What does it mean to share? – By Professor John D Brewer

Image courtesy of Irish News


People in societies emerging out of conflict talk a lot about sharing. This is no surprise. Conflicts are often about unequal access to resources like wealth and power, turning peace into a debate about more equal shares in society.

Conflicts can also have a geography in which social divisions and inequalities are segregated spatially, making the peace about the development of shared space. Peace has its own lexicon and sharing is a popular word in the vocabulary. Shared future. Shared space. Shared society. Shared symbols. Shared history. Shared identity.

But what does it mean to share? This is the question that is at the core of the dispute over UVF flags appearing overnight on lamp posts in mixed areas of Belfast.

Culture is a wonderful thing for the people who share it. It is a weapon when forced on people who do not share it. Weaponizing culture disrespects it; but regardless, some still want to forcibly share it with those who do not want it. Irrespective of the politics behind the weaponizing of culture, what does sharing mean in this context?

There are two widely contrasting views of sharing. In one sense when we share we divide up, we apportion, we allocate: perhaps equally, but mostly not. Sharing determines how access to a joint resource, or good or space is distributed. We might call this the distribution model of sharing; it divvies up and allots. It is essentially amoral for the allocation is done regardless of the moral purpose of sharing as a social interaction. It is the kind of sharing done by economic markets. This is why equality in the size of the shares is irrelevant in the distribution model. Sharing, in this usage of the term, is instrumental not moral; it is merely a distribution mechanism to apportion access between those who share the resource, good or space. If it’s unequal, no matter; the dividing up is what matters.

In another sense, sharing means to participate in, to use, enjoy, or experience a resource, or good, or space jointly. In this view, we hold the resource, good or space together with others, having a share of the responsibility for it. Again, this is not necessarily equal responsibility, but shared commitment nonetheless. We might call this the responsibility model of sharing. It determines that a resource, good or space we jointly enjoy and experience is the responsibility of everyone who shares it.

With responsibility comes moral obligation; it is not just instrumental. Where you share a resource, good or space with someone and have responsibility in common towards it, sharing imposes a moral commitment to ensure that whatever it is that is experienced, enjoyed or participated in together remains shared and joint. No one is suggesting in the responsibility model that there is a moral obligation to experience the resource, good, or space in a common way.  What is common is only the moral compulsion to ensure the resource, good or space remains jointly shared; that the responsibility towards it remains common.

The UVF flag dispute highlights that people living in societies emerging out of conflict can mean very different things by sharing. Those who want to keep privileged access to a mixed space, to declare it as theirs not yours or even ours, conform to the distribution model because they want to determine how it is shared, what is allotted and to whom, and how separate claims to the space are distributed. There is no moral commitment to it as a joint space. Mixed areas have UVF flags therefore because they are shared only in the sense that different stakes or claims are being apportioned. Difference is reinforced, not commonality.

Others see a commitment to ensuring the common ownership, joint obligation and mutual access of the space. It is shared because they feel a responsibility to ensure the space remains joint and common. It is not yours, not mine, but ours. Commonality is invoked and shared responsibility is practised to reinforce that it is a space jointly shared. This transcends or eliminates difference, keeping the space as belonging to and owned by all.

So what? To put up UVF flags in a mixed and shared space abrogates the moral obligation to consider the area as common, abrogates the joint responsibility to maintain it as shared, and reproduces difference rather than eliminates it. It does not teach us how to learn to live together. It distributes and apportions differential stakes and claims, declaring it as not ‘ours’ together. We were once famously told that we could not eat flags; used in the wrong way, we will never learn to live together with them either.



One thought on “What does it mean to share? – By Professor John D Brewer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *