You may have heard that in polite company you don’t talk about money, religion or politics as you never know if you might offend. In 2000 I asked my next-door neighbour if he was going on the Walk for Reconciliation across the Sydney Harbour Bridge – the way he looked at me you would have thought I had asked him if he had sex on Sundays! You just don’t understand he said and I left it at that. After all I had only been in Australia a year and I had a lot to learn.
Since then I have worked closely with indigenous communities and am so pleased I went on that walk and added my feet and voice to the call to acknowledge the wrongs perpetrated on Aboriginal people. Not in distant history but in my own lifetime, light-skinned children were taken from their families to be raised on missions, wiping out their cultural heritage. These people are now known as the Stolen Generation. Eventually in February 2008 Prime Minister Rudd made an apology to Aboriginal Australians. It was a moving moment and coincided with the ‘Close the Gap’ policy to address inequalities between indigenous and white Australians. There is a long way to go but it’s a start. This may never have happened if there had not been all those people prepared to turn out on a Sunday morning to make their views known – reinforcing other actions taken over the years by those who wanted to set things right.
For me the ‘personal’ in politics is not about what is best for me, my family or my bank balance, but the kind of society I want to live in. A ‘good society’ is one in which everyone has both the opportunity and the support to flourish, where respect and good will are more commonplace than intolerance and self-interest and where people feel safe. Politics is not simply party affiliation and voting preferences. It exists in conversations, in what we choose to do every day, and how we think about others who share our world.
In a ‘good society’ there is compassion for individuals and families who are struggling and a reliable helping hand from those who are doing well. In the US, ‘Belief in a Just World’ (Lerner, 1980) dominates how others are positioned and this is increasingly replicated in ideology elsewhere in the Western world. This theory says that people get what they deserve – those who work hard enough can make a success of their lives and if you are down on your luck it must be your own fault. This holds an element of truth but as a broader theory is deeply flawed. Think of word games (Scrabble or Words with Friends).
It certainly helps if you have a wide vocabulary and are clever enough to see good places to go, but if you get a rubbish set of letters to start with your options are limited. ‘Belief in a Just World’ does not take account of chance and the hand you have been dealt and can lead to demonising those who, through no fault of their own, endure hardship. This is evidenced in the way some people talk about refugees or the homeless. Who in public life avoids negative assumptions and plans to maintain the safety net of health and welfare – alongside providing universal educational opportunities. I am lucky, I was dealt a good hand so am happy to pay taxes to fund this. I will not be the only one who thinks this is fair payment for a civil society.
In a ‘good society’ there is least gap between the haves and the have-nots. Almost every social problem is greater the more unequal the country or state, not by a little but by a lot (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010). There is more violence, worse mental health, higher crime rates, less community connection and much lower levels of child wellbeing. This impacts not only on the poor themselves, but on the lives of everyone. Scandinavian countries by comparison are flourishing. In Denmark, where there is least difference between the haves and have-nots, 33 per cent of its citizens consider themselves to be doing well, compared with just 18 per cent in the UK and only 6 per cent in Russia. Since 1970 the UK’s gross domestic product has almost doubled but life satisfaction has increased only marginally. Despite the political rhetoric, it is not how much money people have in their pocket that matters most, it is how they are doing compared to others – how fair things are seen to be. When politicians say in this age of austerity ‘we are all in this together’, but continue to promote privilege and increase inequality, their hypocrisy and complacency are writ large.
In a ‘good society’ freedom is balanced with responsibility. There is a level of trust that people in powerful positions will consider the impact of their actions on the least powerful. At the moment there are endless stories of politicians and CEOs lining their own pockets. How much more valuable is honour and integrity than an extra car in the garage or another luxury holiday. Life is short. We can choose to live it focused on acquisition or imbued with meaning. Who are positive role models in society who demonstrate honesty, integrity and considered judgment in taking account of the common good? Who are prepared to introduce laws to prevent corporations from boosting profits for their shareholders by destroying communities who get in their way? I applaud, for instance, the move to sell cigarettes in plain packaging and would welcome regulations to prevent individuals being handed lottery-sized bonuses or being able to inflate house prices that make living in the city out of reach for those who teach our children or police our streets.
In a ‘good society’ everyone has the right to be who they are – so long as they do not impose their way of being on others. This means that it doesn’t matter who someone loves, what religion they follow, what skin colour they have or what gender they are – they have the same rights as everyone else. Acceptance of difference is a strength in civilised societies and I look to those who will actively promote diversity, equality and human rights. The current Australian government has just passed a law that denies human rights to asylum seekers. How can anyone be proud of that?
In a ‘good society’ those with power consider not just the next election but the next generation – it is what makes the difference between a politician and a statesman. One of the main issues facing our world is climate change. Dealing with this requires a long-term strategy that will inevitably affect short-term profits. In November there is a critical climate conference in Paris. If you care about the future make sure your representatives know the decisions they make there matter to you.
In the UK there is a General Election coming up in May, there will be a race to the White House next year in the US and in Australia the Prime Minister is hanging on by a thread. The media are already having a field day in Britain and Russell Brand is urging people not to vote because he says it doesn’t make any difference. Alongside compassion and equality, one of the values in a ‘good society’ is active democracy. People through the ages and across the world have died for the right to have a say in what happens in their country. Not voting is opting out – it is saying that the quality and direction of the society you live in has nothing to do with you. Yes it does.
To misquote Edmund Burke: The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing.
So what kind of society you want for yourself, your children and maybe your grandchildren? Are your values reflected in those you vote for? Democracy doesn’t stop at the election booth. Have conversations, sign petitions, be active on social media, join Avaaz / GetUp / 38 Degrees and other organisations committed to fairness and decency – for a good society, for a better world. The personal is political – even if you choose to do nothing.
Lerner, M. (1980). The Belief in a Just World. New York: Plenum Press.
Wilkinson, R., and Pickett, K. (2010). The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. London: Penguin.
Photo of The Walk for Reconciliation, Sydney 2000 at the head of this piece © Emma Marshall: www.emmamarshall.net