Laws and Packaging | A Stranger Reflects on American Life 3

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Sterile

[ Laws and Packaging 1 ] [ Laws and Packaging 2 ]

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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  1. J. Beauford

    Of course, EVERYBODY ALWAYS has an opinion about American life. You aren’t the first.
    I’m sure I’d have an opinion about English life too if I visited. But I won’t be, because all the people I’ve known there have moved away. (I’m sure they had their reasons.)

  2. J. Beauford

    I agree the US is law happy and lawsuit happy, but I don’t think St. Paul was referring to that when he says “the law” in his letters.

    Your post: “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.”

    I believe St. Paul was referring to circumcision, the sign of the old covenant, not people simply feeling oppressed and criminalised. Whether people in the US feel oppressed and criminalised and whether this actually leads to violence and violation can be debated, but that’s not what St. Paul was talking about.

    Sorry.

  3. KB

    No apology needed. Of course I’m not the first, and nor will I be the last. But it’s important to allow strangers to hold up that mirror. If we don’t like it being held up, is it perhaps because we don’t like what we see? So my point is, do come to England, and do express your opinions. It’s the best way for us to learn. There’s still 60m + of us, so not quite everyone has left yet. Lots do because they can’t stand it. But if you only speak to those who’ve walked out of a gig, you’re not going to get a balanced view of the music.

    Agreed with your comments about Paul. I’m playing on the use of the word because the general principle is the same: the Law he was referring to was powerless to actually change the heart. And the research that Wilkinson and Pickett are doing comes to the same conclusion from a sociological angle: excessive legislation increases anxiety, not with improved life outcomes.

  4. Francis Barton

    Kester,
    even with your caveat, this does come across as pretty critical of the US in a rather generalising way. Anyway, I’m with you on the dirt issue, and it’s interesting that you reference The Spirit Level, I wonder if you will blog about that some time. I haven’t read it yet.
    I heard Wilkinson and Pickett interviewed by Laurie Taylor on Thinking Allowed, and also read their interview in the Guardian, and they make a very strong case.
    I know this was just a short blog entry, just floating ideas, but I wonder if it would be better if you did more to make your case for the link between ‘social hygiene’ and ‘physical hygiene’?

    Best wishes.

  5. Francis Barton

    (By the way I posted my comment before seeing your response).

  6. KB

    Thanks Francis. I agree this is generalised – but in a sense that helps make the point. The stranger can only do general brush-strokes; it’s then up to those who are better informed to weigh their observations up and work out what a correct response could be.

    I think The Spirit Level is genuinely one of the most important books I’ve laid hands on in recent years – and I’m so grateful to the two friends who gave me a copy out of the blue. Prospect magazine recently called it a ‘slam-dunk of a book’ – which I think gets the sense of the power and persuasion of their gently presented, well balanced arguments. As a Mathematician it obviously appeals to me in that it is heavily based on correlations of numerous outcomes against income inequality.

    In terms of the link between social hygiene and physical hygiene, I’ve done a fair amount on this in the chapter on Dirt in Signs of Emergence (US) / The Complex Christ (UK) so I’d refer you there! I do deal in much more depth with the idea of the stranger in the forthcoming book, and draw in the arguments Wilkinson and Pickett make there. But you’re right – I’m on holiday in NYC, which I love to bits – and these can only be short remarks. Hopefully they’re take as ones from a friend.

  7. Sabio Lantz

    Ironically, recent studies point out that religion withers (thank goodness) as societies lessen their inequalities, stress and anxiety.

  8. KB

    Be really interested to have a reference for those studies Sabio. Can you post a link?
    Thanks,

    KB

  9. Acetate Monkey

    Hi Kester,

    I haven’t read your book so don’t know if you referenced Mary Douglas in it (and your subsequent thinking on dirt). Her book “Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo” helps give some reasons why we package and (through law) ritualise society. Hers and Victor Turner’s thougths are around unclear=unclean. Liminal/marginal people/things who are neither fish nor fowl are at danger from others and a danger to others. Packaging of people/products and other boundary work is an attempt to make society safe.
    As an Englishman in New York, maybe you’re dangerous too! ; )
    I hope you are enjoying being there. One tip, if you want to see a drama rather than a musical don’t queue in Time Square, just go to the bored looking person in the unpopular window at the front (I queued for hours to see Eve Ensler)!

  10. KB

    You’re spot on in your analysis there – linking law and packaging to fear of the unclear/liminal/other.

    And this is perhaps why it is only a Stranger that can point this out – because it’s only as a Stranger that you experience this marginalisation – even if it is in very simple ways.

    Yes, I have read P&D, and did reference it in the book. Unfortunately, I’m now back home in England, being strange in Newcastle. So no chance to see drama. Unless you count rain and under-dressed drunkards as dramatic.

  11. Francis Barton

    Thanks Kester, I have been dithering about buying the Complex Christ for a few years (sorry!) – so many books, so little time – but I think I will get on and buy it. I love the idea of ‘dirt’, and I wonder if it might have some cross-over to ideas that I have around children’s engagement with mess and play in church contexts.

  12. chris

    I am really late to the party so I am not sure if you are going to read this. But in some ways legislation can actually increase creativity. I am from Hawaii and it has one of the most advanced seaweed eating cultures in the world because women were forbidden to eat a lot of different foods so they had to find another form of sustenance.