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The good ship Society – a metaphor

Our collective social, political and economic stability is like a ship.

This ship travels the waves of history, floating on the seas of time, partly immersed in the natural world and partly emerging from it. The ship is fairly stable. Sometimes things lurch about a bit, and of course there are, for some, terrible periods of drought, famine and war which, in our metaphor, correspond at some times to many lives being lost and even the odd capsize or shipwreck. But for decent periods we manage to hang together in our different groups: familial, communal, national, even imperial – and lives can be led, people can raise their children and plan for a future. The ship sails on. Different societies create different ships, and voyage together on these crafts, but most of these endure for considerable lengths of time, so long as there is some kind of balance in them and some thought, at some point, has gone into their structure and their making.

But sometimes there is an attack on the ship from outside: a rock it didn’t see that cracks a hole in the hull; or a streak of lightning that brings down a mast or communications tower. Economists might call these ‘exogenous shocks’. For the good ship Society theses shocks may come from natural disasters, the effect on the environment of a sudden spurt of technological development, wars, or even some more ‘internal’ shock – like when someone on board invents something which looks good, but then blows a hole in the hull, threatening to sink the vessel.

Most of the time the good ship Society can right itself, patch itself up. Most of the time, that is, if people on board stay calm and do not all rush from one side of the ship to the other, in order to escape the part of the vessel which is endangered. For if they do all so run, the ship is in grave danger. It is liable to capsize. The ship is not set up for everyone to act in exactly the same way at such short notice; it creates dangerous instability and the water is liable to flood in at the side to which everyone runs, bringing the whole ship and all its crew and passengers down. Sometimes those on board may notice that by all running to one side, everyone is likely to drown; but this usually results in all passengers then running to the other side; and nobody is then any better off than before.

Some of this behaviour we now see in the financial markets: the mentality of the herd. And academic research is going on into why this happens – although common sense can provide us with good answers here, too. Some – regulators, politicians, psychologists, philosophers – are trying to work out ways we can stop this behaviour, but there is no clear way ahead at the moment. How do you stop the herd without infringing the rights and liberty of the individuals in the herd?

The effect of social media and the speed at which information travels only exacerbates this situation. We are becoming a world of crazes, of fads, of ‘trends’. It is OK when the trend is a funny youtube video or a bit of  banter on twitter. But it will not be fun if it leads to runs on the banks,  or lynchings, or mass migrations, or political rumours that lead to instability and even to war.

If we all run in one direction away from the shocks we hear about on twitter or youtube (or even towards them, if we allow a little leeway in the metaphor), the good ship Society will capsize. A society survives best by being balanced and diverse. This way it is stable and able to adapt to shocks in a timely and not hysterical manner, allowing the ship to rebalance and readjust itself. But you try telling those nearest the rock to stay calm and not run to the other side…

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