Reading Qf&p Chapter 23: Social responsibility

“Evils which have struck their roots deep into the fabric of human society are often accepted, even by the best minds, as part of the providential ordering of life.” – William Charles Braithwaite, 1919, 23:05

Of all the memorable passages in the chapter, this one has remained with me since our discussion at Watford Meeting last Sunday. It raises a number of questions; some, obviously, are about what we should do about these evils once we know what they are, but I am more interested in the first stage – identifying them as evils. What injustice or other evil might I be unable to notice because it simply looks like the fabric of society?

History can help to illustrate some of the possibilities (slavery, disenfranchisement of women, colonialism, etc.), but of course the point is that we can see the evil in these social patterns very well with hindsight; people at the time struggled to see, and even now there are people who fall into the same patterns (of racism and xenophobia, for example). Some of these evils may mutate through time, taking many forms but apparently never disappearing (even in this country, let along worldwide, we are hardly free of anti-Semitism among many others). How can we come to see the evils which are in our society today?

Braithwaite suggests two ways. One is that there may eventually come a direct threat to human welfare arising from the evil in question – perhaps this is where we are with pollution and others issues around care for the environment today. Sometimes, though, people seem to be wilfully blind to suffering, even at home, even when their actions or states of society which benefit them are directly implicated. (It’s easy to be blind to suffering which can be declared someone else’s responsibility). Having identified these evils it is possible to create a plan for responding – how ineffective it is, I can at least write to my MP, donate to charity, or change my lifestyle in response to problems which I have identified and which are also at least partially visible to others in society.

The other way Braithwaite suggests we might bring these evils into the light is by ‘dragging’ them there, something he says will require people “of keen vision and heroic heart”. This is good; if we can see and name an injustice, we may be able to bring it to the attention of others, even if this is difficult.

It doesn’t solve the core problem, however. How do we see these things in the first place? I can sometimes see injustices which are being done to me – although I am often encouraged to view them as personal failings rather than social problems. I can sometimes see evils visited upon my nearest and dearest – although they may not see them in the same way. I also need to be listening to those of “keen vision and heroic heart” in other parts of society – people who through my blindness I might be inclined to discount or might never meet in the first place – in order to break through the blocks which my society, and my social training, set up.

TL;DR – the development of Quaker social testimony could benefits from insights from Standpoint Theory.


One response to “Reading Qf&p Chapter 23: Social responsibility

  1. QFP 23.05 has really struck home to me, and so highlights the enormous value of our exercise in going through the book. I have been with Quakers for over 25 years, and still missed this one.
    Having been retired for nearly ten years, I have become aware of how much I was caught up in the spirit of ‘managerialism’ when I was spending four and five days a week and most of energy in that environment. I unconsciously allowed my work experiences to infect my Quaker practice and look back with disquiet on how easily it happened.
    You may say that this is no great evil compared with for instance complicity in slavery, and yet this is perhaps the problem. We are so caught up in the need for specialists and expert management in our complex society that we do not see the destructiveness of it. What managerialism does is to idolise leaders and deskill followers. Is this what Quakers should be allowing?
    ‘Feminist Standpoint Theory’ is indeed useful for Quakers, and very powerful stuff. Again, just how much do we realise that we still allow male dominated leadership to devalue traditionally female roles such as caring?
    Our society puts premium value on objective knowledge acquired through scientific method, and attempts to reduce everything to what can be written down in books by experts. In fact we are situated selves, situated in our bodies, and our shared history, place and culture, and most of our ‘knowledge’, and certainly the most important aspects of our knowledge, is tacit and discovered and grown through experience.
    Book-learning not only disadvantages people – especially women – in caring and supporting roles, but a whole range of people with disabilities such as dyslexia, yet people who can have real skills and be a fully creative in our communities.
    Surely Quakers, with our emphasis on the primacy of lived experience over ‘scripture’ should recognise this as an ‘evil which has struck its roots deep in the fabric of human society’? The Quaker philosopher John Macmurray is very succinct on this: ‘All meaningful knowledge is for the sake of action, and all meaningful action for the sake of friendship’ (Introduction to ‘the Self As Agent’, 1957)

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