One of Margaret Thatcher’s more memorable, divisive and incomplete quotes is also my favourite.
“There is no such thing as society…”
The complete quote is:
“They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”
Society isn’t a term that should be wiped from the English lexicon as redundant because it isn’t necessarily harmful. The harm is in how the term is used and the definition applied by the person using it.
Society could be a blanket description of individuals, families and businesses living in close proximity. I’d be comfortable with that use if that is the way it is going to be applied. Unfortunately ‘society’ is commonly used to describe an entity in and of itself with rights and responsibilities and needs and obligations.
Those opposed to the legalisation of drugs argue that drug use is bad for society and therefore legalising drugs is also bad for society (let’s put to one side the benefits of legalising drugs for the time being). In this way society is treated in the same way as an individual; a living, breathing, thinking being with aspirations and fears whom’s condition is paramount over the liberty of individuals. If that is how the term ‘society’ is going to be applied then no, there is no such thing as society.
This month, in response to teachers who refuse to comply with Covid vaccination mandates, Northland Principal Pat Newman called on them to resign now so schools aren’t left with large teacher shortages without warning. He was quoted as saying,
Individual freedom is great but it is not free. Individual freedom brings with it a cost…
It isn’t free. It comes with the price of eternal vigilance against governments that believe tyranny is justified for the good of society.
…and the cost is you have a social and moral responsibility to your community…
Community is another term that can also be used to describe individuals and families living in close proximity to each other, though they may be the sort of people who enjoy forming relationships with their neighbours and growing collective gardens etc. Similar to the term ‘commune’ though it doesn’t descend into the nightmare of total communal ownership. Unfortunately it is usually used in the same way ‘society’ is. When I see someone use ‘community’ in this fashion, I ask for the evidence that I own a community or am owned by one.
…to your families and society.
The plural use of ‘families’ is a deplorable standard of English by an educator. Each individual can only own (as the patriarch or matriarch) one family or belong to one family. This use of ‘families’ is a smaller scale use of society. It suggests everyone owns other people’s families before treating society as the living entity it is not.
What are the attributes that individuals possess which society cannot? Individuals are physical beings capable of thought, reason and conceptualisation. Society is only a concept; consequential of human reason. People need food, water, clothing and shelter to live. Society isn’t even alive. Some individuals enjoy a few drinks in the evening, some don’t drink and others would like to crack down on alcohol. How can society, which theoretically encompasses all of those attitudes to alcohol be the primary factor in how alcohol is treated?
I have criticised the stupidity of identity politics before. Some individuals are arrogant enough to claim they are spokespeople for Maori or youth or the LGBT alphabet people (talk about diversity). One person’s opinion is apparently representative of every single other person in the identity group because apparently all Maori/youth/LGBT alphabet people are the same.
If I were to accept society as a being with rights and responsibilities and accept the legitimacy of government policies for the benefit of society (the greater good), then I’ll be indulging in the most horrific and insidious form of identity politics of all. If society exists then each one of us have the same needs, desires, viewpoints and outcomes. Fractures of identity groups are bad enough but even they are closer to individualism than homogenous society.
There is no such thing as society and those who believe otherwise are ignorantly peddling the most severe of all collectivist evils.