Margaret Thatcher famously once said:
There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.
For which she was not forgiven by a lot of people.
I think that what she meant was that there was no such thing as society, separate and apart from the individual people in it. Take away the individual people in it, and you’ll not be left with an “empty society” like an empty box: you’ll be left with nothing at all. For the people are the society.
Trained as a chemist, Margaret Thatcher probably saw society as composed of atomic individuals. But as a chemist she would also have known that atoms bond with other atoms to form compounds. Atoms become tied together in all sorts of ways. And so do the atomic humans in human society, when they form friendships, are joined in marriage, volunteer for military service, and so on. Coming up on 5 years ago, in Our Broken Society I wrote:
a community is really nothing but the sum of the connections between its individual members.
I still think this way. And recently I’ve been thinking about it a bit more. And thinking that, if the ties between people are drawn as lines on a map, a little village with about 250 people in it might look something like:
Each node in this grid represents an individual person, and the ties each has with others are drawn as blue lines. And in this little village, everyone has ties with 6 other people, except for the people at the edges of the village, who may only have ties to 3 other people. The ties may be ties of kinship or friendship or business partnership. So this particular little village might be thought of as a fairly cohesive community. And it would be even more cohesive if everyone had 20 or 30 friends or family in the village.
The blue ties represent bonds of attraction. But you might notice that, dotted around the edge of the village there are a few red ties. These might be thought of as a repulsion between two people who don’t much like each other.
In fact, the entire network of ties within the village is in dynamic motion, with people moving apart or coming together, and being pulled this way and that by multiple ties of attraction and repulsion.
And this sort of community network of ties also acts to keep people in their place, so that if anyone “gets out of line”, they’ll soon get pulled back into line by everyone else, particularly in a small and cohesive community like a little village.
But periodically, there may be events that tear communities apart. When I was in Spain a few years ago, staying in a little village not much bigger than the one above, I asked how Spain had become divided in 1936 on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, and was told that not only communities but also families had been torn apart.
On the right I show how an initially cohesive community might be torn apart, as firstly the community is strongly agitated, and then torn apart as half the community goes one way, and half the other way, and ties of friendship or kinship are stretched to breaking point.
And I think that smoking bans act in the same fashion, breaking the bonds that bind people together, as smokers are “exiled to the outdoors.” It’s not only that it’s been my personal experience, but also that there’s some further evidence of the divisive effect of smoking bans.
I’m not claiming that societies are explosively torn apart by smoking bans. Clearly they’re not. But I am claiming that the entire fabric of society is weakened by them (and in this approach, the “fabric of society” becomes visible). For all too often, as history teaches, wars start when societies become divided.
Smokers and nonsmokers will end up hating each other.
Earlier this week, a professor caught me smoking near the bike racks between two East Bank buildings. He shook his head at me. I shook mine back. He ran down an entire flight of stairs and through two sets of double doors to inform me that I could not smoke on campus. Duh, I knew that. Why else would I be hiding by the bike racks? I looked him in the eyes, put my cigarette out on my bike frame, and cycled away, butt-hurt and vengeful.
The university has put the responsibility of enforcing the smoking ban in the hands of students and faculty, which means we’ve got a bunch of wannabe dictators running around campus, getting off on the opportunity to yell at people for breaking rules. If the U administrators had a sit-down chat with the history department, they might remember that this is how wars start — docile wars, in which ammo consists of cigarette butts and snide remarks, but wars nonetheless.
P.S. You may wonder how I managed to produce the images above. Well, I used my orbital simulation model to build “communities” of point masses in space, tied together with springs, and then spun and pulled them until they flew apart. The blue springs are those in tension, and the red springs are the ones in compression. It only took me an afternoon to get it all working. And I’m now wondering how far this analogue model can be usefully extended. Might people’s political orientation be modelled as the direction and speed of their motion? So that a society in which some people are right wing are those heading rightward, and people who are left wing are those heading leftward? And might cults be described as people being strongly attracted towards charismatic gurus (or rock stars)?