Social cohesion is both thriving and threatened in early 2022—thriving in our commitments to follow COVID rules for everyone’s good, threatened by acrimonious protest and the creation of a two-tier society. It is, as Sir Peter Gluckman says, an asset but one that’s fragile. So his recent conversation on this topic with Simon O’Connor MP is timely and helpful.
Social cohesion means, roughly, that we hang together as a society, that we’re something more than a random assortment of individuals. Sir Peter, the first ever Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, is a public intellectual these days. He’s the Director of Koi Tū, the Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland, a think tank that’s recently produced a report on how to sustain social cohesion in New Zealand. His podcast conversation with O’Connor is wide-ranging, fascinating, and recommended; for now, I’m just going to pick out a few points I found particularly interesting.
Cohesion becomes more important as we become more diverse. As Sir Peter said, we need to be able to work with people who are different to us, people who have different values, identities and understandings, and at the same time “find a way to live harmoniously and constructively in society together” across our differences. I’ve made a similar point in the past about the importance of unity alongside diversity.
New Zealand is “relatively cohesive”, but we’re “never going to be perfect” and we’ll only hang together if we trust each other. Referring to the recent protests in Wellington, Sir Peter observed that “the motives of this group of people, what they fundamentally show is that there are people who don’t have high levels of trust in the elites of society,” like academics, professionals, politicians, and scientists. Trust is a sort of social lubricant; it allows the diverse parts of society to work smoothly alongside each other. When it disappears, for whatever reason, those parts can start to grate on each other. If that goes on for long enough, things can grind to a halt.
Good quality public debate and democratic processes help build and maintain our trust in each other and in the system. Again, there’s some room for improvement: “citizens [need to] feel that their perspectives have been discussed and heard, and then when the system of representative democracy and deliberative democracy opines a decision that they might not agree with they at least feel that the system has been robust.” Parliamentary procedures were developed to enable this, said Sir Peter, but now they are more “set piece”. But there are positive signs and things we can be proud of too—the Epidemic Response Committee, set up to scrutinise the Government when Parliament was suspended in 2020’s first lockdown and chaired by the Leader of the Opposition, “was the most brilliant illustration of what a good modern democracy could do.”
Finally, what we see at a social level has roots in our education, which prepares us for engagement with each other. Citing statistics that show “a two- to three-fold rise in the loss of mental wellbeing in young people in the last 15-20 years,” Sir Peter warned about a loss of “psychological resilience” which, although he didn’t say so explicitly, will presumably affect our social interactions and our cohesion as a nation. He linked this to our education system and the way it’s forming our children, saying we need “to have a deep rethink, what is the purpose of education?”
The fact that we disagree about issues isn’t a problem and it doesn’t mean we lack cohesion, as long as we disagree well. That was Sir Peter’s parting shot, one which reinforces his overall message: we’ve got much to be thankful for, but “we can’t take social cohesion for granted; we have to work at it.”