Small Worlds: The Struggle for Diversity
This is ‘book’ 17 in the series The Impossible Books of Keith Kahn-Harris. The cover was created by Gus Condeixa. For more on this series, read the introduction here.
What sort of book is it?
Part polemic, part sociology, part tour of some of the world’s least-known corners.
How likely is it that I will write the book?
Unlike most of my other Impossible Books, this started as a quite serious book proposal that I wrote a couple of years ago. What follows is an extract from a quite detailed pitch. For various reasons, I didn’t pursue it but I don’t rule out revamping the proposal and submitting it.
Am I happy for anyone else to write the book?
No: this one is mine.
Q: What do orthodox Jews in North London, Satanic metalheads in Sweden, Luxembourg water skiers and politicians in the Channel Islands have in common?
A: They are all members of small worlds — small worlds which form a valuable source of diversity in a big world.
‘Diversity’ is an omnipresent buzzword these days. Politicians, intellectuals and marketing people seem to agree — a measure of diversity is a good thing. In the natural world too, the value of diversity has become widely recognised and the necessity of ‘biodiversity’ for a robust ecosystem is uncontested.
In a rapidly globalising world both human and natural diversity has become ever more visible. At the same time, in a rapidly globalising and developing world, the threats to diversity are ever more apparent. So it is that campaigners highlight the plight of human cultures and non-human species that are threatened with extinction.
But there’s one form of diversity whose importance is barely recognised; an aspect of human civilisation that is ubiquitous yet invisible — and that is under threat as never before. We’re hardly aware that it is there, but the consequences of its loss would be incalculable. Not only is no one speaking up for this form of diversity, it is too often sneered at when it is acknowledged at all.
That diversity is the diversity of small worlds with which Britain and other industrialised countries are replete.
What are small worlds? Sometimes we know them by other names: Communities, scenes, subcultures, groups, even extended families. Small countries and territories can also be small worlds.
Small worlds are often people’s whole worlds. People devote their lives to finding meaning, identity and community within them. There are millions of them and most of them are completely unknown to all but their members. Small worlds are one of the backbones of society. Life is lived within them. They represent ‘home’, community, a place where people belong in a big and confusing world. They are the arenas in which people display passion, commitment and what Brian Eno calls ‘scenius’ (the genius displayed in small worlds). They are the buffer between family and the big world of the workplace and the state.
Small worlds aren’t always easy places. The commitment needed to keep them going can be arduous and stressful. They are prone to internal schisms and conflicts. They can be taken over by cliques and hierarchies. They can be conservative, stifling places. But even when they are fraught places, the hope and commitment invested in them is such that those who are discontented often try and change them from within rather than abandon them altogether.
Small worlds are so common that they often pass unnoticed. But a small fraction of small worlds are well known. Some are notorious, spectacular or cool: punk music scenes and skateboarders stand out from the crowd. Others are notorious as the butt of jokes: stamp collectors, train spotters and Cliff Richard fan clubs are scorned and patronised. Most though, simply persist under the radar: speakers of the artificial language Volapük, real tennis players and collectors of liquor miniatures are too obscure to even be scorned.
It’s often the smallness itself of these worlds that is ridiculed. The term ‘parochial’ is often used to dismiss small worlds and those within them as irrelevant to the big picture. Take the phrase ‘big fish in a small pond’, which damns with faint praise those who may have spent a lifetime achieving excellence and respect in their chosen small world. The implication is that big fish could not hack it in the ‘real world’. Or take the apparently sage judgement of ‘Sayre’s Law’ that ‘Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low’: the assumption is that the politics of a small world like a university is ultimately unimportant. Yet the opposite is the case: at stake in small worlds is the very texture of everyday life. In fact, politically speaking, changes in small worlds can impact on peoples’ lives more forcefully than changes in national governments.
Unless a small world is exotic, notorious, outrageous or commercially exploitable, there will be little interest in it — and little concern if it disappears. Photogenic elephants and colourful Amazonian tribes attract high profile campaigns to save them from extinction, but Sting or Bono would not get out of bed to save — for example — the equally critically endangered language of Jerrais, spoken by just a few thousand people on the island of Jersey.
And make no mistake, many small worlds are in danger.
Part of the danger is simply an inbuilt factor of any small world. They are permanently caught in a dilemma: how open or closed should they be. If they are too closed, too boundaried, they can stultify and suffocate. If they are too open they can be swamped, losing their precious smallness.
So why should we care about small worlds? Why worry about the fate of small worlds of which we aren’t a member?
It’s not just because many small worlds are in danger of disappearance. It’s not just because the next small world to disappear might be one that you care about.
We should care about small worlds because their diversity is good for us all.
In the modern world, the chances of being swamped are greater than ever before. We live in a big world. Billions of people, huge cities, big problems — most of us seem to count for little against this vastness. Size is power — big corporations, big countries, big stars. And here’s the paradox: a big world it may be, but a small number of institutions and individuals dominate it. In this vast world the only things we have in common are these big people and things. Coca Cola, Barak Obama, Kim Kardashian and Manchester United tie us together in their all-enveloping bigness. Maybe we live in Marshall McLuhan’s global village — but whose global village is it? The risk of big, bland global homogeneity is very real.
Yet smallness is essential for human flourishing. Smallness is human, meaningful, liveable, convivial. Humans are only capable of maintaining relationships with relatively small numbers of people (the so-called ‘Dunbar’s number’ of 150). Visionary writers on sustainability and resilience such as Ivan Illich, Leopold Kohr and E F Schumacher have shown how important it is to keep small-scale existence viable in the modern world. Diversity isn’t just about having a better choice of restaurants to eat in, it’s about protecting human-scale smallness against homogenisation.
Members of small worlds are fighting — often heroically — against the forces of bigness. In struggling to preserve small worlds, they are part of a bigger fight to protect the human. A world without small worlds would be a world without any protection from the bewildering alienation that breakneck modernisation causes. Although small worlds are no panacea for the maladies of human existence, all too frequently it is those without a small world to call their own that seize on political extremism and criminal confraternities to provide the home they never had.
The struggle to maintain small worlds is an essential struggle. It’s also a tough struggle; one that is getting more difficult all the time. In the contemporary world, small worlds are facing unprecedented challenges. In an age of austerity, lack of resources can starve them of oxygen. In an age of electronic communication, small worlds face constant competition from other small worlds and their boundaries have become more porous than ever. In an age of celebrity, the attractions of small world fame can seem meagre.
One major factor that impedes the struggle is the understandable difficulty that members of different small worlds have in seeing that they are engaged in a collective enterprise. A philately society in Antwerp, a Bahai temple in Cincinnati and a Morris Dancing club in Chipping Norton will have a surprising amount in common — but their members are not conscious of their common endeavour.
The aim of Small Worlds: The Struggle for Diversity is to help members of different small worlds to understand their common struggle and to show non-members why they need to be concerned about the fate of small worlds of which they know little. By making connections between apparently disparate examples of small worlds, the book shows how they are essential to human flourishing in modern society.
Small Worlds suggests how small worlds can be protected and nurtured. It offers a set of recommendations for those inside small worlds and those outside them. The book encourages members of small worlds to look at the bigger picture, to learn from the experience of those in very different small worlds — orthodox Jews need to learn from Luxembourg water skiers and vice versa. It also encourages readers to discover small worlds, to act as critical friends of them, to cultivate curiosity about them.