Hey, young people: stop your sobbing

The British left’s championing of the underdog has morphed into promoting that most unpleasant of traits: self-pity.

Neil Davenport

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Topics Politics

Last week, a High Court judge, Mr Justice Foskett, dismissed a claim by a 23-year-old unemployed geology graduate from Birmingham, Cait Reilly, that working at Poundland for nothing – or rather for benefits – was a breach of her human rights. Instead the judge sensibly declared that it was mad to compare being made to work in the shop to ‘slavery or forced labour’.

It’s hard to believe that such indulgences reached the High Court in the first place. How could anyone seriously compare a workfare scheme to enforced, back-breaking toil on a cotton plantation? Even more bizarre is that such embarrassing self-pity is often considered to be a raised middle finger to The Man or, at the very least, Tory chancellor George Osborne. Far from Reilly’s actions flowing from leftist radicalism, it’s the outcome of a statist culture that encourages blubbering self-pity in the young.

As Brendan O’Neill recently argued, such a narrative of self-pity has been provided by an education system that obsessively protects young people’s self-esteem. It’s fair to say that the children of the New Labour era have been more flattered, mollycoddled and shielded from adult responsibilities than any other generation. They have grown up to believe that having illegible handwriting, the attention span of a gnat or ending up with disappointing exam grades is never their fault. Almost anything can be excused away by medical or therapeutic sick notes; these young people are encouraged to blame parents, peers and teachers for any difficulties. The cultivation of vulnerability among the young, to see any pressure they may face as potentially ‘damaging’, has amplified that most unappealing aspect of being a teenager: self-pity.

Whereas in the past adults would encourage teenagers to toughen up, they are now socialised into a culture that endorses this woe-is-me outlook. Protecting a young person’s self-esteem is considered a top priority these days. This is why the type of work young people may be required to do, such as working in shops alongside plebs, is considered far more troubling than youth unemployment. For liberal leftists, it would be far better to provide young people with the material resources through which they can survive free from any nasty pressures from the outside world. In fact, much of the discussion on ‘vulnerable young people’ – always vulnerable, never ambitious – is about devising ways that their fragile self-esteem can be protected from parents, peers, teachers, relationships, internet trolls, ‘slave based’ work experience or ‘exploitative’ paid employment. The emphasis is always on protection, not on encouraging freedom or independence.

Traditionally, the youthful drive to escape, from claustrophobic family life and mind-numbing small towns, meant that young people would be prepared to rough it, to take risks and to make opportunities for themselves. It would also mean that such youngsters were more likely to be open to the politics of change and transformation. Now they are likelier to demand state protection from life itself. As increasing numbers of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings live at home with their folks, that burning desire to escape and make a mark on the outside world is mostly absent. Instead, self-respecting ambition, drive and chutzpah have been replaced by the politicisation of pity. Alongside weeping buckets for yourself, leftist radicalism now consists of seeing others as objects of pity in need of government munificence or state protection from individual prejudices or nasty comments on Twitter.

Obsessive pity for the underdog has long been an ignoble feature of British radicalism and in recent years that retrograde tendency has intensified. In the late Eighties, the less that welfare socialism could relate to working-class aspirations, the more that radicalism became an arena for the well-off to showboat their concern for the poor. Left-wing politics simply spoke less and less to working people with aspirations. And increasingly, such free, aspiring individuals were viewed with suspicion; being free, it seems, simply means being free to harm others, yourself and your children. The state became an arbiter to limit the mental ‘damage’ caused by unchecked individuals. Such psychologising of everyday life means that some people have internalised a sense of helplessness. In turn, these people view others, not as active agents capable of making their own lives, but as other diminished souls in need of constant support. The politics of pity has therefore become a powerful way to legitimise the therapeutic state. To question it now runs the risk of being labelled callous and uncaring.

The original vision of social democracy at least recognised that individuals were capable of making their way in the world. The goal of social democracy was to alleviate objective barriers and enable people to be judged on their talents and abilities. Now social democrats view individuals as generally incapable without financial support and extensive state monitoring. This isn’t the same as a safety-net in times of hardship, but rather an instinctive awareness that, in the absence of civic society or cohering political beliefs, the state must hold individuals together.

Pitying concern for the poor, young people on work schemes or victims of harassment sounds very benign. In reality it’s an authoritarian impulse to ensure that individuals remain accounted for and that a political relationship between citizens and the state exists. For all their Big Society rhetoric of freeing up the individual, even the Conservative Party cannot let go of initiatives designed to tighten state control over individual autonomy. In the absence of beliefs and ideas, what else is there to bind people together?

And this is ultimately what pity politics justifies: high levels of state intrusion and snooping throughout society. Pity for ‘vulnerable youth’ involved with the riots only paves the way for yet more state meddling and autonomy-sapping ‘support’. Grandstanding pity for supposedly vulnerable minorities in society often leads to restrictions on free speech, free assembly and free thought. The effect is also the encouragement of self-pity and the demand for protection from psychological harm and dented self-esteem. It leads to grievance-struck individuals who demand that the state recognises their particular identity, censor opinions that hurt their feelings or, in the case of Reilly, protects them from doing work experience. To be radical these days means to demonstrate screeching self-pity (‘you don’t understand me, how dare you say that’) or patronising pity for those ‘less fortunate than ourselves’.

All of this isn’t the same as expressing social solidarity or having compassion towards somebody else’s suffering. Solidarity and compassion seek active agency in alleviating problems, a cornerstone of a humanistic outlook, whereas pity frees an individual of guilt and flatters their ego. The writer Faisal Devji pointed out that pity is one of the worst emotions because the fact that it is vicarious and detached means that anything can be justified in its name. Pity is not grounded in real situations so it can become shrill and hyperbolic. This is why pity lends itself to narcissism; it’s an emotion designed to encourage individuals to help themselves rather than others. Consequently, it inflames an infantile, often nihilistic and destructive, reaction to a person’s surroundings. This is why the politics of pity is the script that radical Islamists, lumpenised rioters and the Occupy protesters have all rehearsed from.

The new politics of pity is the unfortunate but logical outcome of both identity politics and therapy culture. It is where self esteem and recognition for ‘hurts’ are paramount and personal responsibility is an offensive imposition. On either side of the pity coin, the conclusion is always the same: a complete rejection of autonomy and demands for the state to play an enlarged role in diminishing our lives. It’s surely time young people stopped being so enslaved to the therapeutic state.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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