At last, a serious debate on ‘social evils’

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has celebrated its 100th birthday not by throwing a party or patting itself on the back, but by publishing a challenging book on how individuation and therapy culture have eaten away at the social fabric.

Jennie Bristow

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In a therapeutic culture that categorises problems as ‘issues’ and frames policy in terms of individuals’ behaviour and psychological health, it is startling to see high-profile thinkers come together to discuss what are baldly termed ‘Contemporary Social Evils’. It is also refreshing to see a charitable foundation celebrate 100 years of its existence, not by throwing a big party, but by conducting a serious investigation into ‘the nature of “social evil” in the twenty-first century’.

Contemporary Social Evils, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), is based on the findings of this investigation, which comprised an online public consultation, focus group research, and a series of debates at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) involving such high-profile thinkers as philosopher AC Grayling, the rabbi and social reformer Baroness Julia Neuberger, and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.

A useful introduction by Oxford historian Jose Harris provides some historical perspective on the conceptualisation of ‘social evils’ and ‘social problems’ in Britain since 1904, when the Rowntree trusts were established. The first section of the book presents the findings of JRF’s inquiry into what members of the public view as the three contemporary social evils that cause ‘the most damage to British society as a whole or the most misery to its people’. The second section hands over to the key thinkers, who address the broad themes of a decline of values, distrust, the absence of society, individualism and inequality. Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA and former head of New Labour’s Policy Unit, concludes with his own ‘reflections on social evils and human nature’, based around the assertion that the JRF’s investigation found a consensus that ‘the greatest evil is society’s retreat in the face of rampant individualism’.

Gloomy stuff, indeed. But before you assume that Contemporary Social Evils is just another misery-fest, indulging today’s fashionable prejudices about selfish individuals in thrall to consumer society to the point where they would sell their grandmothers for the latest model of flat-screen telly, it is well worth engaging with this debate on its own terms.

While many of the contributors to the book struggle to find convincing solutions to the perceived ‘evils’ of our time, they are at least prepared to ask some hard questions about the crisis inflicting modern society and resist the policymakers’ temptation to indulge in apparent quick fixes. The overriding conclusion I would draw from this collection of essays is that there is no solution at the level of politics or policy to the dehumanising and fragmentary trends that have made Britain 2009 what it is. The opportunity to challenge these trends lies at the level of ongoing debate, and a re-evaluation of the relationships we have with the people around us.

In his afterword, policy analyst David Utting notes that ‘those familiar with the work of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, but unaware of its history… may feel uncomfortable that a moral dimension has been so overtly acknowledged to the factual study of social disadvantage and its consequences’. Most Third Sector organisations today, whether engaged in research, advocacy work or practical projects, work busily to produce clearly measurable outcomes or influence policy in a particular direction. This is fine, so far as it goes, and there is always a role for better policy. But as Utting, with Beth Watts, notes in an earlier chapter of the book analysing the responses to the JRF’s online consultation:

‘[M]any of the evils identified by Joseph Rowntree in 1904 remain a concern today, including poverty, drugs, alcohol and gambling. But the consultation also suggests a sense of powerlessness that contrasts sharply with Rowntree’s own optimistic determination to commit his resources to explaining the underlying causes of “evil in society”.’

This widespread sense of powerlessness arises from the collapse of any alternative system to capitalism as a mode of social and economic organisation – summed up in Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum TINA (There Is No Alternative). The collapse of the international working-class movement towards the end of the twentieth century brought the demise of the politics of left and right – namely, the disappearance of any grand sense that society could be organised differently in order to solve its problems. With no economic or political alternative on offer, politics has become an exercise in management, while citizens are reduced to the status of children, with no control over anything other than their own lives.

The politics of behaviour diminishes even this limited power, as choices about individuals’ lifestyles are increasingly subject to regulation by ‘experts’, while the therapeutic state seeks to intervene at the level of how we feel about ourselves and other people. The result is a transformation of human subjectivity, from active political citizens who have the power to change our world to passive victims of circumstance, whose ability to raise our children, make the right choices about what we have for dinner, or manage our emotions appropriately, is thrown into question.

