An interlocution into the social and ethical state of the society tends to reveal a deep-rooted origin of how the societal norms and dictates came to bear on today’s world.
Suffice to say that the society as we know it today has undergone spiralling and reformatory changes over many centuries. It is however worth engaging the mind on the various processes that have created myriad of dictates which we have come to recognize as laws governing a ‘civil’ society.
The word society emerged in the 16th century from the French word société which originated from the Latin societas, meaning a “friendly association with others” and this in turn from socius which interprets “companion, associate, comrade or business partner”. There is some scholastic notion that the Latin word may be related to the verb sequi, meaning “to follow”. In any case, it can be construed that all these derivatives lead to meaning“follower”.
Renaissance and Reformation Era
The 16th century, as history has recorded, saw the advent of the modern era, a reformation so powerful that a whole new continent was founded. This is not to say that there were no pockets of people living within geographical frameworks. It was however the era when Europe, as we know it today, saw unprecedented changes. There was great renaissance in Italy, spreading northwards, and arriving in England. For many, this era marked an increase in wealth for the average person, as the economy was growing alongside the formation of the class system.
The tools of commerce, entrepreneurialism, systems of international trades and a capitalist, money-based economy were springing forth. It should also be noted that technological innovations such as the discovery of the gunpowder also changed the military caste of society and the nature of warfare. It is suspected that the cannon had a major impact in the centralization of nation states as recognised today.
There was a media revolution as a result of the creation of the printing press, leading to the development and the expansion of ideas and partisan rhetoric and knowledge-journals to the masses. However the biggest revolution and the making of the society was the Bible, which was introduced in its original tongues and in vernacular to the masses. The spirit of inquiry and return to first principles was sweeping through the Church, and this had been the unifying cultural foundation of Europe for a millennium.
It is important to put our thought-processes in perspective so as not to deviate from the purpose of this write-up. The 16th century, as already explained, introduced quite profoundly the notion of class structure and elitism as demonstrated in France, which was a major hub of socio-cultural reformation in Europe, and ultimately, the world over.
Religion in the 16th century was the basis of society. As many scholars have postulated, religion played a major role in the shaping of the political and social class and have continuously shaped how society is viewed today. Revisiting history, the reformation of the first half of the 16th century engaged religion, and in particular, Christianity, in such a way that the cultural consensus of Europe as a universal participatory in Christianity became broken, thus leading to challenges to secular society and the disintegration of the singular orthodox belief. This in turn changed the nature and organisation of power and governments. Changes in religious beliefs and structure led to massive changes in the social and political landscape of the era.
In the Pre-reformation era, as seen in France, there was a deep belief that religious uniformity was essential for political and social stability and this made any heterodox opinion potentially an act of treason. There were great Christian humanist intellects like Erasmus, Jacques Lefebvre d’Etaples, and others who had no particular intentions of disintegrating the church; rather they were keen on improving the church through classical learning and spreading religious understanding by translating the Bible into the vernacular languages. The concept of separation of Church and the State in France was non-existent during this pre-reformer era, even though that everyone was aware of the corruption inherent in the church, which was defined by vast wealth, the exercise of political power and wars. The administrators of the church were holders of patronage positions who were more interested in increasing their wealth through thievery of the church finances rather than promoting the welfare of its members.
In France, the first half of the century saw the reign of François Ier, who brought the art and culture of Italian Renaissance to France, encouraging the new humanistic learning. The second half of the century saw a continuation of the dynastic struggles such that the characters of many of the emerging nations of Europe became established. The untimely death of François Ier’s son, Henri II, in 1559, saw the social and political consensus in France dissolve under dynastic rivalry, economic pressures, and the reformation. The second half of the century was not any easier as wars of religion consumed the nation and surrounding nations, which were as much a political and civil conflict as a religious one.
It is worth noting here also that figures such as Martin Luther, an Augustinian Monk, played a major role in orchestrating the change from an orthodox to a more heterodox view in religion, which unarguably, became one of the foci of reformation in Europe for the 16th century. It was not the desire of the intellectual reformers to challenge civil authority, but however it became a consequence. In 1517, Martin Luther, like many other heterodox opinions at the time, was allowed to present his views on religion, which was different from what was being taught by the church at that time. His thesis: – Christians were saved by faith, and faith alone, and that no amount of works, including the purchase of indulgences, made any difference at all. This view was so far off the teachings that it ultimately had drastic consequences for France and eventually for Europe.
