Nazi show trials, the perp walk isn’t much, but still it can function as a focus of public outrage. People can convince themselves that someone has been punished for transgressions and that the moral order of the world has thus been restored.

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