I was thinking the other morning about community size, economies of scale, and our perception of other people as human beings worthy of care and respect. In larger communities, where everyone doesn’t know everyone else, the media have quite a lot of power over how we see one another. And now Cameron’s government have passed the Welfare Reform Bill.
I don’t know whether the Daily Fail, the Sun and so on have always vilified the poorest and weakest in society, those reliant on others for help for whatever reason. I struggle to take such articles seriously, as I don’t quite understand how intelligent people can believe them. But I know that the advertisements about benefit fraud, which I started to notice under a Labour government, seemed to be a sign of something very wrong with the way we perceive one another and the way we speak and write of one another. I’d like to remedy that.
In my head, I’d like there to be some requirement for legislators to work with those who their laws will affect the most. I’d like those legislating about welfare reform to work with people who don’t have much money and with the disabled for a year before being allowed to make changes which will affect them. I’d like those who would further privatise the NHS (yes, further privatise — this has been going on for a long time, too) to think about what it might be like to need medical care and simply not be able to afford it, as well as looking at the cost-effectiveness of various systems.
But I think the propaganda may be so strong and so widespread that it can override even personal contact. Victim-blaming happens at all levels, and contact doesn’t always help.
As an example of that, for every GP I’ve had who has been helpful and supportive regarding my own health conditions, I’ve had another who doesn’t think there is anything physically wrong with me. This has led to delays in diagnosis which were mentally very distressing, not to mention physically risky. I remember being told my chronic pain was due to depression, and in the next appointment two weeks later being told I wasn’t “really depressed”. It turned out to be more complicated than that, of course.
Now, GPs aren’t stupid. They’ve been through medical school, and you do need quite a few brain cells to rub together to get through successfully! And they work with people. Yet they still do victim-blaming, even with an articulate patient with good levels of self-awareness. So I have to conclude that the problem we face isn’t one of intelligence or of contact.
I’m inclined to think that instead, the problem is one of narrative. A dominant narrative in the society in which I live is “You Make Your Own Life”. It’s an attractive narrative, because it seduces us into thinking that we can keep ourselves safe, that no matter how bad things get we’ll be OK because our efforts will be effective. And it’s a comfortable narrative for as long as health and wealth hold out, because it absolves us of the responsibility for the plight of anyone around us, even if we’re directly abusive toward them. After all, They Make Their Own Lives, too. And it’s slippery, this narrative, because we do seem to consciously choose our actions, we do think about consequences, some of our efforts do pay off. So obviously we must be in control of our circumstances!
But it’s wrong. You don’t Make Your Own Life. I don’t Make My Own Life. Not entirely, and the wealth of self-help literature out there might be just a small hint that none of us do.
Now, I don’t believe in full environmental determinism, and I do believe in free will. We always have a choice in how to respond to our situation. But we make this choice out of limited options of varying acceptability, and with limited foresight. Every choice includes risk. We don’t get to decide on our circumstances, our limitations, any more than we get to decide on our biological parents. And there is no isolation: all of our choices affect everyone else, and all of everyone else’s choices affect us, to some degree. We exist in a networked community with 7 billion interdependent active members, as well as countless previous members whose legacy still forms our environment. We don’t make our own circumstances, and our circumstances affect our choices. We make our own choices, but we don’t make our own life.
Yet this is the dominant narrative! The poor are poor, we’re told, because they don’t sufficiently desire wealth to take the necessary action to acquire it — so we must change the incentives by lowering their benefits to make them hungry for work. (Literally.) Never mind the economic reasons why this won’t actually help (people who don’t have enough to eat will spend less, not more, and the economy will suffer further as a result, with fewer jobs and lower productivity…), the poor are poor because they choose to be poor and therefore they deserve to be poor. The disabled are obviously only suffering disability, we’re told, because being disabled is a pretty good lifestyle compared to hard graft. So we must change their incentives by taking away what support they have and then they’ll learn how to “adapt” to their conditions. As for the sick and the elderly, they wouldn’t need so much medical care if they took proper care of themselves, so we’ll cut the NHS: that will encourage them to develop healthy habits!
Gentle readers, this is all preposterous. People don’t choose to be poor*: if you don’t have enough money to live on, getting enough of it is not trivial. People don’t choose to be disabled: in case you hadn’t noticed, blindness, deafness, wheelchair use, and long-term illnesses are things that happen to people, not lifestyle choices. People don’t choose to get sick: if they did, would anyone ever suffer from a common cold? People don’t choose to get old, despite what the beauty creams would have you believe, and nobody has the intention of aging badly.
But these atrocities are what the “You Make Your Own Life” narrative leads to. This narrative has made our society sick, so sick that we’re now actually doing the things in the last-but-one paragraph. Yes, I said “we”; whether or not they do so with our full support, the government act on our behalf.
I think we face two challenges here. One is to ensure that the vulnerable among us still receive care; this is going to be a massive effort, and I’m sure one at which we will fail in some cases, but we do have to try.
The second challenge is to find a better narrative and, somehow, make it supplant the one I’ve been talking about. We need a narrative that is more attractive than the idea that each of us can save ourselves, more comfortable than the idea that other people’s problems are nothing to do with us.
I haven’t found such a narrative outside of religion; the closest I come is the idea that we are all children of God and therefore worthy of respect and care and love regardless of our circumstances. But the “You Make Your Own Life” narrative is so pernicious that sometimes it actually invades religion, turning into “If you are ill/poor/old/disabled/unhappy it’s because you didn’t pray enough/love God enough/do what we say God wants.” Grace becomes the means by which we are wealthy and healthy and favoured in this world, rather than the mystery which prompts us to help others. Ugh! This caricature is not what we need. On a deeper level I think religion does have a lot to offer, but simply making a more religious society won’t solve the problem unless we can also purge religion of make-your-own-life-itis.
I believe that human beings have automatic worth, not based in ability or achievement or economic activity but personhood. I believe that human beings are interconnected and interdependent, each contributing to but not controlling our own wellbeing and that of everyone else on the planet. I believe that if anyone suffers at the hands of another, we are all much worse off, and when we work to help one another we all gain.
I believe it is urgently important that we make sure everyone knows this, especially those in power and those who will be in power in five or ten or fifty years. And because of the stickiness of the existing dominant narrative, it’s going to be an uphill battle to do it.
*Edit 12/04/2012: It has been pointed out to me that some people, usually those who are members of a religious order, do choose to be poor, at least in terms of material possessions. If any of them would like to comment on what their overarching narrative is, and how we might replicate such a narrative in wider society, I would be grateful. I think many people today crave such simplicity, but mostly those who are well-off enough to choose what they would give up.