Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Soft Bonds: A Revolutionary New Sociological Concept

Sometimes my blog posts are so quirky that I feel quite abashed. Recently I was reading a book of Latin phrases (a very enjoyable and entertainingly written tome) and I came across this phrase: cacoethes scribendi, 'the itch to write'. I am well-acquainted with this itch; and the twenty-first century must be the golden age for those who suffer from it, with an effective infinity of blogs, internet forums (or fora, if you like), comment boxes, Facebook threads, Twitter feeds, and a million other platforms, all of them guaranteeing an audience of some kind for one's scribbling.

(Incidentally, notice the phrase I used there: 'an effective infinity'. I propose this as a replacement for 'a near infinity'. The latter phrase has always bothered me, since you can never come any nearer to infinity. Pedantic, I know, but there you go.)

My own itch to scribble is not so much an itch to scribble for its own sake, but an itch to express particular ideas, atmospheres, opinions, and so forth. The more arcane these are, the more of an urge I have to express them.

All of that is by way of an apologia, of course.

In this post I wanted to write about a concept to which I have given the name 'soft bonds'. I find myself thinking about them more and more, and indeed fascinated by them more and more.

What is a 'soft bond'? That is easily explained. If I see someone wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt, that is evidence of a 'soft bond'. If someone names her dog after Horatio Nelson, that is evidence of a 'soft bond'. If somebody cheers for a particular soccer or hockey or basketball team despite having no personal connection to that team, that is a 'soft bond'.

I would put it like this, more or less: soft bonds are all those bonds which don't follow necessarily from our circumstances in life, or from our basic beliefs, or from our big life choices.

I'm not talking about a person's national identity, or their ethnic identity. I'm not talking about a person's religious beliefs, or political beliefs. I'm not talking about family bonds, whether they are the bonds that you choose or the bonds that you don't choose. I'm not talking about one's political commitments, such as support for a particular political party or a particular political outlook. There's nothing 'soft' about any of those; at least, one would hope not. A person might change her political and religious beliefs, but one would assume that this would be a life-changing and deeply pondered step.

'Soft bonds' are bonds that could, in principle, be thrown off without any great difficulty, inconvenience or moral scruple, at any time. To go back to one of my original examples, someone could stop listening to Iron Maiden without any sense of crisis or abandonment, and without accusing himself of fickleness.

What is interesting to me about 'soft bonds' is their utterly voluntary nature. And I mean, really vountary. There are precious few things in our life that are really voluntary. We wake up in the morning and go to work of our own free will, but (unless we are mad) we would rather stay in bed. We vote for a particular candidate in an election, but most of us consider our candidate the best of a bad lot. We meet up with our friends when they suggest it, but we don't always feel like it; however, it would be rude to say no, and we wouldn't have any friends left after a while if we kept saying 'no'.

Friendship is sharing boredom

Don't get me wrong; I'm not lamenting this. Commitment is a wonderful thing. In fact, one of the reasons I'm a traditionalist conservative is because I believe that sturdy bonds, ultimately, make for a better society and a better life. Patriotism and faith, family and marriage and friendship, are all meaningful precisely because we don't throw them off whenever they bore us or become irksome; because they often require sacrifice and loyalty. The joy (at least, the deep joy) usually lies on the far side of the irksomeness.

But that's not the whole of life. Life also has room for allegiances and affinities which are entirely free, in the most straightforward sense. And I'm very interested in those, in the role they play in our personality and our character. The funny thing is that these 'soft bonds' are often highly enduring. They often bring a surprising amount of meaning and fulfilment into our lives, and form a surprisingly large part of our identity.

I think of this especially when I go to funerals. I was at a funeral only last week, and once again I was struck by the 'gifts' that were placed on the coffin. In this particular case they included a Dublin GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) jersey and a newspaper. The dead man liked to watch Dublin GAA and read the newspaper.

