The Role of Relationships in Society

RONALD HARVEY, born Somerset 1911, is an osteopath who has. been a publisher, schools broadcaster and script-writer. He is a supporter of the Committee of 100.

RELATIONSHIP, n. the state of being related by kindred, affinity, or other alliance. (Nuttall's Dictionary). Relationships are the cement in the structure of society. By a study of relationships one can orientate man's place in society and in the world. "The realm of human affairs, strictly speaking, consists," says Hannah Arendt, "of the web of human relationships which exist wherever men live together …"1

There are many kinds of relationships but they can roughly be classed in two groups — vertical and horizontal. Vertical relationships are those which operate de haut en bas and conversely; they tend to be despotic or hierarchical. In horizontal relationships equality, reciprocity and co-operation are evident qualities. The former is illustrated by the relationship between parent and child, employer and employee, gaoler and prisoner, government and the governed. The latter is manifest in the relationship between equal partners, husband and wife, friend and friend, colleague and colleague. Misuse of the former on the grand scale may lead to despotism, oppression and revolt: of the latter to rivalry and bitter competition. Both can lead to war, but to different types of war. The war which aims at the subjugation or annihilation of a whole people is a vertical war. A war of mutual fear and defence can be termed a horizontal war. A horizontal war when one side has gained the upper hand and prosecutes it à outrance may develop into a vertical one.

Man is in constant relationship with those over him and those under him, as well as those with him and those against him. Without becoming a hermit he cannot escape such relationships. It is on how he deals with such relationships that the kind of society in which he lives depends. It determines the kind of society, the laws and conventions of that society and the behaviour of members of that society within such conventions. Needless to say the sort of relationships he adopts within a society are in their turn dependent to a large extent on fundamental instincts and on the sort of person he is, while the framework of his society has been built up by relationships achieved and developed by his forbears.

Relationships may also be considered from a different aspect — as limited, narrow or closed on the one hand, or free, broad and largely unconditioned on the other. In the former the gamut is run from almost pure selfishness ("I'm all right Jack"), through the family, the clan or tribe, the class and the nation. It tends to be strict; strong within its limits, almost non-existent outside them. In the latter, which at its best may be described in the words of Donne "No man is an island …", one runs the danger of formlessness and over-diffusion, a woolly feeling of concern for everyone and everything without discrimination.

The former kind which takes the view, in the narrowest sense, that everyman is an island naturally tends to insularity and isolationism. It is of necessity concentrated and by that much the more powerful. It results in strong family ties, clannishness, intense patriotism and, at its worst, privilege, nepotism, jingoism, chauvinism, racialism, pogroms, colour bars, apartheid and war. Those who seek predominantly this form of relationship tend to authoritarianism, oligarchy and the political right. Economically they believe in competition which in its more ruthless aspects develops into an economic cannibalism in which the weakest are swallowed up. The broader form of relationship, on the other hand, tends to democracy, social and racial equality, internationalism and the political left. Being centrifugal where the former is centripetal, altruistic rather than autistic, diffuse rather than concentrated it tends to fail in action through dissipation of strength over a broad front; the tendency of conservative ranks to close and of those of the left to split are illustrations of both types of relationship. In the economic field the latter type rejects competition for co-operation. If the motto of the former is "Charity begins at home", the taunt directed at the latter is "They love every country but their own."

The difference between the two types of relationship is further pointed in the support given by those in favour of strict, narrow relationships for capital punishment, flogging and militarism, whereas those who favour the broader type are, generally speaking, abolitionists. If they admit the necessity for prisons nevertheless it is from their ranks that come the advocates of penal reform.

