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Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Only you understand, Georg.

We all have our reasons for getting into sociology. Well, those of us who are actually sociologists, anyway. In my case a lot of it can be attributed to my exposure to the writings of Georg Simmel when I was an undergraduate. Sure, he isn't usually considered to be quite on the same level as Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim or Max Weber, but Simmel's unique approach to social phenomena has always resonated with me. As a case in point, check this out from his essay on conflict (the Kurt H. Wolff translation):

For instance, the opposition of a [group] member to an associate is no purely negative social factor, if only because such opposition is often the only means for making life with actually unbearable people at least possible. If we did not even have the power and the right to rebel against tyranny, arbitrariness, moodiness, tactlessness, we could not bear to have any relation to people from whose characters we thus suffer. We would feel pushed to take desperate steps- and these, indeed, would end the relation but do not, perhaps, constitute "conflict." Not only because of the fact (though it is not essential here) that oppression usually increases if it is suffered calmly and without protest, but also because opposition gives us inner satisfaction, distraction, relief, just as do humility and patience under different psychological conditions. Our opposition makes us feel that we are not completely victims of the circumstances. It allows us to prove our strength consciously and only thus gives vitality and reciprocity to conditions from which, without such corrective, we would withdraw at any cost. [Emphasis original]


In short, our ability to feel and express an amount of conflict is a unifying, rather than divisive, force because it allows different and largely incompatible people to exist within the same social structure. Further, on a more fundamental level, conflict is itself a type of social relation thus implying engagement. Such engagement is necessary for any social structure to endure. Conflict, in a sociological sense, is then likely preferrable to indifference, which signals a lack of engagement. A very similar argument is made in Simmel's essay on money, in which he observes that money both unifies a society (by allowing wider and more intricate commerce) and divides it (by making exchange relations impersonal). Such a dual view of something that is often considered intrinsically bad seems to me to be more scientific than perspectives that prejudge an outcome in moral terms. The relevant issue is to figure out what functions a given thing has, and what consequences are generated by its normal functioning. Decisions as to the desirability of those elements can come later.

Perhaps my affinity for this perspective stems from the same place as my political moderation. If you recognize that all actions have both positive and negative effects, which are both intended and unintended, it's difficult to see political issues in truly black and white terms. This is not to say that I'm a paragon of reasonableness (Honestly, don't make me laugh) or that those with strong opinion haven't considered the issues (although it is amazing how often people with strong opinions haven't considered them). It just means that a recognition that everything comes with good and bad elements tends to take the wind from the sails of self-righteousness.

Maybe my affection for Simmel has to do with my vehement, even rabid, support for free speech. If we are not free to express ourselves with words and art, then surely we will express ourselves with bullets and bombs. Free speech is but one way that conflict can be integrated into a social structure in a constructive, rather than destructive, manner. This probably also accounts for my outright hatred of political correctness. Restricting the use of a term does not eliminate the feeling that provokes that term's use, and I have yet to be convinced that we can legislate away negativity. Besides, even if we can, I am reluctant to follow any course of action that restricts the ability of people to express themselves.

Perhaps this love of duality has something to do with my distaste for those organized religions who criticize their members for feeling angry, jealous, or bitter. Being human is an adventure in many emotions and, while we can control our actions, we cannot control our feelings. Encouraging us to feel guilty because we're human is not just pointless, it's revolting. Granted, I'm not quite as vehement in my dislike of many religions as that lovable scamp the Raving Atheist, but I'm still pretty hardcore about it.

Conflict is rarely fun to experience but, as Simmel argues, it is necessary and even, in some cases, desirable. Without conflict, no growth or change occurs. This is reflected in the work of Hegel, who argued that an idea, or thesis, will inevitably clash with an opposed idea, or antithesis. Out of the conflict, both ideas will be destroyed and in their place will emerge a third idea, or synthesis, that incorporates elements of both. This synthesis then becomes a thesis during the next round of this ideological deathmatch. For Hegel, intellectual progress is bound up in conflict. For scientists, too, intellectual progress is linked to conflict. Why else do we maintain a system of peer-review for our journals? Why else do we have discussants and debates? Only by clashing ideas in a public forum can we separate the wheat from the chaff, sand off the rough edges, (use a lot of tired metaphors) and produce ever-improving work.

The trouble is, most of us are so damned scared of conflict that when it erupts it's ultimately more destructive than it has to be. It's a little like watching a Hitchcock movie: we've built up so much tension anticipating the terrifying act, that when it finally occurs we're a thousand times more frightened than we would be otherwise. The more we fear and dread conflict, the more terrible that conflict will be. On the other hand, if we embrace conflict as a necessary and inevitable part of life, it loses its terrifying power. People WILL disagree, and sometimes vehemently. This is natural. We may as well adjust to that, accept it, even enjoy it. To do anything else is to deny our nature as human and to leave our society without the safety mechanism that open conflict provides. After all, is the health of a marriage determined by the perfection of its compulsory harmony, or by the non-destructive expression and resolution of its disagreements? Since all husbands and wives disagree from time to time, the latter seems more true. So, why should it be any different for an entire society? We are all engaged in a collective enterprise- to build and maintain a social world that we all benefit from. Doing so, however, doesn't mean that conflict can't happen, or that it can't be beneficial when it does. So, go out there and tell someone they suck. Do it for yourself. Do it for sheer enjoyment. Do it for me.

Do it for social solidarity.

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