With the media explosion, Martin Luther became the focus for all religious, spiritual, political and economic discontent. Having built up exaggerated freedom, the masses then assumed the right to read and interpret scriptures different from the church’s doctrines. The eventual effect was that it gave the people a belief of political and economic freedom, thus leading to a widespread revolt amongst the German peasantry.
The 1590s were difficult years for the common people everywhere in Europe. The weather was cold and wet for three years and there were at least three bad harvests year on year. Constant wars destroyed transportation and food supplies were short. Wages were low as the costs of war increased and the huge national debts meant that taxes were high. In some provinces, there were peasant uprisings against nobility.
However although religion had played a major role in the reformation that occurred in Europe, there were other factors that contributed to changes in the political and social scope that was Europe. The economy had seen prosperity at the beginning of the century, with the average peasant able to afford some meat. Optimism for the future was at its highest, with increase in family and population. However this had a negative rebound on Europe as a whole (This also can be likened to the events of the past few years in the world today, as a result of economic recession and the supposedly ‘Boom and Bust’ phenomenon).
Gold and silver from the New World saw a price hike which effectively cut wages in half by the mid-century. These changing economic conditions heralded the loss of lands by peasants as the terms of their tenancy became less favorable. The elites were gaining more lands, especially the bourgeoisie in the society. Homelessness and vagrancy was at an astronomical rise as towns could hardly deal with the rising number of the poor. By the turn of the century, most peasants could hardly have meat to eat, which exacerbated the conditions such that there were widespread revolts and tensions increased between the social orders on many levels.
Today’s Society and its ethical definitions
Although the reformation cut across Europe, from France, through Rome, Germany, England etc, there was the fundamental acceptance that the reformation brought about the rise in opinions and differences in beliefs of teachings, which ultimately led to changes in the socio-political landscape of Europe. It is without doubt that without the influence of religious reformers like John Wycliffe, Johannes Hus, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and also those who led the Renaissance, such as Erasmus etc who introduced a cultural movement different from what was prevalent at the time, the society and culture as we know it today may never have occurred.
The BIG Question
“What exactly is Society and how can this be defined based on the framework that governs civilizations of today”.
One of the definitions I find quite interesting is based on Herbert Blumer’s look at ‘Society as Symbolic Interactionism’- he stated that people acted toward things based on the meaning those things have for them; and these meanings are derived from social interaction and modified through interpretation. Human society is based on social activities, which react as a group life and is reflected as a complex of dynamic acts. This does not suggest however that society operates in isolation; rather it suggests that individuals tend to fit their lines of behaviour to one another, thus engaging in collective actions. If that be the case, then I would be of the opinion that a society is a composite of individuals acting upon themselves in such a manner that defines their beliefs, actions, and appearance and these determinants rule society. Sociologists on one hand tend to reflect on actions of individuals as the expression of forces playing on people, that is, collective action is treated as an expression of the action of the society. In so far as Society defines the people and their collective beliefs- governed by rules, ethics and laws- it therefore can be stipulated further that all society, as individual units, intermingle to define how they view their way or life.
In today’s society, we have come to associate social behaviours as behaviour directed towards society, or taking place between members of the same species. However social interaction on the other hand, in my opinion, views the communication between two or more individuals, which today’s society can relate to relationships between animals and human. Pets such as dogs, cats, horses etc have come to play a major role in the life of the human specie. Some individuals have come to build strong bonds between themselves and their pets to such a degree that in death, they will their estates to such pets. Does this therefore conclude that man, in all his wisdom, can define his social relationship as that existing between man and his pet? Some have even gone as far as having sexual relationships with such animals – bestiality.
During the Edo era, 603 to 1868 of the Japanese history, Hokusai, a Japanese artist, created ‘The Dream of the Fisherman’s wife’, depicting a woman entwined sexually with a pair of octopuses. In his creation, the smaller octopus had its tentacles wrapped around the woman’s nipples while kissing her, and the larger one performing cunnilingus. The reason I’m mentioning this is to draw attention to the notion of bestiality as an age-long phenomenon right before the Biblical era. This explains the fact that every occurrence within today’s society is as old as the world itself. Nothing is relatively new, really. Perhaps the one major change is the attitude of governments today as we are ever more regulated by laws, rules and regulations imposed by some on many.