There is, however, yet another aspect of relationship which is both more fundamental and less obvious. At the level of the individual it is the extent to which one man regards another as a human being like himself (a relationship which demands understanding and co-operation, if not anything closer) or, conversely as a unit, a cipher, an object (a relationship, if such it can be called, suited primarily for exploitation and use). In the latter case the person becomes an obstacle to, or an instrument for, one's own aims and interests, a statistical unit to be manipulated as any other such unit, a phenomenon to be recorded in a case history or even to disappear completely as a "case", a unit of labour to be taken up or put down and left like any other tool. As Peter Townsend has said, "Everything turns on the way people behave to each other. The handicapped for example, still are treated too often as second class citizens who have no rights and no feelings. I once went round an old people's home with a matron who swept into rooms and lavatories without making any apology to the people who were sometimes there. I saw one of her staff changing an old man's trousers in full view of thirty other people in the room. In another home the warden, an ex-army officer, took me into a room where there were a dozen aged women. He stood and pointed at each one in turn, saying in a loud voice, 'That's eighty-five, that's eighty-eight, that's ninety-two …'"2

This depersonalisation of human beings into objects of experience, instruments for use or ciphers to be manipulated is very noticeable in the social services and in relationships between employer and employed, and it appears to be increasing. It is observable in many works of sociology where it is used quite legitimately but often with little attempt to bring it all down to earth, to the differing needs, feelings and aspirations of living people, since it is so much easier to think of them and deal with them under a convenient label. One can then shift them about like merchandise, pigeon-hole them if the problems are too difficult and avoid contact with them since contact and understanding appear increasingly unnecessary the more they are regarded as "units", "cases", "redundant labour" and so on. The very word "redundancy" illustrates this tendency. "Unemployed" indicates that there are not enough jobs for workers and this implies criticism of the system. "Redundant" means that there are too many workers for the jobs and throws the onus on the worker as an unnecessary supernumerary unit in the industrial set-up. "Redundant" sounds better to the employer and has not the emotive power to cause trouble; but a redundant worker is just as unemployed for all that. And so it goes on. In this flight from reality any word, any method that tends to abstract and depersonalize is preferred to human contact and understanding. Moreover depersonalization is a valuable weapon in the armoury of authority, of manipulators of public opinion, of economic exploitation, of racialism and of the cold war; for to consider and treat human beings as human beings would render such manipulation difficult if not impossible.

This question of relationships is important politically for it is the way in which we regard others which helps to determine the political framework. If the climate of relationship is overwhelmingly authoritarian in character the political system it tends to foster will also be authoritarian; and conversely, such a system will perpetuate the climate. Erich Fromm has pointed out that the authoritarian character is at base sado-masochistic. "The sado-masochistic person is always characterized by his attitude towards authority. He admires authority and tends to submit to it, but at the same time he wants to be an authority himself and have others submit to him." Again Fromm states: "For the authoritarian character there exist so to speak, two sexes: the powerful ones and the powerless ones. His love, admiration and readiness for submission are automatically aroused by power, whether of a person or of an institution. Power fascinates him not for any values for which a specific power may stand, but just because it is power. Just as his 'love' is automatically aroused by power, so powerless people or institutions automatically arouse his contempt. The very sight of a powerless person makes him want to attack, dominate, humiliate him. Whereas a different kind of character is appalled by the idea of attacking one who is helpless, the authoritarian character feels the more aroused the more helpless his object has become."3 In so far as this is true it poses a problem for non-violent action. By how much is the authoritarian attitude subverted or disarmed by such action? And how much does it depend on the real or apparent strength of those adopting the technique of non-violence?

The sort of political system arising out of the authoritarian character is exemplified in the Nazism of Hitler and the Nationalist "apartheid" policies of Verwoerd. It is responsible for colonialism at its worst and most oppressive. In more liberal forms of colonialism it produces a kind of paternalism which is however none the less authoritarian at root, and which refrains from oppression only as long as the colonized remain content with what the colonizers consider to be their proper station in life, i.e., loyal and obedient subjects permanently arrested at a lower standard of civilization and development.

In its relations with hostile countries and authoritarian character can only contemplate domination or destruction. It does not seek even reluctant acceptance of the fact that we all have to live together whatever our ideologies. It sees everything in blacks and whites … "the only good German is a dead German" … "delenda est Carthago."

