What makes a civil society?

This afternoon I went to a panel with the above title, comprised of Martin Krygier, Peter Singer and Naomi Wolf. They all spoke loosely around the topic, with Martin staying closest to the subject. He spoke about the meaning of a civil society, and the conflict with the state, as exmplified by Poland – an obviously favourite topic. Solidarity is a civil framework which was placed in oposition to the state-run power systems. However, Martin doesn’t value it as a good model due to that placement. Once the opposition vanishes, some other struggle has to fill the vacuum – that being one of “I only liked you since we both hated X and now I don’t like you any more”.

A more interesting model, in his mind, seems to be the “Jazz” clubs in Czechoslovakia – organisations that can escape the restrictions on permissions for congregation, but which allow the like-minded to associate and informally create new values within society. Martin is against the NGO model which he ascribes as an outcome to the vision espoused by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. All sorts of groups can be NGOs, not all of them civil.

Peter Singer spoke about free speech, somewhat in reference to his experiences with people protesting his appointment to Princeton. A civil society is one in which people tolerate the opinions of others. He talked about the reasons for which people may oppress free speech, primarily “infallibility”, and the contradiction and problems in that. Can someone know that another view is irredemiably wrong? If it’s obviously so wrong (and yours is so obviously correct), can it do harm for a view that will not garner support to be expressed? Furthermore, if your view is not challenged, it looses force as a living argument, that people can gather in favour of. It becomes a sort of fossil or dogma within society that no longer has the strength behind it that a challenged “truth” has.

He ended with a discussion of the need for a global vision, reiterating his views from One World that we can’t be a truly civil society unless we start acting like we care about our neighbours. To him that includes not only next door, around the block or even starving Nigerians, but non-human animals.

Naomi Wolf is, unlike the other two panellists, not a very academic speaker. She has the patina of a speaker for a campaign and, in fact, spent time on Al Gore’s bid for the US Presidency. She spent her 20 minutes talking about the state of women and the need to lobby groups, and the use of money and lobbying to encourage change in the power structures. She also talked about the male-created power systems in which she (quite facilely, I thought) declared that women were scared to operate. She has apparently been creating an organisation that teaches women to better use political resources, and talked about the 5 basically ethical principals that all major religions share, the 7 things wrong with the current power structures and, while the othe two panellists were much more circumspect in talk of solutions to problems, Naomi appears to know how to solve the world’s problems by putting more women in places of power.

Luckily, when question time came around, she was called on her views (by a women, since I don’t think any man there was keen to be seen to take her on). The question was basically about why Naomi seemed to ascribe consistent and saintly motives to all women, and why she considered lobbying since it worked against the poor and disenfranchised. The answer immediately attacked the questioner, by stating that Naomi hadn’t expanded during her talk on things that she thout were obvious, and that she was sorry if the person had misunderstood her.
Apparently lobbying in Naomi’s terms means to create voting blocks by injections of funding so that no government can move without consulting (for example) the over 50s. According to Naomi, it only takes 6 pence from every woman in America to create an effective lobby group for womens’ rights, to have a bloc of 100,000 votes. Unfortunately, she didn’t address the fact that the powerful rich who are in favour of the current system can donate to keep things the way that they are. One Donald Trump can trump those 100,000 people in terms of financial incentive, and not all 100,000 may vote the same way, in any case, when election time rolls around. There is more than one issue that influences any voter.

It was disappointing. I’d expected more of her, but the other two, Peter Singer especially, made up for it. On walking into the Town Hall, I passed the Gleebooks stand and saw a single copy of Practical Ethics there, which I snapped up. That brings my spending on books this week to about $150, and my backlog of unread books to about 20 🙂

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  1. Diana
    Diana at |

    [i]Unfortunately, she didn’t address the fact that the powerful rich who are in favour of the current system can donate to keep things the way that they are. One Donald Trump can trump those 100,000 people in terms of financial incentive, and not all 100,000 may vote the same way, in any case, when election time rolls around. There is more than one issue that influences any voter.[/i]

    I was there too last night, and am just popping by to say: Nicely put.

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