I would like to suggest two metaphors describing how societal unity has functioned in the past and how societal unity might function in the future. In the past, societal unity has been like playing house. In the world of what comes next, I think societal unity needs to be like playing Legos.
Playing house is a group game that involves all children present. When playing house, each member of the group of children has an assigned role: “You be the daddy. I’ll be the mommy.” There may be negotiation over who gets to play what role. Often the bossiest members of the group dominate the other members and assign them their roles. Members may be cast out of the group if they fail to submit to the roles assigned: “If you don’t want to be the brother, then you can’t play with us!” Once the complex process of role assignment has been settled, though, participants then have a uniting framework within which to work and are then free to play and be imaginative within that framework. That play may occasionally be interrupted by rule negotiation, but play continues nonetheless with everyone united in doing the same thing.
Playing Legos works differently. What unites children when playing Legos is not an agreed upon framework of roles and rules but rather a shared set of play equipment – Lego blocks. Using the blocks, children can decide to do any of a variety of things. They can create storylines centered around minifigs. They can build specific buildings or vehicles. They can arrange buildings and vehicles into landscapes. And they can do all of this with varying levels of cooperation with other children. Some children can collaborate together on building projects or storylines while others do their own thing, but all can still feel like they played together because they were all playing Legos. Of course, playing Legos is not without conflict – children can argue over who gets to use specific pieces and can damage or destroy each other’s creations. Nevertheless, there is a much wider variety of option for how children can be united in playing Legos together than in playing house.
I would like to suggest that playing house is how social unity worked in the modern era. There was a great effort to assign everyone roles in a world-wide social system. Mostly these roles were assigned by the bossy types – Europeans, males, the rich, etc. Those who didn’t accept the roles imposed upon them by these bossy types were killed or exiled from being part of world society. Those who accepted the roles, though, could be part of “playing” with those in charge and have access to the social, economic, and political advantages (and costs) that came along with that.
Post-modernity was, in part, many people saying, “We don’t want to play house any more. We don’t want to have to play these roles we’ve been assigned. We’re tired of being the X in the family, and we want to do something different.” One option in the wake of this declaration is for people to stop playing with each other – for everyone to go off and play their own game. And in large part, that’s what’s happened in postmodernity. There are, however, downsides to this approach. If some people are playing Lincoln Logs and some people are playing chess, it’s difficult to play together. If everyone is playing their own game, it results in a retribalization of the world. This is a problem not only for those who believe in some sort of global unity as a moral/ethical goal, but also those who want to be able to continue to enjoy the good economic, cultural, and social goods in life that come about as a result of people from different backgrounds working together.
Therefore, we do need to find a way for people to still play together in the world of what comes next. That playing together probably won’t take the form of playing house, with well-defined roles and rules. Instead, it will resemble playing Legos, where everyone agrees on using a shared platform which then allows people to collaborate or work independently in myriad different ways towards myriad different ends while all still playing within the same system.