A step closer to closing the gap? - RSA

A step closer to closing the gap?


  • Social brain

Starting to focus on my 2012 annual lecture, I want to find a way of taking the 21CE argument to a new level, making it both more nuanced and more powerful. The posts I will write are not much more than thinking aloud so may be of little interest, but many readers have given me useful tips and advice as I have worked on previous iterations so I will, as always, be grateful for views…..

Although I’m not a musician I suspect making a speech is a bit like playing a piece of music.  The aim is for the audience to be fully engaged, a combination of commitment to the experience and being swept along with it. Things can go wrong in two ways:  a loss of coherence so the audience loses connection and interest, or succumbing to the facile; the easy beat, the inane chorus, the rhetorical cliché - communicating but not engaging.

Having delivered versions of my 21st century enlightenment (21CE) speech on many occasions, most recently in Amsterdam last week I have come to recognise the points at which engagement is most likely but also the points where I am most guilty of succumbing to obscurity and inanity.

The basic structure of the 21CE argument is as follows:

1. People as a whole need to change if we are to build the future we say we want (‘the social aspiration gap’)

2. We are (re) discovering many important things about human nature, many of which counter either/both common sense or/and the previously dominant model of homo oeconomicus (‘the social brain’)

2a. [An addition to the original 2010 speech] Human beings are struggling to cope with key aspects of the modern world using brains which evolved in the very different circumstances of the first 99% of human existence

3. One element of ‘becoming the people we need to be the create the future we say we want’ is examining what has become of the core values of the enlightenment and reframing those values in the face of modern challenges and modern knowledge (hence 21st century enlightenment)

The original airing of the social aspiration gap thesis (although I didn’t actually use the phrase) was in my first annual RSA lecture in 2007. The date is interesting in as much as the argument ‘we can’t go on like this’ seemed less blindingly obvious a year before the global financial crisis. Back then I identified four challenges which could not conceivably be overcome without a major shift on public behaviour and social norms: living sustainably, improving public services with limited means (little did we know what was to come!), promoting social cohesion and increasing democratic engagement.

In further versions I defined the gap in terms of three ways in which citizens needed to change; becoming more engaged, more resourceful and more pro-social, and in the Amsterdam speech I tried a different formulation:

….in essence we need citizens better to align aspirations and actions in three domains, the political, the personal and the social

So, problem one: This still isn’t right, the individual resourcefulness category is too broad (ranging from living more healthily to being more entrepreneurial) and the domains of democratic/civic engagement and social responsibility overlap.

The other problems are more ones of emphasis. The idea that citizens have to change can sound rather over-bearing so it is important to emphasise that the gap is between the society most people themselves say they want and the one we seem on track to build. The converse problem is a dulling instrumentalism, as if the only problem with people is that they aren’t efficiently aligning their wishes and behaviours.

So it is important to state that the aspirations we are not on track to meet aren’t just to do with existing social problems (like better care for older people or more and better employment) but also the pursuit of shared values and ideals – such as social justice and human fulfilment. The fact that we don’t all agree about these aspirations is something to be carried forward to a later part of the argument focussing on ‘the good society’.

Also, while the focus is on how people’s current behaviours and attitudes are inadequate to the task of social progress, this doesn’t mean people at large are ‘to blame’. For example, the poor quality of public discourse on political and policy matters is as much to do with the culture and norms of the political establishment as the attitudes of citizens. Closing the gap is not primarily about exhortation to citizens – although changes in social norms are absolutely necessary - but a whole variety of reforms in institutions, policies and practices.

On reflection I think I need to develop the argument in two ways. On the one hand, to define more clearly the fundamental nature of the overall aspiration gap problem. On the other hand, to offer some specific examples of the gap and what might be needed to close it.

Take for example the gap between our desire for respect, dignity and compassionate care in old age. The gap can be seen to have three elements:

A collective action problem: We want the social outcome but don’t always and accept or act on what that means for us as individuals (for example, we need to save more and live healthier lives)

A policy and innovation problem (for example, we don’t have the right framework for pension saving or social care insurance, and we haven’t developed clever and practical means of tapping into our ability/willingness to care better for ourselves and each other [although Southwark Circles shows what is possible]

A deeper problem of social norms and arrangements (for example, ways of living and working which increase social distance and isolation, or ageism reinforced by market based ideas of human value)

Social aspiration gap problems are by definition ’complex’, in that getting to where we want to get to probably involves change in several domains; ‘profound’ in that progress on these problems will raise broader issues about how society works going beyond the usual parameters of this policy problem; and ‘normative’ in that progress is not simply about taking current assumptions and values and changing incentives, but must to some extent be based on a process of social development which involves change in how we think of ourselves and ourselves in relation to each other.

One advantage of this way of describing the social aspiration gap is that it segues neatly into the next section of the argument, which is about changing ideas of human nature.

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