Why Major Social Change and Resolutions to Conflict can be so Simple: Part 1

Amidst all the talk about changing the world (for a relatively recent and scholarly piece, see James Davison Hunter) and the need for political reconciliation and justice (see this excellent work by Daniel Philpott), there are good reasons to believe that significant (perhaps even historic) social change and conflict reduction can be achieved by simple yet powerful means.

In his behemoth of a book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor argues that the West (generally) now live an age where a plurality of religious beliefs (or none) is on offer and widely taken up; whereas, in the religious West of the pre-modern era, such plurality was absent: we now live in a secular (i.e., pluralistic) age.

In an edited volume responding to, commending, and critiquing aspects of Taylor’s work, Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, Michael Warner and a host of other scholars, consider the merits and shortcomings of Taylor’s work. In the Afterword of this volume, Taylor offers a response to the treatment of his work (A Secular Age). In this response (titled ‘Apologia pro Libro suo’ – meaning roughly, ‘in defense of himself’), Taylor offers an important plea which I think needs heeding.

In brief, Taylor attempts to rebut some of the charges made against him, while at the same time conceding a fair few points; but most importantly, he ends this very honest and insightful set of concerns about the fragmentation of modern society and a recommendation of how to help stave off its destructive effects.

Taylor writes: ‘I don’t think that we’re going to manage to get through this tremendous diversification of Western society with a decent society unless we not only have the right rules and the right principles and so on, but have enough people who have this kind of gut sense that there’s something really valuable in that other person—and other view, etc.—and are willing to talk to them’ (p. 321). That is, while a robust political theory is important and necessary, it is not enough: social engagement, or put simply, friends, really matter.

Taylor goes on: ‘[In politics] sometimes the small battalions really count. If there are enough people here and there who have enough meeting and understanding of others, they can stand like firebreaks in a forest fire. We are in the business . . . of trying to multiply those firebreaks’ (p. 321). Taylor, having worked on the Commission on Accommodation Practices related to Cultural Differences (in Quebec) not long ago, is writing from practical experience, not just theoretically. His simple yet profound point: in fragmented societies, friendships matter, and matter profoundly.

So Taylor concludes: ‘I value this tremendously—this kind of exchange. I value this personally. I value this in terms of my faith. I value this in terms of what I can discover. But I also value this because I see that it’s something we really need in our predicament’ (p. 321). This secular (i.e., pluralistic) age requires a kind of deep and robust exchange of life- and world-views which come often and most obviously friendships, friendships which are forged particularly across divergent communities.

In my next post, I shall consider how some of the empirical work in the field of ‘peace and conflict studies’ corroborate well this important suggestion from Taylor.

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