The authoritarian character both produces and is a product of vertical relationships. Its master-slave mentality does not and cannot envisage any balanced relationship between equals. It is the implacable enemy of freedom. "Freedom is freedom" wrote Berdyaev, "not only from the masters but from the slaves also. The master is determined from without; the master is not a personality, just as the slave is not a personality. Only the free man is a personality, and he is that even if the whole world should wish to enslave him … A man gets into the position of master over some other man because in accordance with the structure of his consciousness he has become a slave to the will of mastership. The same power by which he enslaves another enslaves himself also. A free man does not desire to lord it over anyone …"4

In a horizontal relationship which leads to conflict each side respects the other as an equal and each may indeed grudgingly admire the other, for each is a reflection of the other. In a vertical relationship the one despises and attempts to humiliate the other or even destroy him. In horizontal conflicts the prospects of an understanding and an equitable settlement are relatively good. In vertical conflicts they are inconceivable for such peace as may be won can only be imposed by force, never by mutual agreement.

There is a state or condition of relationship, whether vertical or horizontal, which occupies a disproportionately large place in contemporary affairs — that of opposition. Opposition is a form of relationship in which the opposing parties have certain similarities. Indeed it is the similarities which are the origin of the opposition. Whether it is in a dispute over property, or in an antagonism between two people who cannot stand each other, the link and, at the same time, the rift is identity of interest or similarity.

A woman is upset or infuriated when confronted by another wearing an identical dress or hat. It is the similarity which is galling; it is being confronted with another version of oneself. Without some similarity of condition, of aims or of interests there is no real opposition. Instead there is disinterest. It is difficult to get two disinterested parties to fight for the relationship is minimal and there is nothing common to fight about. Opposition implies a close, often compulsive relationship.

In Plato's allegorical explanation of the origin of sex, male and female eternally seek their complement in the opposite sex. Opposition embraces both the idea of separation and the idea of completion. At one and the same time both sides are split apart and attracted together. One sees in one's opponent what one lacks in oneself, or what one despises in oneself. The conscious, accepted, approved portion of one's psyche is opposing the unconscious, despised, repressed portion. Unconsciously the latter is projected onto one's opponent. One can then hate him openly which is much easier and more pleasant than hating oneself.

One can observe this compulsive love-hate relationship in play between the two great powers of East and West, the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. The more acute the rift between them the more closely they tend to resemble each other. This polarity of attraction and repulsion with its accompanying tension is responsible for the cold war and mutual threats of nuclear destruction. The secret of the peaceful resolution of such a relationship lies in the idea of completion, which is part of it albeit often unrecognised. Completion implies that East should find its complement in West and conversely, i.e., what it lacks, not what it despises in itself. But in order to do this each side must have the courage to face the repressed and disowned side of its own nature. To most governments, however, the prospect of this would be so horrifying that anything short of war, to some even war itself, would seem preferable. Happily for them, though unfortunately for the world at large, the maintenance of a high level of tension renders the prospect of such excruciating soul-baring unlikely if not impossible.

What I have attempted to outline is of course only a slim framework of the intricate web of relationships linking man with his fellows, individually as well as collectively. Nevertheless from this admittedly over-simple assessment emerge four clear dangers for social and international understanding. These are authoritarianism, narrow autistic relationships, depersonalization and that form of compulsive opposition resulting from the projection of one's own faults onto one's opponent. It is true that these dangers have always been with us and civilization though it has suffered as a result, has not died: but now there is little room for manoeuvre left. In this nuclear age, unless we can make some progress. towards overcoming them, our future is likely to be brutish and of short duration.

1. Hannah Arendt: The Human Condition.
2. Peter Townsend: A Society for People (in Conviction).
3. Fromm: The Fear of Freedom.
4. Nicolas Berdyaev: Slavery and Freedom.

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Sep 5 2016 20:58


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