Friday, January 4, 2013

Order and Chaos

                My wife and I recently went to see Les Miserables for our anniversary and it got me to thinking about the dynamic between order and chaos. Now, I know that it’s a popular faux pas to think about the universe in terms of dualisms, but in this case, I think it’s helpful and informative; though I’d prefer to think of it as a spectrum rather than a duality.

                Any society floats back and forth on the spectrum between order and chaos, between law and anarchy. Most of us would associate order with goodness and righteousness, and chaos with evil and badness. I don’t think that’s the case though.

                I read a book called Paris: The Secret History by Andrew Hussey and it attempted to tell the story of Paris’ underbelly, the history of the bums, orphans, prostitutes, and work-a-days (as opposed to the history of kings and wars). It very much painted the history of Paris as a struggle between the aristocratic forces of law and order against the common folk and their quest for freedom. As I read that history I realized that order is not a synonym for good.

                In Les Mis, Javier, the police inspector and the character representing the law, was willing to sentence a child to death in order to see the letter of the law upheld. Further, order doesn’t like change. If the bed is made, order doesn’t want it messed up from sleeping; if a room is clean then order doesn’t want people living in it and spilling tea or leaving dirty socks around. Order doesn’t like the spontaneous or unpredictable. In short, order doesn’t like life. In fact, order can only be complete when there is no life to mess it up. The most ordered place of all is a vacuum, a void with nothing and no one to break the rules.

                Problem is that life needs order to thrive. Pure chaos is like a swamp where every living thing is constantly eating and being eaten by every other living thing so that life doesn’t really get the chance to make the most of itself. Human civilization craves order to be able to progress in science, technology, human rights, etc. So neither order nor chaos is “righteous” or “unrighteous,” we need a mixture of both.

                Another problem, exemplified in Hussey’s writing, is that we tend to group values together by the factions that hold them. So, in the French Revolution, order was lumped in with Christianity, aristocracy, greed, and oppression. The whole lot were thrown out the window in favor of secularism, equality, fraternity, and liberty (also known as anarchy). We forget to make distinctions and realize that just because Bob believes in ideals a and b, doesn’t mean that ideal a has anything to do with ideal b, our distaste for Bob (sorry Bob) predisposes us against both.

                As I think about this, I realize that the order-chaos spectrum coincides with the security-liberty spectrum. Order gives us security and safety, it allows us to live without the risk of the unexpected and undesired. Chaos allows maximum personal liberty because it frees us from the law. The tension between the two exists because I cannot have personal liberty without everyone else also gaining that same liberty. I can’t be free unless everyone else is free too, and that means that everyone else is free to do things that I don’t agree with, that I don’t like, and that may even bring me harm. Liberty means that people will be free to steal, to lie, to defraud, and to kill. So security and liberty, also known as safety and risk, are synonymous with order and chaos. Often this coincides with rich/poor because the rich want to secure their wealth while the poor want maximum liberty to go out and procure wealth, although this isn’t always the case, and we shouldn’t equate the rich/poor spectrum with the other three.

                So what does this mean? It means that we can’t have 100% liberty and 100% safety. It seems almost tautological as I say it, but a successful society must learn to deal with a certain amount of risk and a certain amount of restriction. It seems tautological but we don’t behave, as a society, as if we actually believe it. We need to really understand that every security we obtain is a liberty we lose, while every freedom we gain is a risk we undertake. Until we really get this, we can’t but stumble blindly across the spectrum between order and chaos.

We should understand one last thing about order and chaos. All other factors being equal, order always wins. Order is disciplined, patient and well-planned while chaos is too distracted and disorganized to ultimately put up a real fight. Yes it will win a few battles here and there, and when it does win, it wins spectacularly, but ultimately order always carries the day. Hussey might agree that the history of Paris is instructive here. Paris, for centuries, was synonymous with rebellion, back-alleys, and an earthy, messy lived-in-ness. You could smell the place for miles and the stench clung to travelers for days. But eventually the paving stones used for barricades are paved over with asphalt, indoor plumbing banishes the smell, the back-alleys are constructed into oblivion, the hovels are torn down for art galleries and tourist traps, and that innate lived-in quality is gentrified out of existence. The day-laborers move to the suburbs leaving the city to glow a little less despite the million light bulbs sanitizing the darkness. Order always wins.

So, I think we should pay attention to this spectrum and be purposive in how we, as individuals and societies, interact with and exemplify order and chaos. We need to be mindful because we can’t let order win; for when order finally wins, life dies.

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