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Mary E. Clark

I recently heard Pauline Baker complain that "African societies are still 'backward' because when a man becomes rich he has obligations to all his relatives and extended family, and so there is never an opportunity to form a middle class". The argument is hardly new, having been a staple of development economics theory for at least thirty years. Yet the irony had never before struck me in quite the same way.

It seems we accept a definition of progress that depends on actively breaking the social bonds that in more traditional societies have provided the individual with both security and personal identity within a meaningful social context. While we must not romanticise ties of obligation that have often proved repressive and exploitive, it has become all too evident that the creation of a shared sense of sacred meaning and social bonding is an essential function of a healthy human society. Many still fail to realise that humans evolved to belong, not compete.

Substantial scientific evidence suggests that a tendency towards social bonding is deeply embedded within our human nature. The early human species could not have survived without the expanded social bonding beyond parent and offspring needed to protect helpless infants - a job that mothers alone could not accomplish. Social bonding to one's group was a biological neccessity. This included not only looking after the infants and their mothers, warding off predators and even "strangers" of the same species, and sharing food, often carrying it long distances back to the tribe. It also came to mean a lifelong need to be among known others of one's own kind. At this stage, "kind" not only meant not just any member of one's own species, but recognisable individuals who shared the same social signals.

Contrary to what some would have us believe, violence and competition are not inherent in our "animal" natures. Even chimpanzees, our nearest animal relatives, are oriented more toward social than toward aggressive or competitive behaviours - naturally seeking out and enjoying the company of others of their own kind. Destructive, "inhuman" behaviours are most likely to occur in the absence of a supportive social structure. Individuals living in societies with properly constructed and shared societal goals automatically have self-esteem, grow naturally into maturity, and are spontaneously creative.

Yet we have come to accept the decline of an extended social support system - the extended family, lifelong friends and neighbours - as an indicator of modernity. Modern society has even alienated work from its sacred meaning as one's gift to society. Thus work, once imbued with sacred social meaning, is now "labour", the value of which is measured in purely monetary terms.

One consequence of modern society's lack of attention to sustaining social bonds beyond the relationships of the marketplace is an enormous personal insecurity. No one is ever sure of their social standing, of their role in the community, or of their acceptance within the group. The results of this misfit between what our society demands of people and what the human psyche needs, like pimples on the surface of an unhealthy body, pop up here and there in a wide variety of pathological behaviours - from greed, dominance, wife-beating, child abuse, drug abuse, callousness and violence to obsessive needs for attachment to sports teams, nations, and leaders who project an image of strength. Such efforts to exercise or attach oneself to power over others and the environment are manifestations of a pathological struggle to attain what most modern societies deny - namely bondedness, trust, affection, and a shared sacred meaning.

Because their life's work as mothers and nurturers provides women the sort of psychic rewards that otherwise are in short supply, it is more common for men than women to engage in the forms of pathological behaviour associated with the denial of these rewards. The point here is not to blame men for all of society's ills, but rather to acknowledge the pain that society inflicts on the male and its dysfunctional social consequences. Then we can address the need to construct a healthy society in which the psychic rewards of identity are readily available to both men and women.

It is time to acknowledge that our society's glorification of competition to the exclusion of meaningful social bonding is a manifestation of a deep, potentially fatal, social pathology that is basically contrary to our true nature. In acting to correct this collective dysfunction we may have important lessons to learn from those we have been all too quick to dismiss as backward.

Mary E. Clark is Laura C. Harris Visiting Professor of Environmental Studies at Denison University, Granville, Ohio 43023, USA. Prepared by the PCDForum based on a collection of her papers.

PCD Forum, Column #51.

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