Social migration has also created a convolution of different cultures within boundaries such that societies today are in a dilemma on how to classify the various ways of life and beliefs. Multiculturalism has further increased within given societies the confusion on how to regulate societal behaviour as an accepted norm – socially and religiously- to such an extent that even the political scenery is constantly under threat of introducing segregation amongst the settled, through so-called inclusion laws.
Take for instance in the United Kingdom, issues of race and religion are constantly in the fore of political debates as migration has created a society of different ethnic groups, who also brought with them, their religion, culture and other beliefs. Islam has become a major force in the UK, in a country that was once described as predominantly Christian. This intermingling of religion is today creating a society where tolerance is at its boiling point.
Religion has forever played a major role in the political landscape of most societies. Laws are introduced in line with religious inclinations. Social behaviours are defined in line with what is generally accepted as morally acceptable. However, as the society becomes more enlightened and more technologically savvy, religion is being overcome by lack of belief in the spiritual. The legislators in the developed countries of today are scared to incline themselves with religious views for fear that they would be seen to be alienating some other groups or religion and this would not win them political points nor votes.
The disintegration of our societies today cannot be overlooked. Governments of the world are continuously in debates on what steps to take to correct all these anomaly, and in so doing, are gradually destroying what had once been understood to be the rights of the ‘common man’. Take for instance in Britain, which has been referred to as ‘Broken Britain’ in many quarters, the increase of children giving birth to children has increased astronomically, more children are been described as ‘yobs’- uncouth individuals- and the respect for elders is virtually non-existent. You cannot discipline a child today nor can you smack a child for fear of being prosecuted in the name of child abuse. Since 9/11, governments across the world have gradually been taking away the Rights of individuals. No longer can a citizen of a State make comments against the government without being tagged a terrorist or having terrorist tendencies. Any views different from that of the political elite by the common man, and even by an elite in today’s society, is frowned at or in most cases, arrested and tried for whatever reason.
Social disintegration can also be seen in the way we are watched by our various governments, ‘The Big Brother Syndrome’. In every corner, there are CCTV watching our every move, data is being collected and sent to central databases for whatever reasons. DNA and other Biometric data are recorded and stored, and in most cases, the individual has no choice but to comply so as to be able to have access to certain privileges. These data are usually in the custody of a certain group or body, whom I would still associate as the ‘Topdogs’ of today’s ‘modern society’ You can’t go shopping any longer and reckon you have any privacy. That also has been stolen. What then have we gotten ourselves into? Can this process be reversed? I don’t think so, really.
The truth is that societal respect for individuals has disappeared. Just like it was in the past, religion is blamed for all atrocities today. Take for example the fight against terrorism. Lots of people link terrorist acts to the East. Islam is blamed by a lot of people as a tool for breeding new terrorists. It has been suggested that the radical teachings of Islam by certain radical Islamic fundamentalists has recruited to a large degree terrorists. Most people suggest very strongly that those who perpetrate these acts of violence are of Islamic inclinations, citing the bombers of 9/11. Rightly so as we have come to accept that groups such as Al-Qaida, Taliban, Hamas, being Islamic groups, perpetrate certain terrorist acts in the name of Islam. However we must recognise that Religion has always played into the hands of some very radical individuals. It does not however suggest that attacks on this group are attacks on Islam. That argument would be far-fetched. However amongst some Islamic individuals, the wars have increased racial hatred of the West, who see these attacks as attacks on their religion. On the other hand, the West frowns at the Middle East for tolerating such groups amongst them, and in some cases, helping to arm these ‘evil’ groups. The attack on Iraq by the Bush Government has been condemned by many as being the grounds on which most terrorism are perpetrated, that is, the persecution of the Islamic States. My views on this subject stands that the world is no longer a safe place. George Bush unleashed the greatest terror to mankind today, and that is the fear of your safety and security. No longer can I get onto a plane without looking around to see if I could identify a terrorist. I can no longer get on the underground tubes nor the buses in London or other cities without the fear of being bombed. My children, as they get older, will become another worry for me. Can I allow them travel on their own without the fear that they may be victims of an overzealous self-bomber? I blame the West to a large degree for creating these fears in me and many others, by their constant hype on terrorism. My privacy rights have been taking away from me by governments in the name of safety and security. The very people they say they are protecting are the ones being persecuted also, that is the general masses.