I once attended a funeral service for a woman who was crazy about frogs. It sounds comical, but there were frogs all over the funeral parlour; not real frogs, obviously, but various items which depicted frogs in one way or another. Apparently, people could hardly think of this woman without thinking of frogs. When they thought of her life, they thought about frogs.

And really, it's not all that strange. Reflect, reader, upon the symbols and images that would sum up your life, your view of the world. If you are reading this blog, you are most likely a Catholic, so the Cross would probably be the first symbol that comes to mind. If you are a patriot (and I imagine most of my readers are), your national flag or some symbol of your nationality would probably come to mind. If you are married, your wedding band or a picture of your spouse might come to mind.

But pretty soon you'd come to images that seem a lot more trivial, but which express so much of what you are and what you care about. For me, some of them might be; a snow globe, a sepia-coloured silhouette, a frame from Groundhog Day. I could come up with suggestions for some of my readers, but I better not....

In fact, I think you could probably spend a pleasant five minutes thinking of what images could stand for you, or for the people you know. The pleasantness of such a reverie might explain why this subject fascinates me so.

One reason I find these 'soft bonds' such an interesting subject is because they are so unpredictable. We very quickly suss out the major facts about somebody, and the principal points of their view of the world, but we can often be very surprised by their literary tastes, their tastes in movies, their interests and loyalties in sports, the subjects which fascinate them, the personalities they admire, the places they love, the historical periods for which they are nostalgic, and so forth.

I also find 'soft bonds' interesting because they cut across lines of nationality, ideology, religion, sex, and so forth. I mentioned Groundhog Day. Every now and again I 'vanity Google' the name of this blog to see if anybody is quoting it. Hardly anybody does (booh), but once I found to my surprise that my review of Groundhog Day was quoted in a very scholarly article about the film. In fact, the entire website was about the movie, and it was written by a Groundhog Day nut. I began to follow this blog, and I quickly realized that its writer had a view of the world that was almost completely opposite to my own, especially when it came to religion and politics. But we both loved movies, and especially Groundhog Day, and that was enough of a connection. I thought that was pretty neat-- that a passion for a movie could make a connection between two people who were so totally different in other ways.

Another example of how 'soft bonds' operate in my own life is the horror club of which I'm a member. This is a Dublin based club for horror fans that has been operative, on and off, since 1999. I've only become involved with it recently.

I got involved in this club (which is strictly invitation only) through a colleague, who subsequently left. So now it is a part of my life that has no connection to any other part of my life.

Very often, when we are discussing an Edgar Allen Poe story or an obscure British horror film, I will look around the room at the four or five other gentlemen assembled and feel a sense of surprise that I am there at all. If it wasn't for horror, I would almost certainly never have met any of them. I always find myself thinking: "I was led here through all the horror movies I watched as a kid, the horror stories I read through sleepless nights as a teenager, and my own fumblings at writing horror. It has nothing to do with family, longstanding friends, work, G.K. Chesterton, the Catholic Church-- any of that. This is completely its own thing. And yet there is a sense of belonging here that, in its own way, is as real as any of those other dimensions of my life." It's always a very strange, pleasant feeling.

"When the saints go marching in..."
I think that these 'soft bonds' are particularly interesting when it comes to Catholicism, and the virtues of Catholicism.

There is a great deal of debate between 'liberal' Catholics and 'conservative' Catholics on the necessity of dogma and orthodoxy. 'Conservative' Catholics insist-- and rightly, in my view-- that the Church is not a democracy and that, if you wish to remain a Catholic in any meaningful sense, you must subscribe to the orthodoxies that have been laid down. And Catholics who refuse to accept this are often labelled 'cafeteria Catholics'. (In Ireland, when I was growing up, the term was 'a la carte Catholics', but that seems to have fallen into disuse.)

The funny thing is that we are all 'cafeteria Catholics' or 'a la carte Catholics', when you think about it. And there's nothing wrong with being a cafeteria Catholic, in the right sense.

