I the previous two posts I’ve been trying to set out something of what it feels like being a stranger in the US. The stranger is at the boundary – neither fully in nor fully out – and can thus help those who are in to see what may be hidden to them.
Two things have hit me in particular: the excessive laws, and the excessive packaging. And I want to argue that they are connected in some way via the idea of dirt. The over-keen legislating is a way of avoiding contact with the other, by deferring to the authorities when conflicts occur. The over-keen packaging is a way of assuring people that what they are in contact with is ‘clean’ – untouched by any other.
Now here’s the odd thing: both of these attitudes are counter-productive. By any measure the US has extremely poor levels of community cohesion, high levels of anti-social behaviour, high levels of violent crime, high levels of imprisonment, high levels of depression. In a country that is meant to be so Christian, I am constantly amazed at the way it defaults to law rather than grace. If the gospel has one thing to say, it is surely about the inefficacy of the law to save us. But here laws are piled upon laws… and, as St Paul pointed out, that only leads to people feeling oppressed and criminalised – and this actually leads to violence/violation.
This has recently been shown to be true in the brilliant book The Spirit Level – Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. Inequality causes anxiety and stress right across society, and this leads to bad outcomes for everyone. Excessive legislation only adds to this stress.
The same is true with cleanliness. A little dirt is actually very good for us. If we totally sterilise ourselves – become obsessive and compulsive about cleanliness – we actually lower our immune system’s ability to deal with the inevitable dirt we face. There’s no point trying to stop my children catching all the colds and bugs at school: catching them will actually strengthen them.
So here’s a stranger’s word of advice to the US – which comes right back at me with the UK always following so closely behind:
– let’s try to create the conditions within which people want to do the right thing, and commit to trying to engage the other rather than default to the law when conflicts arise.
– let’s try to bring more dirt into our sterilised worlds, because it is only in these dirty places that things can grow, and that we can overcome our fear of the contaminating effect of the other. It is not contamination; it’s cross-fertilization.
Look forward to some strangers head to the UK to help us reflect back in turn…
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