With politics taken off the agenda in this stark fashion, any attempt to address social issues that go beyond one individual’s life leads naturally to a discussion about morality. And unlike discussions in the political domain, contributors to the JRF debate are unafraid to address key moral questions head-on. The politician’s standard trick is to present moral concerns in the form of pseudo-scientific ‘evidence’ about individuals’ health or wellbeing: so the age-old worry about alcohol consumption becomes recycled in the form of health advice about liver damage caused by binge-drinking, and moral judgements about the family take the form of streams of ‘parenting advice’ that purportedly help people raise healthier, happier children.

So little faith does the political class have in its citizenry that any discussion about issues broader than our own selves and immediate families is taken off the map. In this context, a proper debate on morality – the kind of values we should hold, and how we should relate to other people – is long overdue.

But do the book’s contributors get it right? At the level of describing the problem, some powerful points are made. Individuation – the fragmentation of traditional solidarities and communities, and the extent to which this leaves people vulnerable and exposed – comes in for a major drubbing, and with good reason. All those old clichés – no man is an island, together we are stronger, and so on – speak to an essential truth, which is that people are at their best when they support and collaborate with each other. An individuated society is more prone to the influence of consumerism, risk-aversion, substance abuse, crime, anti-social behaviour, and mental ill-health – other ‘social evils’ that score high up on the list.

A chapter by Shaun Bailey, co-founder of the youth and community charity MyGeneration, discusses the decline of trust and its corrosive impact on inter-generational relations:

‘We do not trust ourselves, or at least other adults. This is a definite change because in the past we would trust other adults to discipline our children, or at least challenge them. It is now very difficult to “look out for” children at home, in school or on the street… How many people do you know who are prepared to ask children on the bus to be quiet?’

A chapter by Julia Neuberger, titled ‘Unkind, risk-averse and untrusting: if this is today’s society, can we change it?’, focuses on the degree to which overblown panics about such issues as the risks faced to children by predatory paedophiles have warped the human instinct of kindness, while ‘risk aversion has increased a natural human reluctance to get involved’. Neuberger is particularly scathing about therapy culture. ‘Fear of others has turned us inwards’, she writes; and the rightful place of psychotherapy ‘is in the clinical setting and not in the everyday encounter with self-examination that, at worst, leads to an inability to act’.

In identifying these large-scale moral problems, Contemporary Social Evils is implicitly a clarion call for a discussion about the kind of values today’s society should uphold. Again, there is an urgent need for such a discussion. However, there is a danger of falling into a similar trap to that which constrains politicians and policymakers – namely, focusing on individual feelings and behaviour, and implicitly blaming people for the ills that afflict society. In this respect, the consequence of individuation is presented by some of the contributors in terms of ‘rampant individualism’ or selfishness, which should be addressed by people somehow making themselves look out for others. The word ‘altruism’ appears a lot in the book, fuelling the sense that individuals need to be trained to get over themselves and do good works for the community at large.

In this way, the solution to problems such as risk aversion and distrust can appear in terms of an individual act of will – consciously deciding to put oneself in danger for the good of others, or forcing oneself to take the leap of faith necessary to trust those of whom one has become innately suspicious.

Most of the contributors do not state the logical conclusions of their analysis in such bold terms, because they do not, by and large, hold a negative view of people or the belief that social problems are amenable to solutions at the level of the individual mindset. But when values or morality are discussed in a world without politics, the creation and implementation of a better set of values or morals tends to have an abstract and far-fetched quality.

So for those who recognise the problem with therapy culture’s inward focus on the self, the proposed solution is that people are encouraged to look outwards. This is a worthy goal but one that begs the questions: how do individuals find it in themselves to resist the introspective imperative of therapy culture, and what is the purpose of looking outwards if it seems that there is nothing one can do about the problems of the external world? Likewise, for those who recognise the banality of consumption as a human aspiration, the proposed solution is that individuals should consume less and focus on non-material aspects of life instead. But in a consumer society, what non-material aspects of life are held to promise fulfilment – and why exactly is buying stuff a problem anyway?