I think you probably guess what I mean by this, reader-- that, once you accept the required teachings and practices of the Church (and they are really very few, comparatively speaking), there is a bewildering multitude of other choices open to you. Saints! Devotions! Prayers! Lay Associations! Scapulars! Medals! Spiritualities (Ignatian, Franciscan, Benedictan, etc.)! Apparitions! Sacramentals! Pilgrimages! Roll up, roll up, roll up!

A huge convention centre

The Catholic Church is like a huge convention centre where you pay five bucks entrance fee at the door, and you then have your choice from hundreds of stalls inside.

And this is part of what I find so fascinating about it. I bet every one of my readers could give a different list of their favourites saints, their favourite prayers, their favourite devotions, their favourite spiritual writers, and so forth. These are by no means trivial choices, but they are entirely personal and discretionary.

My own list of favourite saints and holy people would probably look a bit like this:

St. John Paul II
St. Maximillan Kolbe
Blessed John Henry Newman
St. Josemaria Escriva
Venerable Matt Talbot
St. Bernadette Soubirous
Blessed Miguel Pro
St. Athanasius of Alexandria

Well, I could go on a lot longer than that, but you get the point...your list would be very different, I'm sure.

Catholicism may not be unique in this superabundance of variety-- Hinduism, I understand, affords something similar-- but, when it comes to historical forms of Christianity, I imagine it gives more scope for individual satisfaction than most.

Incidentally, I think this model of narrowness in the right place, and of wide-open freedom in the right place, is a good model for society, too. It's quite frustrating, sometimes, trying to explain to the world that there is no necessary clash between social conservatism and social pluralism. In fact, I think they go together. I think society needs things that are obligatory, and things that are entirely optional.

I don't believe it! Shipea Hill!
Amongst the things that are 'obligatory' I would include respect for a particular national culture. (For instance, in Ireland, the compulsory learning of the Irish language in school.) But I mean 'obligatory', not so much in that strict sense of compulsion, as in the sense that reading Shakespeare is 'obligatory'. I think it's entirely in order that social and cultural expectations should push people towards respect for their national culture, or for the national culture of their host country. I think the same should apply to religion. Perhaps it is significant that I can remember a time when some doffing of the cap to Irish national culture and the Catholic Church was required in Ireland. (And it's not just national culture and religion for which I think society has a right to demand respect. There are also certain ideas of decency, of civility, of convention, etc.)

But how much room is left for pluralism, after all that! How many things several million people get up to in a single day!

I'm not only interested in 'soft bonds' for their own sake, I'm fascinated by the way they interact with 'tough bonds'. We've all heard stories of marriages and careers that have begun because of a shared enthusiasm for a particular author or song or type of cuisine. I'm thinking, as well, of the massive benefits to tourism that come about through a TV show or a movie which is filmed, or set, in a particularly area. Or, more historically, we can think of influences like that of the 'Waverley novels' of Sir Walter Scott on British romanticism and Scottish nationalism, or of The Lord of the Rings on the counter-culture, environmentalism, and romantic conservatism.

One of my more eccentric interests, back in my twenties, was in the 'Cola Wars' between Pepsi and Coke. One of the fascination things I learned was that Coke and Pepsi have served as markers for all sorts of other allegiances, through the years. In his memoir Odyssey: From Pepsi To Apple, former Pepsi Vice-President John Scully said that there was a very clear Republican-Democrat cleavage that corresponded to the Pepsi-Coke cleavage. Pepsi executives tended to come from 'self-made' Republican backgrounds, while Coca-Cola executives were (as he put it) from more 'aristocratic' Democrat families.

Have I communicated my fascination? I rather doubt it. But I have (hopefully) at least managed to express it, and to explain what I'm talking about. I can always hope that 'soft bonds' will become a term in sociological research. I think sociology could do worse.

If Anthony Giddens is reading this, my number is 0834440464.

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