Bend or break

Every development in how people live affects every other aspect of their life together. A new tool or weapon, a new technique, a new art form, a new religious insight - all have a ripple effect on everything from how we cook to how our societies are governed.

Agriculture was invented more than 12,000 years ago, about the end of the last Ice Age. Our ancestors became able to produce more food per hectare than anyone could get from hunting and gathering. The same area of land could support far more people once they started farming. People began to live in larger groups.

Human societies didn’t only grow bigger. They became more complex. In a farming society, many different skills are needed: tool making and repairing, storing, distributing and trading surpluses of one crop for food or tools and materials that some other group produces. In many parts of the world irrigation systems were developed.

All of this means that family groups, who had survived and often flourished by their own efforts without help from anyone, became less independent. They needed to co-operate with their neighbours in a bigger society.

These new societies needed new ways of governing. It seems that most began with something like what we consider was traditional African society. A chief of each clan emerged, but as long as everybody in society had access to the same kind of tools and weapons, the chief could not become a dictator. He had to rule with the consent of his people.

This meant that he needed the skills of a good chairman; he needed the ability to convince people that their views were being heard and acted on. It takes a lot of skill to listen to a few hundred people expressing dozens of different ideas and to somehow steer discussion so that areas of agreement can emerge. It takes even more skill to feed your own ideas into a discussion that you are chairing and produce a plan of action that everyone, or nearly everyone, can agree to. Therefore chiefs who introduced new policies were less common.

The chief had to be a good negotiator and good listener because he could not force people to do anything they didn’t want to do. If he appeared to be oppressive, people could just walk away; if he was very oppressive, he might be poisoned. The tradition of choosing a new chief from among a number of eligible men of the chiefly family increases the chance that a wise and tactful man will be chosen.

Of course, moving from a family unit to being part of a bigger society doesn’t only affect the leadership and the way they operate.

Everyone who lives close to their neighbours must show more consideration for them than is required of a hunter-gatherer. We have probably all experienced very noisy neighbours. That shows that insisting on our own freedom to behave as we like makes life unpleasant for others, so ways have to be found to prevent people from making this kind of nuisance. There are other examples.

Disposing of our rubbish in ways that do not threaten public health is more important than not making excessive noise. Taking care that we keep our community water supply clean is another. We can even offend people if we don’t observe agreed standards of decent dressing.

This means that if we are going to live in a civilised society, we must all recognise that we have rights (e.g to hold my own opinion without being coerced or punished) but, because everyone else has rights, we have a duty to respect their rights. I can only be free to behave as I like if I live in the middle of a desert. Living in society means a reasonable trade-off between some freedoms I give up and some benefit I get in exchange. If we don’t all bend a bit, something will break.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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