Sunday, January 28, 2007

Attitude Complex

I’ve been wondering if we shouldn’t return to basics with theoretical ethics to see if we can find a blueprint for society that makes sense to everyone and can be universally applied without inducing a fear of being killed in the crush at the claims desk for exemptions. It should be so simple a child could understand it. Maybe we should get children to develop it since children don’t tend to regard differences prejudicially but rather with innocent curiosity. I’m suggesting this because it has to be much easier than the convoluted system we currently have for distinguishing right from wrong which seems to involve stumbling from one apparently insurmountable moral dilemma to another with a succession of Government ministers jabbering away about ‘core values’ which none of them seem to be able to list.
Tony ‘Blah Blah’ Blair has adopted a tactic of starting every sentence on the subject with ‘That is why…’ and then looking fed up. Maybe he thinks he can hoodwink us into believing we have fallen asleep through his salient and crystalline explanation. What is inescapable is that we are expected to live by a behavioural code which it is inferred should be inherent in the vast majority of us decent, hardworking citizens, but no one seems able to frame into a coherent manual.
The template used to be common law but now there are so many laws its impossible to tell if you are abiding by them all. In addition, there are by-laws, those imposed by local authorities or your employer or Tesco which add to the confusion. There are some employers, British Airways for example who do not allow you to be sick. It is not considered a health and safety issue that a pilot suffering from ‘flu might be locked into a tiny cabin with only recycled air and food maintained at a temperature optimum for cultivating E coli for up to twelve hours. Local authorities, on the other hand, have targets for employing people with disabilities so they encourage as many people as possible to have a long-term debilitating illness.
It is easy to see how much trouble everyone is having with working out how to live ethically from a quick scan at the British Social Attitudes Survey, the latest edition of which was published this week. You could be forgiven for thinking that, in the minds of civil servants and social researchers, what you think can have a more corrosive impact on the functionality of society than what you do. For example, no one would say that it is wrong to fake a cab receipt or pretend lunch with your friends is a business meeting on your tax return. This week a large cargo vessel stranded near the Devon coast spilled containers carrying items ranging from BMW bikes to dog food and the shoreline soon had more people on it than a Fat Boy Slim gig, claiming their ‘right’ to loot the booty. These were ordinary, law abiding British citizens who probably give money to the WWF but didn’t seem to care a jot that their quest for free tat was inhibiting the rescue of stranded sea birds.
Officialdom takes no account of all those small acts of civil disobedience committed by ordinary people that make no sense, like chucking a KFC box of chicken bones on the street within a few feet of a rubbish bin. Who doesn’t know that’s an idiot thing to do? Every day I see a couple of people do just that, not all kids and not all distraught mothers with three children under five screaming for the next additive packed course. The people who are paid to fret over why we are so appalling at getting along, ignore the crumbling of trust that occurs when a member of one social group pushes another out of the way to get on the Tube or chucks a firework the size of a cruise missile at their feet while they are carrying the week’s shopping down their grimy street.
It is rather more interesting, apparently to obsess about how we think we might behave in a hypothetical situation than to study the way we do behave in the real world. Last week, The Guardian reported disability campaigners were alarmed that the findings of the British Social Attitudes Survey revealed that most of us had a low awareness of disability and that ‘serious prejudice and misunderstanding still exist.’
One of the statistics causing alarm is this,
More than 70% of people interviewed said they would “not feel comfortable” living next door to someone with schizophrenia, and half would not want someone with depression as a neighbour.’
In an ideal world, we would all want only neighbours who keep a decent bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in their fridge and collect our mail when we are on holidays. What people are afraid of is the potential for imposition. The high number of people who answer honestly that they don’t want a schizophrenic neighbour is likely influenced by high profile cases in which schizophrenics, left without adequate care, have attacked others. That does not mean that these same people would discriminate against a schizophrenic neighbour if they had one.
Given the high incidence of depression in this country, it’s hard to imagine that there can be anyone left who has not had the experience of living or working in close quarters with someone who is or has suffered from depression. It’s a very broad spectrum ranging from people who you only know are sufferers because they have told you so to those about whom you start to worry if you haven’t seen them for twenty-four hours.
The very human responses to the British Social Attitudes Survey in relation to disability may not make very comfortable reading but I think it’s good that people are still being honest about what they think and have not yet been conditioned to respond ‘appropriately’. Whether their response is based on personal experience or popular conception, the most useful conclusion to be drawn is that we are not, as a society, looking after vulnerable people very well, not that 70% of us are arseholes who want people with disabilities to live somewhere else.
So I’m for a discussion on ethics that doesn’t get all caught up in whether our thoughts are falling foul of some legislation or other but whether we really would piss on our neighbour if they were on fire…

Cartoon from


Reading the Signs said...

I know people keep coming back to the "there's no such thing as society" Thatcher spirit of the 80s, but it does seem to me that things started to go very downhill at that point. The getting and spending has got worse and worse and we area more fragmented by it, and less kind. Or I am getting old. I came of age at a time when it was deeply uncool to be a "bread head."

Matt said...

Oh! You're so right Ms Pants! I have been saying this (less articulately than yourself) for some time. There needs to be so much more emphasis on what we do rather than what we think.

That said, there are a lot of people out there who need to change the way they look at the world. I am referring to those people who play their mobile phones as personal stereos on buses, flick the pickles of their burgers onto the floor of the Tube (saw this one to my horror on the Victoria Line) and bring their lottery tickets into the off-license at 8 in the morning when people's simple and immediate needs of milk, juice and papers need satisfying: they should wake up and realise that there are other people around them and THAT WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER!!

Then they might start behaving differently, and we'd all be a lot happier for it.

Ms Melancholy said...

There is often a signficant difference between people's expressed views, and how they would actually behave in a given situation, I think. Still feels a bit scary that people don't want depressed neighbours, though. Do people think it's catching?

That's so pants said...

Hi Signs - I agree that it is absolutely about money and the fear of having none.

Hello Matt and welcome - I agree. I do not understand why people discard the gherkin as it is the most nutritious part of the burger, apart from the wrapper.

Divine Ms M - I know this is your field so I feel a bit nervous about hypothesising but I'll go out on a limb and speculate the 50% of people who said they wouldn't want to have a depressed neighbour were probably imagining someone who was very needy and in an ideal world, would prefer a neighbour who gave great parties and could be relied upon to feed their cat when they were away. I am sure that most of those people, if they did have a depressed neighbour, would respond with kindness and compassion in the best way they could because that's how people actually are. I think people most fear that they might not know what to do if a depressed neighbour needs their help. I'm just guessing.