The King’s Speech: “Do not strive after a broader I but after a bigger we”

June 05, 2018

By Paul van Seters

The Dutch King, Willem-Alexander, every year on December 25 gives a Christmas Speech that is broadcast to a huge TV audience. The topic of his most recent Christmas Speech was his concern over what he described as a decline in the traditional Dutch community spirit. He said he was afraid for “a society in which increasingly more people withdraw into their own room, without being aware of the house that we share together.” For that reason he urged the Dutch people “not to strive after a broader I but after a bigger we.”

In the Dutch media there were quite a few cynical reactions to this royal cry from the heart. In one of the national newspapers, NRC Handelsblad, Emilie van Outeren commented that for someone who felt so much grief about “excessive individualism,” the King had talked a lot about himself. In his fifth Christmas Speech since his inauguration in 2013, she had counted the word “I” eleven times, almost as much as in his previous four Christmas Speeches together (twelve times).

But how appropriate is this cynicism? The King did address a serious subject, which deserves more attention than most media were prepared to pay to it. The Christmas Speech had a total of 703 words (the previous four Christmas Speeches varied from 785 to 878 words). Obviously, that offers not too much room for serious discourse. And a Christmas Speech is not an academic paper. Nonetheless the King came up with a number of interesting observations.

Looking at the Christmas Speech through a sociological lens, what strikes in the first place is the opposition between the individual and society. Individuals are always part of a society but can also distance themselves from it. As the King said: “It is not always easy to keep believing in the community that we constitute together. Certainly not in a country with so much diversity as ours. A country of free people in which the answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ never quite coincides with the answer to the question ‘Who are we?’.”

The opposition between I and we, which is so strongly emphasized in the Christmas Speech, is extended to that between the individual and society. In this context, community and community spirit are aspects of the society; individuals can, in all manners and ways, directly and indirectly, contribute to that society, but they can also, for example under conditions of increasing individualism, choose not do that. In that case, the society languishes.

The Christmas Speech illustrates this latter process with an example that could be included in any introductory sociology textbook: “It seems to become increasingly difficult to encounter one another in daily life. The places where people from very different backgrounds used to meet each other—church, office, bar, gym, school—progressively loose this connecting function. Perhaps by now only the hospital is a place where one gets in touch with persons from very different sectors of society and with very different lifestyles.”

Finally we find in the Christmas Speech also a reference, perhaps not entirely unexpected, to the role of new modes of communication, via Internet. These new means of communication, the social media, may offer “fantastic opportunities,” but at the same time they display a natural tendency to undermine society and community. As the King emphatically stated, “more and more people prefer to keep their digital door closed and only pay attention to ideas that confirm the feelings and opinions of their group.”

Clearly the Christmas Speech offers building blocks for a serious sociological reflection on the role of community spirit in modern society. Yet the words of the King are also open for critical questions, both from an empirical and from a theoretical perspective. Is it empirically correct to say that community spirit among the Dutch people is actually declining, or is this spirit only manifesting itself in different forms? And is there perhaps a theoretical alternative for the categorical opposition between I and we, between the individual and society?

An interesting case to test these royal notions of community and community spirit is the severe storm that hit the Netherlands on January 18, some three weeks after the Christmas Speech. The storm closed down public transportation and created havoc on the roads throughout the country. But precisely these circumstances generated surprising new types of community spirit: with the help of social media, thousands of stranded travelers were able to get in touch with complete strangers who were willing to offer them a place in their car and transport them to their place of destination.

On January 20 another national newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, published a fascinating report on what had actually happened on January 18. This is the introduction to their report: “We can still do it: helping out and really caring for people with a problem. Thousands of travelers stuck somewhere were being picked up and dropped off by benevolent car drivers. Family, neighbors, colleagues, but also utter strangers offered a helping hand. The hashtag #stormpoolen (Dutch for storm pooling) through which car drivers and ‘hitchhikers’ could find each other, was trending on social media.”

In fact, the idea of storm pooling was invented while the storm was raging, by NRC Handelsblad columnist Ionica Smeets. She created the hashtag #stormpoolen that very day in order to help all stranded travelers to find their way home. People could offer rides by sending a tweet to #stormpoolen and indicating which route would be driven. Thousands of people made use of this opportunity and reached their homes safely. Subsequently on stormpoolen.com these rides were collected and indexed. This way it was made still easier for stranded travelers to score a ride to where they had to go. (Source: https://stormpoolen.com/betekenis.)

The newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, also interviewed three persons who on the day of the storm (January 18) had been directly involved with this stormpooling: Alexander Broere, Ineke van de Put, and Menno van den Berg. Their stories are too interesting not to reproduce here (with thanks to Algemeen Dagblad).