For values and morality to mean anything, they have to be ingrained in the reality of people’s lives. There is little point in encouraging people to battle against their instincts or interests for the sake of an abstract common good – in today’s culture, the upshot of such an argument is generally to increase introspection by making people feel worse about themselves. If what we want is to develop a shared sense of right and wrong, to support each other and to focus on a broader purpose than our own ill-fated pursuit of personal ‘happiness’, today’s circumstances demand that we look closer to home – to our families, friends, colleagues, and the informal networks that continue to operate within our communities.

The narcissistic focus on the self is one important element of therapy culture; and it is the case that, as Julia Neuberger suggests, ‘As we look deeper into ourselves, we lose the inclination to help, serve or work for others’. But as Frank Furedi has argued, a related and more profound problem is the extent to which therapy culture eats away at intimate and everyday relations, through conceptualising other people as the problem.

The holy grail of therapy culture is high self-esteem – encapsulating the notion that you can feel good about yourself regardless of, or despite, the regard in which other people hold you. Human emotions and aspirations that depend on relationships with other people and the world beyond the self – love, success, friendship, responsibility – are recycled by therapy culture as burdensome demands that can dent your self-esteem, and should therefore be guarded against. This breeds an instinct of emotional risk-aversion, in that any strong attachment carries the risk of feeling bad and getting hurt; and strategies of ‘emotional management’ are promoted to encourage people to distance themselves from others so as to avoid the negative consequences of intimacy and commitment.

The imperative to distance oneself from informal relationships goes hand in hand with another well-known feature of therapy culture: the professionalisation of support. Counsellors, mentors, official programmes and initiatives offering ‘advice’ and ‘support’, all swoop in to fill the vacuum left when people feel that they cannot, or should not, rely for help on their nearest and dearest. Parents of young children are steered away from the apparently outmoded and unhelpful childrearing tips and casual childcare offered by family and friends towards Sure Start programmes and official parenting classes; teenagers who are worried that their friends are in trouble are routinely directed to encourage their friends to visit a particular website, or phone this or that helpline.

People who want to do their best by one another find themselves disoriented by the proliferation of expert voices, and unsure of what they themselves can demand of, or offer to, other people. The therapeutic imperative of holding back soon becomes internalised as the commonsense approach to ‘doing the right thing’.

If people are so thrown by how to relate to the people closest to them, it is not surprising that they are not inclined to get involved with people they do not know at all. When parents are unsure of how to exercise authority over their own children, and certainly feel they cannot shout at their children’s friends, no wonder they will not ask children on a bus to be quiet. And when routine acts of kindness, such as cuddling an upset child or helping an elderly person cross the street, are mediated through fears that these acts might be misinterpreted, no wonder we are in danger of losing a certain ability to exercise compassion. Occasional acts of altruism still take place, when they involve a self-esteem-boosting donation to a distant cause – as illustrated by the surprisingly high level of donations to Comic Relief during this recession. But the straightforward notion that it is in our interest to engage with and help the people around us, because that is the only way that families, communities and individuals can survive and flourish, has become disrupted.

To move forward from this atomised situation, we need to first take stock of the relationships that make up everyday life. The personal is not political, and yelling at other people’s kids is hardly going to change the world. But getting a handle on who and what we care about – and why – is the first step towards developing a genuine, shared set of values that do not conflict with people’s expectations of life and sense of themselves. Learning to rely on the people around us is the best safeguard against the corrosive influences of individuation and therapy culture. In terms of motivation, reading Contemporary Social Evils is a good place to start.

Jennie Bristow is a writer based in Kent. She runs the website Parents With Attitude and edits the journal Abortion Review. Her book, Standing Up To Supernanny, will be published in September 2009. Email Jennie {encode=”jennie@bristow.com” title=”here”}.

Contemporary Social Evils, edited by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, is published by The Policy Press. (Buy this book from The Policy Press.)

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