Values cards project – structure

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: I find it strange that structure is listed as a value. Something can be well structured, or badly structured, but structure in itself, how is it a value?

B: Well, when I think of structure, I think about a hippie share house, you know, where under cover of freedom, everyone can impose their desire on everyone else – and it’s just a matter of arbitrary power. If you want real freedom, you need a minimum of order.

A: That’s a basic principle in the art of hosting. You set up boundaries, and so the structure matters. There’s a hippie vibe to the movement, but it’s not chaos. I’m thinking of those political and social movements that are not structured, the Yellow Vests, Occupy. There’s commentators saying that this is the real voice of the people – but it’s only chaos. The guy with the strongest voice is heard, the guy with the best Facebook video is heard. It’s surprising, actually, how people do not understand the system around them, how democracy works, how it favors a caste of people who know the system, or have the resources to understand it more efficiently. And they believe that in total chaos something good and new can emerge.

B: That’s where I like to call myself a conservative. If something’s been around for a while, you know that you can live with it, or you would be dead already. There’s something like that about structures, a conservative wisdom: better the devil you know. That’s one of the points I think I have an attraction for Asia – the social structures – I see them as a façade, something that’s very good at protecting the individual.

A: I’ll agree with you on that one. It’s much more oppressive to pretend that something artificial is natural than to set a structure that is explicitly artificial, and ask everyone to follow. Foreign businesses in Japan are a good example of liberating the surface to control the essence of the work. By contrast, in traditional Japanese companies, there’s a lot of control over the ritual, but that’s a way to give staff members autonomy. If you’re happy to play the game, and if you don’t see it as useless, then you can get all sorts of things done. If you’re a western consultant, you think all these structures and rituals are not rational and you destroy them – but you miss their social function in the organisation of work – and everything falls apart.

B: There may be something there about human passion. Fear. I think we’re all terrified of chaos, and we can’t do things together without addressing this fear of chaos. That’s why we put structures in place. I’ve seen this in churches. The ones where the ritual is very structured, where there’s a stable form, they’re also the most open theologically. While the loose happy clappy ones have a much more dogmatic message. Same with the monarch. I think people need a symbol of cohesion that is not purely rational, this allows for greater freedom, and that’s exactly what the Queen does.

A: Well, you would see this in France, where the president is supposed to be above parties, but is actually supporting one party. This can be extremely dangerous.

And so yes, as we said, I think we have a sort of aversion for chaos. Apart from certain dysfunctional people who might like chaos, and seem dysfunctional because they are likely to create chaos. And that would be how structure becomes a value. Not in itself, but as a protection against chaos.