Kidnappings and murder is on the up everywhere you turn these days; from Somali pirates, to Niger-delta gangs in Nigeria, through to the Taliban in Afghanistan, there is no safe place for the world anymore. The common man on the street has no more say in how he lives his life. From his conduct at home, through to how he manages his time and his children, to his civil liberties, all of that have been stripped off him and now in the hands of the governors. How crazy things have turned.
As it was in the 16th century Europe, the rape of the common man’s wealth is all so apparent; the poor getting poorer and the wealth circulating within a certain group of people, except you decide to be a criminal, I suppose. One can argue that education and connection to the right circles could get you up the social ladder, but even that is changing also. Except perhaps you belong to certain groups, you may never get that help you so deserve.
The internet has also created a dent in the way we socialise today. Most people are more comfortable amassing friends on the internet, as is the case with facebook. They are proud to announce friends as many as 5,000, a sign of popularity? How ridiculous!! This has affected to a large degree our social skills to an extent that most people today find it pretty hard making conversation on a face-to-face basis, as they have become more comfortable chatting with faceless individuals. Take a trip in one of London’s underground tubes, everyone sits with a little frown on the face, not making any kind of eye-contact with fellow commuter, for fear of being tagged a sex-pest or for disregard of a fellow commuter. Many of these so-called ‘commuter-snub’ are perhaps those who spend the most time chatting with faceless friends on Myspace, facebook or twitter. Social interaction, to a large extent, has been relegated to cyberspace.
In our today’s world, it could be identified as criminal to be found associating with an underage, whatever the reasons might be. Some parents actually are scared to show closeness to their adolescent children such as a kiss in public for fear of being followed by the security agency as abusing your own child. Even babysitting a friend’s child requires a criminal records check on you the babysitter. How ludicrous!! You can no longer have friends with the younger members of the society for fear of being tagged a paedophile. I remember when growing up in the 70s and 80s, having friends of either sex who were much older than you was okay, as they were also your teachers and social tutors. Today, you dare not chat with an underage for fear of being reprimanded or a threat of child-abuse being slapped on you. Society as we knew it has changed completely.
It is generally agreed that ethical behaviour has taking an upturn in societies today, but has it really? Is it that as the world gets more technologically advanced, knowledge and awareness of the environment increases, and migration increases, there is greater need for ethical behaviour to be discussed. It is observed that ethical behaviour is usually characterized by equity and fairness in interpersonal relationships, be it professionally or academically. This behaviour tends to respect diversity, dignity, and rights of individuals and groups of people. However, the measures taking by governments in stripping individuals of their privacy right and in some cases human rights, makes the notion that ethical behaviour is on the up, a valid joke. It is worth noting though that societies that exhibit undemocratic, repressive, lawless and corrupt tendencies are usually more unstable and bad for social integration. Classism plays a major role in defining the extent to which social integration and mobility succeeds within a given society. A class system makes social mobility all the more difficult as ladders are put in place that limit how far a commoner can be accepted into that group populated by the elite.
The social and ethical disintegration of our society is all too apparent. We see our freedom and rights of the common man being taking away from him. No respect for elders by the young in the society and fear of persecution if an attempt is made to reprimand an unruly and badly behaved child. Government Agencies having the right to collect and store all personal data of every individual they come across. The right to get a job anywhere in the world is now being limited as western governments continue to limit migration while they continue exploiting the wealth of underdeveloped and developing nations. Wars continue, as they did in past centuries, in the name of religion, while governments continue to hide under the cloak of terrorism in stripping the rights of individuals, while those who try to exercise their fundamental human rights become targets by these security agencies for all clandestine acts. The occurrences of the 16th century, as has been reported here and in other journals, and the activities happening today, show that the world has since been spiraling into doom. No matter how much changes are orchestrated in the name of politics, security and safety of the individual, it is imperative that governments must start by redressing some fundamental issues, such as policies which promote the erosion of civil liberties, foreign policies, human rights the rights of parents to apply measured discipline to their unruly children, without fear of a criminal sentence, I am afraid the world as we know it today is on the highway of total disintegration and catastrophe.
References & further readings
- Symbolic Interaction: Perspective and Method, Herbert Blumer