from the archive, 2016
The ‘House Divided’ was our description of unbridled difference and rivalry tearing apart the body politic. Unity in diversity is the aspiration to be in a cohesive community where differences are embraced and celebrated.
There are two words which, if we make the effort to understand them, actually explain the complementary principles of social organisation that make unity in diversity possible. Those words are “hierarchy” and “subsidiarity”.
Hierarchy is the principle that organises society from the top down, while subsidiarity is the principle that organises it from the bottom up. So power and authority radiate both from the Leader and from the People, from the one and from the many.
Subsidiarity insists that issues are dealt with at the most basic level of the system. An individual decides matters independently where possible, and where not, only then appeals to the next level of relationship and organisation - and not to the biggest but the closest in scale. A matter that can be solved by a family should not need to be referred to a local community body. A matter that can be dealt with at a municipal level should not burden the state let alone the federal authorities.
A previous blog in the strand explained how psychological projection displaces from self onto others ethical questions which it is the responsibility of self to address. For example, whether we situate evil in others, in mindsets or somewhere else. So the scaffolding of subsidiarity can be rattled at its very foundation. This is why and how many properly personal disputes land in the arena of public litigation; how marital or family matters can get over-politicised. Even unresolved issues of self worth and body image can find their way onto the medical register.
Public authority can also overstep its hierarchical limit by over-regulating commercial and civic life; by attempting to micromanage a myriad of details better handled at a lower or local level.
The feds may organise customs or overseas aid, but local councils can organise garbage collection. This wisdom about the role of different levels is of course built into the system, but infringements and trespasses still occur. For example, it is controversial to what extent and in what direction public authorities should set a sex education curriculum for the schools, or limit parents’ rights regarding the faith and health decisions for their children.
Some object to hierarchy and authoritative leadership per se, but this is unwarranted.
Such leadership has its eye on unity and we peacemakers should learn from military organisations that hierarchy, ruthless though it may seem, is the most efficient way to enforce unity and discourage insubordination : the going outside of the chain of command or leapfrogging over intermediate links to advance a case.
The drive for uniformity is pursued by associations great and small in the midst of the widest freedom of expression. It is a legitimate aspiration for policymakers, for example, to seek a national standard in education; to want a system of international law that is not a toothless tiger; to expect banks to meet their capital requirements etc. At a more more mundane level, there is acceptance that children wear a school uniform and that seat-belted drivers heed the rules of the road.
Uniformity means unity. The rigour and discipline required by any group to function, from a household to the global civilisation.
Yet there is a dark side to all the hierarchy, authority and power.
Royal commissions tell us that public institutions we put our trust in are capable of abusing power and therefore abusing vulnerable individuals. A world superpower has a Bill of Rights designed to protect its own citizens from governmental excesses. So just as individuals and small groups may abuse the system, so may the system abuse individuals and small groups. Elites and powerful individuals can tyrannise over the masses; but a majority may also tyrannise over a minority.
It is easy to understand hierarchy and subsidiarity by noticing when they do not work - when the principles are breached.
Social security fraud, or tax fraud, violates subsidiarity by placing an unfair burden on the system. Too much red tape and obsessive certification violate hierarchy by preventing capable people from using their gifts to contribute to society. Living off junk food can add to the strain of the public health system, and not controlling one’s temper in the home can add to the strain of the family law courts. Conversely, when corporate or religious leaders turn control freaks, initiative is stifled in the rank and file.
These instances are injustices which diminish the peace, as all injustices do. But they are also failings of society to harmonise hierarchy and subsidiarity. Not only can these two coexist, they are by nature complementary organising principles for achieving unity in diversity.