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Plugging the kindness deficit

27 June 2012

It used to be pretty easy to be kind. Before the banks started losing billions down the back of the sofa in 2008 many of us were living comfortable, complacent lives of plenty. So being kind to each other and those we deemed to be in more need than ourselves wasn’t difficult. Security and a generation of economic growth seemed to breed a sense of generosity, mostly of spirit rather than necessarily deed, but it seemed to exist.

We are now knee-deep into a time of much greater instability and uncertainty, battered by the cross winds of global financial meltdown and local austerity and recession. Softened by years of untrammelled growth, many of us appear to be developing a harder shell for protection.  We are increasingly looking out for and after our own, with less time, sympathy and consideration for those outside our immediate circle.

This seems externalised in the public attitude and policies of the current government. Most explicitly in the testing of the water on benefits from the Prime Minister last weekend, as well as in the responses given to those pronouncements by the media and on social media. It perhaps has its roots in the almost parodic use of “hard working families” to describe the main constituency all the major players in the last election were aiming their concern and attention towards. Woe betide anyone who didn’t and doesn’t fall into that charmed demographic, least of all anyone with the temerity to find themselves receiving benefits of any kind. The increasing delineation of the deserving and undeserving poor in the prevailing public narrative leaves little room for nuance.

All of this comes across as the reaction of a group of people who have been spooked by the economic turmoil surrounding them and are shoring up the defences to make sure their own islands of personal comfort are well-protected. We need to make hard decisions and turn off the tap for those people who have been bleeding the system dry for years and years, sponging off the hard earned tax receipts generated by others. In times of plenty we could afford such largesse, such unthinking kindness, but no longer.

Except, of course, that as a concept this is mostly self-serving nonsense. The undeserving poor are the dark matter of current societal debate, existing theoretically and statistically, but damned difficult to spot or meet. Take the time to talk to anyone who you might pigeonhole in this catch-all group and you’re likely to find a much more complex person and set of circumstances than the cartoon caricaturing you’ll get expressed in the public domain. They are certainly a lot more difficult to identify and pin down than the undeserving rich (I’m staring at you, Mr Diamond). It turns out that they are real people, flesh and blood, and many of them are facing a pretty bleak future.

The comfortable amongst us can respond to this in one of two basic ways – we can pull up our skirts, retreat into our still very comfortable lives and keep our head down, to emerge at some point in the future and hope that the communities we sit marooned within have somehow made it through at least in part; or we can get involved and exert the power of kindness through thought and deed. Whatever your view of the sustainability or desirability of public spending on benefits, we all have the power to help others directly through giving our time, energy or money.

A couple of months ago we helped to launch Give More, a campaign hoping to inspire as many of us as possible to take the second option. It seemed needed when we launched it, its success looks essential now.