Thursday, 11 August 2011

Poverty of mind and prospects

I am planning to watch Question Time tonight about the possible causes of the recent disorder in Britain’s cities; I’ve already listened to a lot of comment and attempts to explain what we have witnessed on television, radio and the internet.  The mantra that this is "just sheer  criminality" irritates me somewhat ;  it might be true that it is most of the looters and rioters acted with criminal rather than political intent, but nevertheless  such widespread criminality still doesn't happen in a vacuum but arises out of a particular social, cultural and political milieu.  There are many possible factors contributing to what has happened and they include the breakdown of families and communities, the influence of social media, our current economic situation, a significant underclass in our society and the influence of consumerism. Poverty undoubtedly played a role, but not all of the looters came from the lower socioeconomic groups, and nobody seemed to be stealing food, more designer items and luxury goods. There are societies which face extreme poverty in which individuals do not behave this way.  However, poverty should never be thought of as just pecuniary; there is also moral, social and intellectual poverty, there is poverty of opportunity and the spiritual poverty which occurs when someone has never been encouraged to search for some kind of meaning outside of his or her own material existence.  I do believe that the attitudes fostered by our consumerist society leaves us impoverished morally, spiritually and intellectually. We do not know how to be rich in the things which matter. There is a poverty of mind, which incidentally I have noticed among many affluent teenagers and is endemic throughout society, which focuses on getting as much as you can with as little possible effort and valuing things such as looks, designer clothes, and technical gadgets. It is epitomised in our celebrity culture, the shallowness of which has literally sickened me for some time.
 Nevertheless, it is too simple to say that all people need to do is buck up their ideas about respect and responsibility, go to church, switch off the X Factor and read a few improving books and all will be wellI think we also have to consider the changing nature of Britain - the manual jobs that once sustained a class of people and allowed them dignity and self reliance have gone. There is high youth  unemployment and there are not appropriate jobs for many, and this is against a backdrop of the rising cost of living and great uncertainty about the future. Living a life sustained by welfare might  meet basic physical needs, it cannot meet the need for dignity  and a sense of purpose and place. Young people receive the insidious message that they are literally worth nothing if they do not possess the latest consumer goods or possess real buying power.  I hear a lot of "chav contempt”, talk of feral rats; if you are brought up on a sink estate, the message is that you are scum- this does not believe that everyone will live up to that message, but some will.
Cameron has identified the problem as moral and suggested people have not been taught right from wrong – which might lead us to ask about the role of religion. One blog that I read pointed out that many of those involved would have been brought up in the black and Afro-Caribbean communities which have higher rates of church attendance than average.  It is unfair though to suggest there is any sort of causal link between church attendance and this type of crime, the situation is more complex and likely to arise from social and cultural factors.  Asian communities often have a strong faith base and, where there is social aspiration, they are law abiding. For all the talk of moral breakdown and a sick society, I have not heard one politician so far mention religion, or look to the church for answers. It is sobering to realise that the Church has really no moral authority or role. In the minds of most people, the Christian faith has nothing to offer in this situation. My personal view is that it does, because it offers us transformation and a view of ourselves and others as infinitely valuable.
It is much easier to analyse a problem than to find solutions, in particular there will be no quick fix solutions to problems which have developed over several generations. I think that the Government has taken the right steps to restore order on the streets – at least in the short term- it is the long term changes to people’s values, prospects and the changes to hearts and minds that will prove more of a challenge.

1 comment:

  1. As noted on my own blog, it is facile – if not arrogant – to believe social problems like the riots have simple origins. Such events arise out of a complex interplay of various social, cultural, political and economic phenomena. In my last posting on this subject on my blog, I said little about the economic factors. To give an example, it is tempting to just think about social exclusion and the motivation of envy and greed from the ‘have nots’ of society for the consumerist trappings of the ‘haves’. Yet this is overly simplistic and misses out some important issues that illustrated the interconnectedness of how a society functions.

    In London – and other large urban centres – first generation immigrants tend to be hard working, often employed in low status jobs in the service, caring or ancillary sectors (employment that keeps inflation low – because services etc. would be more expensive if immigrants didn’t do the work). Yet these same immigrants (esp in London) work in places where the cost of living is relatively high and therefore it is not uncommon for both parents to work full-time, often working unsocial hours. My own experience of employing African immigrants suggested that there are a sizable number who have two jobs. This leaves little time for family life – and as single parenthood is not uncommon particularly for African and Afro-Caribbean families – again this can lead to problems with child care and with the socialisation of children. However in white ‘sub-class’ (i.e. those on the sink estates of many of our large towns and cities who are heavily dependent upon state welfare) socialisation has been very much concerned with the state being responsible for an individual’s welfare. Where once the factory and its associated culture and wider economic and social network provided a means of social cohesion, self-respect, self-reliance and economic prosperity, the economic decline of the 1970s and 80s, resulted in the wilful abandonment of huge swaths of society’s communities that were built upon manufacturing, by Thatcher and her henchmen. This resulted or contributed to a breakdown of traditional roles and social norms as benefits became the security once offered by the factory.

    In this brief and simplistic pen-sketch, it is possible to see that economic factors have a detrimental impact in the possible developmental and societal welfare of children. Benefit culture instils a passivity and dependence upon one social group; economic necessity (and greed?)) adds to the breakdown of social bonds when immigrant communities have to spend more time working than being there for their children (so we can have cheap goods and services... it is all interconnected!). As I note in my own blog post on this topic, there are many other factors – some immigrant communities (Indians or Ghanaians for example) don’t seem to suffer these problems to the same degree – indeed many become the ‘haves’ in our society. This suggests there is a complicated interplay of factors. There are issues within black communities that can’t just be excused as the result of racism or a colonial legacy, when other immigrant groups thrive in the UK. Similarly, such souls as myself, who grew up on a sink estate and have close family members who embrace benefits’ culture whilst I (my brother and several cousins and many others) have achieved and rejected dependence culture and passivity, demonstrate that there are cultural failings that can’t just be explained by the economic and political misdeeds of 30 years ago.

    Elsewhere, I have already made use already of St Anthony of Egypt’s maxim ‘Your life and death are with your neighbour...’ – because I just don’t think it is possible to point to the riots and say the blame lies squarely with this or that community or sector of society. The riots were/are the pus from a deeper social sickness that - like it or not – affects us all to a greater or lesser degree. It is seldom that social problems have ‘easy’ or cheap solutions... Or, alas, easily defined culprits.