By Justin Kenrick

It is the expectations we have of each other (the assumption about what is the norm) that shapes what is possible. Until, that is, some event disrupts those temporary certainties and we see through the appearance of conformity to a richer, sometimes more troubling, often more rewarding reality.

There are huge events like earthquakes in Japan and hurricanes in New Orleans that cut through temporary certainties. But the stories told of what these cut through to are very different.

The right wing press wants to tell stories of individual heroism, and the triumph of the forces of law and order over chaotic citizens who are just out for themselves (these were hard to find in the case of Japan’s earthquake, but that very fact is then shrugged off as being due to conformism rather than due to innate human kindness). Other stories trace the very different impacts ‘natural’ disasters have depending on your wealth and status.

The contrast in expectations revealed through conversations in public spaces (the contrast in norms) in southern England and in Scotland is striking. In general in the south, the expectation – when conversation turns to politics – is that we all know that people can only be won over through appealing to their selfishness. In Scotland, by contrast, the general expectation is that people believe that things can only be ok for me if they are ok for you. Though people are no different, expectations are , and can be seen in the social and political reality which is shaping up very differently in these different places.

There are also political moments when a trance consensus is disrupted. We have seen that in Tunisia and Egypt. But Spain too surprised itself by erupting in a “plague on both your houses, we are far more decent than those who rule us”, a retaking of the public squares. And in Greece, real democracy (as opposed to the “you can vote for one of the same sort of brands every 5 years” democracy) has been evident in the square in the centre of Athens where speakers are selected by lot and have two minutes to speak their mind and be heard.

Doing jury service in Edinburgh earlier this year was an extraordinary experience of democracy. There is something profoundly good in society. You can see it in teachers who take time to really listen, in social workers who go the extra mile, in UK Uncut protestors insisting that the Government keeps to the law and taxes those who should be taxed, in lecturers and students united to defend education, in Transition groups defying pessimism, in nurses in hospitals spending what time they can with patients. In general, as you walk down the street, you assume a peaceful society, and that these strangers are – like you – concerned that others are going to be ok.

Set this goodness against the fact that 50,000 species are going extinct every year, that the oceans are struggling, that the wealthiest are speculating on food while people are starving, that drought is setting in across swathes of Africa, that corporations by law have to secure the greatest return for their shareholders and so do untold damage to the ecology and societies. How does it make sense?

Perhaps it seems to come down to a very simple equation.

If you encourage people to think for themselves, to realise that they are the ones who decide the future, to listen and discuss and decide and show leadership, then you get a society that cannot be in thrall to those who claim power and privilege.

If you train people to conform, to listen to whoever is higher in the pecking order rather than listen to their conscience, then you get a society where power is the measure of everything and the powerful get to decide.

At my kids’ primary school a couple of weeks back, the first year kids put on a play about a village where all the children were throwing litter around and would only finally pick it up when ‘the Boss’ told them to. The play was sweet, but the message was not. A bunch of lovely kids who clearly were not used to throwing litter were embarking on the process of learning that they need to be told what to do or society will be in chaos.

By contrast, at the jury service, the magistrate asked us to listen to the evidence and make up our minds about what we thought the truth was, and then find the suspect guilty or not guilty. He said that we were chosen not for our expertise but because we could bring the most precious thing of all: common sense. When we deliberated in our room we had no expert to inform us, no facilitator to guide our discussions. We just sat and discussed the evidence we had heard, and in the end came to a unanimous decision. Perhaps the same should happen in relation to government, corporate and media decision making – juries of ordinary people could consider the evidence and come to a clear verdict on how a key decision may benefit or harm society.

This is the fourth in a series of ‘Case for the Commons: the kinder Society we want’
posts – the fifth will try to begin answering the question: How can we criticise the current system in a way that prefigures and helps enable a more just society?