Max Weber and Durkheim in an Age of Over-Sharing

The more the modern world surprises and worries me, the more I turn to the classics of sociology, who experienced their fair share of major social and cultural shifts. My two favourites are Max Weber with his stark warnings about politics and power and Emile Durkheim on anomie.

Max Weber
Max Weber

It was actually not Weber but Georg Simmel who coined the phrase ‘sterile excitation’ to describe what many of us feel at the moment: a tumult of anxiety and passionate feelings when watching the news, but feeling powerless to do much about it. However, Weber publicised the term and warned also of the dangers of so-called charismatic leaders who unleash a ‘following’ they cannot control. Gripped by a need to increase their ‘likes’ (as Weber would say nowadays, looking at social media), these leaders are willing to court controversy and deliberately incite hate-talk and violence from their followers (while denying any personal responsibility). These followers think they are romantic revolutionaries but they are in fact driven by the basest of motives (adventure, booty, power, spoils) and, after victory, usually degenerate into nothing more than looters of all descriptions, claims Weber. It’s this ‘adventure’ item which I see in the cult of celebrities nowadays: a fantasy that they are leading the life we would like to lead if only… Harmless when it’s merely wishful thinking and daydreaming, but it can be used for nefarious purposes too, just like Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympic gods were used to both inspire and divide German society in the 1930s.

emiledurkheimMeanwhile, Emile Durkheim talked about the tension in any human between individual needs and our social roles.

There are in each of us two consciences: one which is common to our group in its entirety…the other represents that in us which is personal and distinct, that which makes us an individual

Contrary to most contemporary mantras of ‘be yourself’, ‘you owe it to yourself to develop to your full potential’, ‘follow your own path’ and so on, Durkheim actually thinks the social self contributes significantly to the development of an individual character:

Because society surpasses us, it obliges us to surpass ourselves, and to surpass itself, a being must, to some degree, depart from its nature—a departure that does not take place without causing more or less painful tensions.

He warns against the dangers of excessive individualism:

Our purely individual side seeks satisfaction of all wants and desires. It knows no boundaries. The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs. Instead of asking “is this moral?” or “does my family approve?” the individual is more likely to ask “does this action meet my needs?”

It’s when the gap between individual and social needs becomes too unbridgeable, or when one deliberately decides that one has had ‘enough’ of society and will only follow individual desires, that ‘anomie’ sets in.

What strikes me when perusing social media nowadays is this desire to overcome ‘anomie’ by connecting online.

I know some or all of these are Kardashians, but I have no idea who is who, sorry...
I know some or all of these are Kardashians, but I have no idea who is who, sorry…

We are no longer afraid of sharing our most intimate moments or thoughts, sometimes carefully curated, it’s true, but sometimes deliberately self-flagellating, as if in a competition who can hit rock-bottom first. I’m not criticising others for it: I have done it myself. I used to keep a diary to wrestle with my thought processes and feelings, but now I frequently find myself musing out loud online. Perhaps I get more feedback and support from my online friends, with whom I interact nearly daily, rather than from my real-life friends, whom we don’t really get to see all that frequently. Sad but true!

This sharing of stories has enabled us to not feel alone with our anxieties, sorrows or troubles. Others have felt alone, have experienced depression or oppression, ill-health or bereavement, have advice or comfort for us. This is the positive side of the internet and I love it.

However (aside from the more obvious dangers of trolls and shouting at each other over an ever-widening abyss) the plethora of discourses has also resulted in a state of permanent sterile excitation. At least in my case it has. And it’s keeping me from producing worthwhile work, because I see the futility of it all…

If awareness of the situation is the first step towards improvement, may the next steps be close behind, please!

Any chance of bridging that precipice? From Vancouver Sun, a fearless (or foolish) slackliner.
Any chance of bridging that precipice? From Vancouver Sun, a fearless (or foolish) slackliner.

Can There Ever Be Too Much Compassion?


I am blogging today as part of the 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion initiative (thank you to Rebecca Bradley for drawing my attention to it). 

My life has been coloured by others. My body, my heart, my mind have sickened with compassion.

I make no claims to be exceptional in this: my skin is simply more permeable than most. My moods are dampened by other people’s suffering, my joy tempered by the thought that so many around the world do not have even half of the things I take for granted. I am restless and anxious when friends are ill or going through a rough patch. I hope they know that I am always there to help and support them, even if it causes myself discomfort or trouble. But who isn’t willing to put themselves out for friends? Nothing exciting to report there.

I worry about the poor and oppressed, the voiceless, powerless, helpless, nameless, faceless. I fear for all who are different of face, limb or thought, the outsiders, the rebels – with or without a cause, willful or yielding. I am guilty of not being there for everyone who ever needed me, not helping whenever I could, turning away with disgust when I could have tried to understand or forgive more.

So I always try to see the other side of the story, the other point of view. I can be accused of sitting on fences, of lack of courage, of refusing to commit, of having no certainties. I will always listen to one more argument, even if I do not agree with them. As Byron says:

If I am fool, it is, at least, a doubting one; and I envy no one the certainty of his self-approved wisdom.

I don’t believe in this contemporary quest for personal happiness. I wish I did. I wish I could pursue happiness without considering it selfish. I wish I could have intransigent views and be deaf to the multitude of voices. I wish I could have less empathy and more self-absorption. It sometimes feels to me that people who are compassionate are taken advantage of.

But it’s too late for me: my skin remains paper-thin, rippling with every current. I can understand and feel for even the most repulsive or conflicted characters in a book. I cry at films, weddings, funerals, graduations or friends’ confessions. ‘Put yourself in the other person’s shoes’ is not just a motto, it’s a way of life.

Is it too late for my children, I wonder? Am I doing the right thing teaching them to have more patience, more understanding, more empathy for other people? Would they be more serene if they were more blind to the needs of others, would they sleep more soundly when their universe extends only a shallow distance beyond their own contours?

Those are the darkest days, when I question the wisdom of compassion. Most days, however, I believe that the world is suffering from a lack of, rather than a surfeit of compassion.


For me personally, compassion is not a choice but a compulsion, but I have often been told to ‘care less’, to learn to ‘put myself first’. ‘Compassion is the radicalism of our time’ says the Dalai Lama – and how frightening it can be!



Weapons of the Weak

A classic anthropology book which really spoke to me was James C. Scott’s ‘Weapons of the Weak’, about the everyday, often hidden resistance by people who are forced to be subordinate, meek, obedient.  They may – on the face of it – collude in their oppression, but they find ways to sabotage the powerful, to criticize and laugh at them.  Whether rage expressed as sullen temper and foot-shuffling can work long-term is another question…

It was never gonna be like this:

the buzzing round households,

the map of the buzzards with areas shaded off by gratitude:

a thanksgiving imposed, demanded, not felt.

How I rage in futility then shush to keep safe

that cart full of apple-cheeked treasures.

The bat in blindness aghast swerves clear of the blame-traps.

The toxic scurry of newt back to the slimy pond

of self-pity:

there was a time when


or droopy flowers across the hedge

would have smoothed the harsh ping of reality.



nothing else than full parity will do.