Alexander Broere. ‘Drive shortly from Eindhoven to Utrecht. Three places for sure for #stormpoolen.’ This short message Alexander Broere from Nieuwegein threw into the world via Twitter at 7:30 PM. The ICT professional was about to drive from his parents in Veldhoven to his home. “I took a quick look at what the situation was with the railways, and saw that there were no trains operating any more at all,” he tells. “Then I thought: let’s look whether this works, with that hashtag.” And yes: within a minute there was the first reaction. “The car was full in no time. With a teacher in robotics who worked at Fontys (a college in Eindhoven), a student in artificial intelligence, and a specialist in computer parts.” An hour followed filled with techie conversation. “It was nice, this car full of nerds.”

Ineke van de Put. Ineke van de Put had to go to Schiphol Airport to catch her flight to Vietnam. Helped by storm pooling, two different car drivers whom she didn’t know brought her to her destination in time. From Middelburg to Delft and from Delft to Schiphol. “I am really impressed that this can happen in our country. This ought to be mentioned, once in a while,” Van de Put tells. “Otherwise I would have needed to take an expensive cab, but that this could be done this way, isn’t it fantastic? About the return trip I haven’t thought yet. First I want to enjoy my holidays.”

Menno van den Berg. Menno van den Berg created a Twitter account especially for #stormpoolen. He placed a message and right away reeled someone in. “I had to go from Rotterdam to Utrecht and for that reason I created this account,” he tells. “With my first post I immediately had found three other companions. It was really nice and very cozy!” Although he claimed he would never have thought to install Twitter, in the beginning of the evening he safely reached his destination. ‘Now almost in Utrecht with three other heroes! #stormpoolen,” he tweeted during the ride.

Is this brief sociology of storm pooling proof that community spirit in the Netherlands is still alive and kicking? And that our King in his Christmas Speech completely missed the mark? No, of course not. The Algemeen Dagblad expressly acknowledged this in the headline above its report: “How nice and helpful we were for each other, during and after the westerly gale that swept our country. But for how long?” So storm pooling proves nothing. But neither did the Christmas Speech prove anything.

Storm pooling, and all the social reactions to it, do make clear that the King’s perspective in the Christmas Speech was too narrow. Whoever today wants to say something about community spirit, shall have to look beyond its traditional forms. Storm pooling: before the rise of social media no one could have even started to think about it. Of course, the irony of this example is that it turns around a mode of communication (Twitter) which the King had chosen to mark as an immediate threat to community spirit.

All of this offers evidence that the idea of community spirit is more complex than many people assume, and certainly more complex than the ideas on which the Christmas Speech rests. As was pointed out above, the King explained his notion of community spirit theoretically with the help of a rather strict opposition between I and we, between individual and society. But that opposition is at odds with what in contemporary social and political theory is known under the name of communitarianism (or neo-communitarianism or liberal communitarianism).

That theory—communitarianism—first emerged in political philosophy in the 1980s in reaction to the vested theory of liberalism, which in academic circles worldwide had become the predominant mode of thinking. Freedom and autonomy of the individual, supported by a system of individual rights, are central in the work of liberal thinkers. For orthodox liberals a society is in fact nothing more than a collection of autonomous individuals who can freely dispose of their rights.

Communitarians, on the other hand, take as their starting point that individuals always and everywhere are dependent on communities—communities like families, schools, neighborhoods, churches, companies, associations. These communities have an enormous influence on individuals. They shape, support, and direct individuals, provide them with a sense of moral integrity, and take care of social cohesion. Communities constitute the foundation of the wider society: the society understood as a community of communities. 

The American sociologist Philip Selznick (1919-2010) once described this communitarian axioma thus: “Society is not made up of preformed, wholly competent individuals endowed by nature with reason and self-consciousness. In the beginning is society, not the individual (emphasis added).To say that humans are social animals is to say that they depend on others for psychological sustenance, including the formation of their personalities.”

The best known representative of communitarianism is another American sociology professor, Amitai Etzioni (1929). Etzioni began his academic career in the late 1940s in Jerusalem as a student of Martin Buber. Etzioni’s alternative to the atomism and methodological individualism of the liberal creed boils down to a renewed version of Buber’s I and Thou (in German: Ich and Du). Etzioni emphasizes the intrinsic relationship between the individual dimension and the social dimension by describing both with a single phrase: the “I & We.”

King Willem-Alexander sees I and We as antipodes. But in the theory of communitarianism, I and We cannot exist without each other. As Etzioni once wrote: “The I’s need a We to be.” Could this idea perhaps be further explored, in the next King’s Speech, on December 25, 2018?

 

May 2018

 

Paul van Seters is a Professor of globalization and sustainable development at Tilburg University, in the Netherlands. This essay was originally published in Dutch in the weekend edition of Friesch Dagblad on March 3, 2018