Monday, 22 July 2013

Reflections on policy and the state of play

I keep finding myself muttering at the TV and having internal conversations about things like the welfare system, education and the coalition. Occasionally I've tried to verbalise some of what I'm thinking/feeling to colleagues, family, and friends, but now I'm going to take the perhaps foolish route of trying to put it into writing in some vaguely coherent way.

The more I think about it the more I become convinced that there is a disconnect in our society between how we view people, how we treat them and how we are as human beings. For want of a better way to put it, it is as if we all lack Theory of Mind. For anyone vaguely interested, Theory of Mind relates to the Three Mountains Experiment. This purportedly shows that people with Autism cannot visualise a situation from the point of view of a toy policeman viewing a scene from a different angle. I'll try below to put into words how I think this applies to society.

There are, depending on your belief system, various things that contribute to who and what we are as individuals. The existence of Fate, a God, or Gods, could be relevant to (or negate) this, but for now let me stick to the ones that I think Science alludes to. In a sense, the list below is my list of things that, I think, directly effect whether or not I will get up in the morning. They are:

My genes
My physiology
My upbringing
My heritage
My experience
My situation 
My social/familial network
My self

When I came up with this list, or subconsciously stole it, I found it very difficult to pin down. Each item bears a great deal of explaining and pondering, not least because each item could be split into hundreds. It is probably something that a decent philosopher could make their life's work, but I'm going to try to do this from left field, as it were, by relying on a couple of pseudo-parables.

The politician versus the benefits scrounger:

Gary comes from a good family. His parents have money, have status, and they have a good work ethic. He rarely gets ill and he has a great deal of support from family and friends. His teachers instilled in him the importance of success and he is mentally driven. He eats well, exercises and works hard. He gets up in the morning and approaches every new day positively. He didn't get where he is today by feeling sorry for himself or relying on luck, and he didn't need handouts from anyone, including his parents. He can take the stresses and strains of everyday life and he doesn't crumble in the face of adversity. He only wants a family when he can afford it and he saves for a rainy day so that if things go wrong he has something to fall back on. He's well educated and he helps out in the local community.

Gary comes from a work shy family. His parents have never had any money, they've never bothered working and they live off the state. He's always getting ill and his parents just can't be bothered with him. His teachers have always told him he'll amount to nothing and he just drives them round the bend. He lives on takeaways, and plays games or watches telly all the time. He gets high, or has a drink (or both) most nights. He looks around and he sees those lucky sods with their BMWs, holidays, and big houses and he wonders why he's so unlucky. He's had a couple of jobs but couldn't be doing with the stress. He sees his kids now and then, but they're better of with their Mum as she has a bigger place and he's busy reducing the pensions bill by smoking 20 fags a day. He doesn't have any qualifications and most days he can't be bothered to do anything.

So what was the point of hauling out both of those rather awful stereotypical representations? The point is simple. The list I produced above loosely represents the factors that helped make me into a combination of Gary the politician and Gary the benefits scrounger. Which one I more closely resemble varies from day to day, minute to minute. This closeness is affected by everything from what I had for breakfast, through to the pills I take for Anxiety/Depression, through to the amount of Dopamine my brain releases at any given nanosecond. There is no one policy, or political assumption that can possibly fit me perfectly and/or make me into the "perfect" member of society.

It is this very realisation, however, that I find completely lacking from our national political system and our society as a whole. It is as if we all assume either that the things in life that shaped us are the same for everyone or that we can somehow pre-empt or understand fully how any one person has been shaped based purely upon our own unique experiences. Perhaps it is fear that understanding a behaviour is the same as completely absolving a person from any responsibility for that behaviour. Perhaps it is an assumption that free will completely trumps every other factor affecting our lives. Who knows.

Whatever the reason, as long as this unwillingness to truly accept individual differences continues, we will not succeed in creating a truly "Fair" society. On a basic level, we have begun to understand that differences in gender, ethnicity, culture, sexuality and disability should be celebrated and that discrimination should be eliminated. We've begun to apply this to mental illness and, through the Equality Act 2010, we almost began to apply this to socio-economic groups. Until we accept, however, that the massive complexity that goes into the actions and character of every individual cannot be fully predicted, controlled, or contained we will continue to blunder around applying false absolutes to every policy decision where none can possibly exist.

They say every rule has an exception. They've got it wrong. Every exception has a rule. When we finally accept this, we truly can, and will, move forward as a race.

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