Monday 22 April 2013

Harem: Genesis

On the 25th November 2005, the footballer George Best died. Of course I was vaguely aware of who he was; he'd been, in the real sense of the word, a celebrity for most of my life. But I knew only the grossest outline of his career. After his death, I read a long obituary - possibly in the Observer - and was interested enough to later watch a television documentary about his life. It struck me as extraordinarily sad that a young man of such talent had been so overwhelmed by sudden wealth and the sudden sexual availability of women that it had essentially destroyed his life. It started a train of thought running, about how a young man, far from home, would cope well with those pressures.

That's one of the roots of my novel Harem, and it's the root which actually started me writing. But it's not the only root, and arguably not the main one.

I was brought up a Quaker and a pacifist. The problem of conflict in society was something that interested me as a young man: what it's functions and evolutionary drivers were, and how, in a civilised society, we manage and control it. I was interested by a paper by Johan Galtung of the University of Lund on 'Entropy and the General Theory of Peace'. In this paper, Galtung argued that messier and more complex interrelationships between groups and nations led to more frequent, lower level, more easily resolved conflicts, and that by contrast simpler, more clear cut, more structured interrelationships - such as the then current stand-off between the NATO and Warsaw Pact powers - would lead to fewer but much more intense, destructive and hard to resolve conflicts.

I was also interested at the same time in what I saw (and still see) as the problem with the nuclear family: one single relationship actually cannot, I believe, carry all the emotional burdens that adults from time to time need support with, and so as we retreat more and more into our pair-bonded couple relationships, the rate of relationship breakdown actually increases. And relationship breakdown, when children are involved, is inevitably damaging, I believed then (and still do). So a social organisation which could provide a stable environment for children even if one relationship broke down would, I thought, be a good thing.

To investigate these related issues I set up a three year study in which I went and investigated conflict in a number of small intentional communities. My research hypothesis was that I would find a positive scaling of conflict intensity with social structure, and an inverse scaling of conflict frequency, in these small communities consistent with Galtung's social entropy hypothesis. The deal I did with the communities was that at the end of the study, they would get a copy of my report. They never did, because I felt that what I learned in one community might have been explosively divisive for that community, so I did not publish the result at all. My research hypothesis was not confirmed by the study, because of confounding factors I hadn't anticipated. One was an effect described by Benjamin Zablocki in a study of US communes as 'cathexis': the presence of a loved charismatic leader in a community sharply reduced the experience or expression of conflict. There is, on the small scale at least, a measurable social benefit in dictatorship.

The loved charismatic leader could be a spiritual leader, or, in Zablocki's study at least, a sexually dominant individual. It didn't seem to make much difference; where such a leader existed, groups were much more stable. And where such a leader didn't exist, competition between men for women - for sex - was a significant cause of conflict, and relationship breakdown, where it happened in communities, very frequently led to one or other partner being driven out of the group. There was one community I studied where this did not happen - where the community was able to accommodate a remarkable number of pair bond changes within the community. I very much respected them, but one of the features of that community was that the average age was considerably older than the norm.

Another confounding factor really surprised me: even in the liberal, well educated, idealistic communities I was studying, the oppression of women - as measured by their relative experience of conflict - shone out so brightly from the data that it very nearly obliterated everything else. That really made me think.

I went into this study believing that the optimal social structure was loosely structured collections of people within which couples could form and reform fairly fluidly. What I learned is that that doesn't work. What I learned is that men are a significant cause of conflict, and that given that one man can father children on many women, a viable community really doesn't need more than one. Which is to say, lads, that the vast majority of us are redundant; and, as I'm not particularly alpha or charismatic, that includes me.

It seemed to me at the end of my study - and now, twenty five years later it still does - that the optimum organisation of society for social harmony and for the care of children is the 'pride of lions' model I've outlined in the novel: a bonded group of women with strong links of affection and mutual dependence between them, with one man. The man doesn't have to be the leader, and in the novel I've tried to show that in fact he is not. The man is also, I believe (although the novel doesn't show this), essentially replaceable.

Novels are driven by conflict, which makes utopian fiction hard to write. The major conflict in this novel is the transfer of the effective alpha role from Kate to Fiona. I needed to show this not only to drive the plot but also to try to persuade you, the reader, that such a conflict, in such a group, would be survivable.

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The fool on the hill by Simon Brooke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License