Like any textile, our social fabric is made up of uncountable strands of material, but unlike most cloth, it is not crafted from any uniform type of thread. The interwoven strands of society have different strengths, weaknesses, color, resistance, elasticity. Those threads are as diverse and changeable as human beings are and yet, against a lot of odds, our society has remained whole since the Civil War.
Still, it is far from perfect. Our society is capable of holes and tears. Some threads snap. Some sections wear thin. But overall the social fabric has held us together.
It is tempting to say that social fabric is like a chain, only as strong as its weakest link. But that is not the case. What holds society together, what makes it more than a mess of human strands is its basic pattern, the strength of its warp and weave, the basic human adaptability that makes it stronger than any individual thread or link could be.
One hundred years ago, our society was rigidly organized, its pattern only shifting through the slow change of generations. And even when it did change, it settled relatively quickly into a new, stable pattern. Though there were still problems, conflicts, and needs to be filled, they were relatively familiar and predictable.
This obviously was not good for everyone. Just ask minorities of all stripes. Our society’s patterns have often included oppression, segregation, and exploitation. But, even though such rigid strictures often limited the freedom and happiness of many, the overall weave of past societies has been strong and predictable. It held reasonably firm even when shaken by winds of change.
But today, that predictable and comfortable structure appears to be breaking down. The patterns on which we have depended for so long are coming undone.
Before the World Wars, life was slower, communities more isolated. People got their news from few sources: there was no regular radio, little communication by telephone, and certainly no television. There was less social mobility. Over half of Americans lived outside urban centers, and cross-country travel was slow. As a result, people placed more emphasis on community, on neighborly relations, on family. It was also the age of the political party as the monolithic machine.
But today, the pace of life has dramatically increased, and the world has become more interconnected. Newspapers are closing down constantly. Radio and TV are scrambling to stay relevant in the Internet Age, and phone conversation has become something reserved for work and special occasions, a source of anxiety for the young.
Globalization and technology are upending the social order, and the physical organization of the world is changing. Humans across our world are congregating in large cities. Today, fewer than four percent of Americans live outside an urban area. AMAZING! In addition, many people are even able to split their time between more than one home, whether they travel between cities, counties, or continents.
Social media has become a new natural mode of “friendship.” For some it merely serves as an extension of their normal social interactions, but for many more, it serves as a substitute. For these people, the “friends” they have online replace the friends they could have in real life.
Finally, though political parties still exist, they are fractured, headless, and chaotic, no longer the organizing powers they once were.
Let us not forget, however, that this massive reorganization of society has greatly benefitted many. While things still have a long way to go, there have been changes for the better: women, while still subject to unique limitations and pressures, can vote and seek fulfillment outside the home; people of color, while still marginalized and threatened, do not suffer the same level of overt violence and oppression; and the LGBTQ community is starting to feel comfortable coming out of the shadows and living how they want to live.
Even so, the ever shifting patterns and social upheaval of today’s world have tangled our social fabric, left us without a predictable weave on which to depend. Our society is more fragile than ever, battered by changes occurring without and within. Today, our social fabric is more irregular and more uncomfortable, particularly for people over 40.
It is undeniable that we are living in a moment of great transition. But a transition to what?
Lincoln famously warned against the threat of the mob and the corrupting force of powerful institutions. In his Lyceum address he counseled:
“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”
If our democratic virtues are to fall, if our social fabric is to unravel and leave us naked to the ravages of the world, it will be no one’s fault but our own.
A large part of todays’ problems come from so much technological and social change so fast that the ability of average humans to adapt to (evolve with) that change in such a short time has fallen short.
If history teaches us anything, it is that humans adapt quite well over time. Therefore, we should be confidant that IF we can hang together for long enough, we should be able to adapt and our democratic system should be able to survive.
But to accomplish that we, as individuals and as a species, need to grow and evolve with the new, fast moving world with its mountains of (mis)information and strange new patterns of peoples being woven around us.
Eventually, I believe, our society can settle into a stronger new pattern and that our social fabric can be even more resilient and dependable than it was before.