Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The Small Society


It was unfortunate. The one week I spent in the UK this year, my home town went up in flames. A protest against the police shooting of a young suspect turned violent, and then youths throughout the city capitalised on the inability of the police to crack down. Young people went on rampage, burning and smashing shops, stealing whatever they could. (We hope it is not repeated this week when the youths realise they stole the wrong sized trainers and need to get them changed.)

In the midst of the riots, attention turned towards the police and the need for a fast and firm response. Starting discussion on the deeper causes made people angry at first: there was no political agenda to the violence and nothing about it can be justified. When David Cameron was elected in 2010 he talked of the “big society”. Now all his talk is of the “sick society”.

But questions on the long term causes for this have to be raised.

Sipping tea with a Kenyan lady in a North London estate, she told me how ashamed she was. For her, the problem had been building for a while. Working night shifts as a nurse for the NHS, she was once walking through her estate when a group of children lifted a wire, causing her to trip and fall. She shouted at the children, telling them to watch out, and an answer came back at her from the window high above. “Watch out yourself!” screamed the mother of the children, angry that anyone dare reprimand her kids.

There are two ways we can measure how strong a society is and they both involve strangers. The first yardstick of a society’s strength is the amount of confidence you have in the help the stranger can give. The stranger is an interesting person because he or she is often trusted even though both parties know they will almost never see each other again. In the UK the stranger will be called upon to tell you directions, share their lighter, or even guard your laptop while you use the bathroom. The more you are able to trust your stranger, the stronger you can say your society is.

The second yardstick for measuring the strength of a society is by examining how confident you are at telling off the stranger. By confidence I do not mean how aggressive, but a mix between how prepared you are to speak out and how likely you think it is that the person or group will listen to you, given the fact that you are not in a position to physically force them to do anything. A whole gang of youths once pushed straight to the front of my Sainsbury’s queue and only one person was willing to complain (and was then completely ignored by the gang). If you take a moment to picture the people you would be confident telling off and the people you would not be, realise that the people you are not confident with do not belong to your society. We are not living in a sick society but in too many small societies. A comparison can help shed light.

The lady in North London has been living in the UK for about eight years. Her home town is Kiambu, less than an hour’s drive from Nairobi. Walking through her place of birth, I was struck by the strength of community that is evident all around. Entering an acquaintances’ house, I am immediately hugged by a young man of 17. His head is small and badly deformed and when he speaks to me he turns his head and looks out of the very corner of his eye. Sadly, when he was born he had water in his brain and so was taken to the near-by clinic. At the time, the doctor was on strike over a lack of pay. Someone unqualified tried to treat the problem instead by injecting a substance into the boy’s skull. It was the wrong medicine and that side of the boy’s head melted badly.

In Kiambu, there is very little state presence or public services, and no social security. What strikes me, however, is just how at ease the disabled and the old are, despite the lack of government help. They can go from house to house and always be welcomed as friends. There, strangers really are friends-in-waiting.

There are two things that need to change in the UK. The first is that we have to stop trying to solve every social problem with the state. There are only so many years you can force people to stay in education and only so many police you can put on the street. We hate the police state and yet every general election we vote for more of it because we are not prepared to face up to the fact that strong community is a citizen-duty not a state-responsibility. Secondly, we need to ditch our moral relativism. Constantly expressing how “this is just my opinion” is getting old. The next time a youth skips the queue I’m going to tell him I don’t like it even though I know he won’t jump there and then to the rear.

Leave not caring about the moral compass of citizens to the bankers, and say instead: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” (Weber 1919)