Thursday, August 25, 2011

Who is fit to lead the moral regeneration of a broken society?

If you are anywhere in the British Isles, it is difficult to think about anything else this week than the riots that flared up across England. The wanton looting and extensive property damage were not only ferocious, but pervasive, stretching across a range of cities, suggesting a deep-seated problem.

Explanations for the riots have varied. During the riots, Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron claimed the riots were pure and simply criminality. However, in a speech after the riots, he backtracked slightly. Although he felt the behaviour of the protestors and the influence of gangs, particularly, were still the main problem, he acknowledged a plethora of other causes for a broken society.

These included problems in the education system and family breakdown, and, as a result, he promised to transform the lives of around 120 000 families and parents. He talked of a “slow-motion moral collapse”. He acknowledged the need to show higher moral standards across society, noting the banking crisis, the abuse of expenses by UK Members of Parliament (MPs) and the phone hacking carried out by journalists as examples of “greed, irresponsibility and entitlement”. In essence, he called for tougher security measures and a social fightback.

That said, he did not feel that race, government cuts or poverty were the main causal factors. In contrast, Labour leader Ed Miliband said inequality was a factor, and he, too, noted that rioters were greedy, immoral and selfish, much like some bankers, MPs and journalists. He felt a commission of inquiry and national conversation were necessary to address the issue.

Despite the eloquent words of both politicians, however, as I read through the speeches, I found myself feeling somewhat queasy. The reason for this was that I struggled to believe the promises implicit in either analysis.

Will the lives of thousands be turned around? Will the gap between the rich and poor narrow? Will bankers, who were bailed out, ever pay taxpayers back or have their bonuses curtailed? Would another commission uncover the truth? I doubt it.

Maybe I am cynical and my jaded view of the world is not fair on politicians who, in many cases, are doing their best. But if I feel like this as I read the speeches on my shiny Macbook, in my middle-class suburban home, how estranged must people without my level of social security feel?

I am not sure if politicians in the UK, and South Africa for that matter, realise how little faith the vast majority of the public have in them. Everyday, it seems to me, ordinary folk feel they have less and less chance of influencing the direction of the State.

Iraq War Protestors London
15th February 2003
Credit: Simon Rutherford / CC BY
In Britain, when a million people marched against the Iraq War, they were ignored. When the public were morally outraged at MPs fiddling their expense claims, a few MPs were prosecuted, but most were given the chance to pay the money back (maybe the looters could also get off if they returned their goods?).

In South Africa, when people voice their opinion about government corruption, they are deemed racists or sell-outs. Or, when black South Africans point to the excesses of white businesses living large on apartheid gains, they are dismissed as misguided insurrectionists.

Feeling estranged from the State, especially a democratic State, does not fully explain or justify violent riots and unrest, but my point is that I fear that those in power have not grasped the disconnect between themselves and the populace. This makes any talk of political leaders leading the charge in repairing the social and moral fabric of society sound farcical.

Moral and community reconstruction is not something you can do to others. Fixing a moral collapse starts, in the throwaway words of popstar Michael Jackson, with the man in the mirror. This means questioning your own moral compass, acting against injustice, toning down the rhetoric and throwaway solutions, and taking more time to listen to others respectfully.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 25 August 2011 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.