Sociologist Richard Sennett begins his new book by describing a day at his young grandson’s school in London when kids commandeered the public address system to blast song lyrics rife with the F-word. “We hate what you do, and we hate your whole crew!” singer Lily Allen wailed over the loudspeakers. A 6-year-old girl punctuated the ensuing chaos by grinding her non-existent hips to the music, which never helps when school officials are already hyperventilating.
The school community was in an uproar, of course. Sennett was troubled, too, but not because he feared for the school’s reputation. He worried that the incident could have triggered a violent conflict in London’s combustible mix of race, class and religion. After recounting this incident, he immediately segues to a similar us-vs.-them dynamic in America, where right-wing talk radio broadcasts relentless rants that sing out a virtual “F you” to “Nazi-feminists, liberals, secular humanists and married homosexuals, as well as, of course, to socialists.”
Three pages later, Sennett warns that the most direct cause of weakened cooperation is economic inequality and bemoans the loss of high-skilled manufacturing jobs in America. Four pages after that, he extols the virtues of parents who talk constantly to their babies, creating sociable toddlers.
Thus begins the galloping romp of Sennett’s small but ambitious “Together.” Sennett wants to alter the course of rising tribalism, which he defines as coupling “solidarity with others like yourself to aggression against those who differ.” A mammoth undertaking, to be sure, but he is a worthy warrior, armed with abundant evidence of our better natures.
Throughout the book, Sennett reminds us that humans are naturally wired to get along and that our capacity for cooperation far exceeds the institutions that attempt to limit us. He cites psychologist Erik Erikson’s work with young children, for example, as evidence of how “we learn how to be together before we learn how to stand apart.”
The goal, he insists, is not for everyone to be blanched of differences, but to learn how to thrive in the fertile stew of our diversity. We should not try to be alike, he says, but we are meant to find ways to work together, even in — especially in — communities that have been torn apart by conflict. Cooperation does not surrender to an all-is-lost defeat or amnesia, Sennett argues, nor does it open a negotiation on a negative note. He offers as an instructive example Berlin’s Neues Museum, which was severely damaged in bombings during World War II. The building lay in ruin for 40 years. After the reunification of Berlin, questions loomed over the century-old museum’s fate. Should it be restored to its original glory? Did Berlin’s harrowing recent history require that the museum be razed to the ground and rebuilt? Or was there a third option? Could restoration “somehow register, preserve, narrate the trauma through which the building had passed?”
Architect David Chipperfield, in the face of tremendous pressure from all sides of the debate, delivered more than a compromise. He designed what Sennett calls a reconfiguration, providing an apt metaphor for how cooperation in a community “admits repair”: “In some rooms he literally restored war damage, so that it becomes possible to see the effects of bombing; in others, he showed objects in a way not usual in museum displays, as in a room where sculptural treasures stand in front of glass walls. . . . In still other rooms, entirely newly made, he opened up space for activities never imagined by the original designers.”
Five pages later, Sennett celebrates a gray-haired job counselor in the Bronx who coaches her desperate, out-of-work clients in how to lighten up for job interviews. “Both sides may know the candidate is desperate,” writes Sennett, “but the fiction has to be maintained that you are having an objective discussion about the work itself. . . . Conveying ‘I can take it or leave it’ is role-playing required of people playing a weak hand.”
Sennett makes a convincing argument — dozens of arguments, really — that human beings are flawed but full of potential. He encourages us to listen more and talk less, and to break down organizational silos of communication designed to exclude. He is an academic who celebrates whimsy, extolling the power of unscheduled moments when people thrown together — co-workers, students or neighbors — pause for informal exchanges. “A chance remark may suddenly open up a new vein of endeavor for people spending time together,” he writes. He is admittedly an aging sociologist who refuses to give up on people.
“The problems of living with difference being so large, there can be no single or total solution,” he writes. “One of the peculiar effects of old age, though, is that we become unhappy with the observation ‘what a pity . . .’; resignation doesn’t seem much of a legacy.”
Sennett is still in the thick of it all, producing a whirlwind of big ideas.
The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation
By Richard Sennett
Yale Univ. 324 pp. $28