Regular readers of my blog (a small but much appreciated group!) may wonder if I’ve got a bit obsessed with the Occupy eviction and my forced removal from the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. Looking back now, I realise that my last five blog entries have been about it.
A few people who know me personally have also hinted that I might be getting a bit carried away with the subject. My focus is perhaps unsurprising given the shock of being removed by police while praying on the steps of a church. However, I wouldn’t want anyone to think that it’s the only thing I’ve been thinking about. As well as being more than usually occupied with some personal and family issues, I’ve been writing some Bible reading notes on the theme of peace and continuing with my part-time role at at The Friend magazine.
Nonetheless, I’ve been hampered over recent weeks by own mental health problems. I’ve written before on this site about my problems with anxiety, panic attacks and obsessive compulsive disorder. They are less severe than they were some years ago, but they still bother me, and sometimes they become quite bad again. This has been the case over the last month or so.
The experience has led me to reflect on the phrase “vulnerable people”, which I keep hearing. It was heard in the court case over the eviction of Occupy London Stock Exchange, when the City of London Corporation said that the camp attracted “vulnerable people”. (Is that a bad thing? You could say the same about churches.) Critics of the government’s assault on the welfare state warn that they will harm “vulnerable people”.
I share their criticisms, but find this term somewhat worrying. Firstly, because it can imply that disabled people are inherently vulnerable as individuals, rather than made vulnerable by society. But my biggest objection to the term is that it implies that the majority of people are invulnerable.
I have yet to meet any invulnerable people. We are all vulnerable to a greater or lesser extent. Different people are vulnerable in different ways. This is the condition of humanity. It is more particularly the condition of humanity in an unjust world beset by the sins of violence and inequality. A society that values money and markets over people and planet will naturally make more of us more vulnerable in more ways.
Social justice is not about “vulnerable people” being “looked after” by those who are supposedly not vulnerable. Nor is it about escaping vulnerability. It is about building personal, social, political and economic relationships rooted in love and justice. We are able to do this only if we recognise our vulnerability and our mutual needs. To use the words of a recent statement by Quakers involved in the Occupy movement, we are all “broken people in a broken world”. There can be no healing if we do not recognise this.
Is Anybody Listening?
The barrier that divides is widest at the point of those who prop up the notions of ‘helper’ and ‘helped’– Leaders and followers…– ‘us and them’! If only the ‘other’ could be more like ourselves! This pinpoints the intrinsic weakness of self-wisdom, of assumed superiority, and the inferiority of those ‘not like Us’. We begin from the point of presuming we have something the other needs to become more fruitful. Such arrogance will continue to warp and betray the best of motives until we stop being ‘active’ and become ‘Listeners’ – whose agenda do we work to? Whose community, whose life is it anyway? How dare we impose our ‘norms and values’ on the stories of others?
We need to rediscover how at the centre of all ordinary lives are ‘people’ and, ‘things’: people doing things, making things, exchanging things, hoping for things, overcoming things and transforming things. This is how their story, and their shaping unfold, it is our story. Yet social exclusion fractures this process, suddenly, cruelly and often tragically. The gap between the disengaged and the trapped is not closing, the gulf is immense and the danger is that we will adopt a knee jerk reaction, simply developing more and more initiatives that aim to prop up the notion of ‘the helper’ and ‘the helped’. Busy doing nothing working the whole day through trying to find lots of things not to do – those whom have ears let them listen.
The Centrality of ‘Things’
A Personal reflection (Ongoing work)
We are all shaped by the world around us, we shape new stories but we are a part of a continuing story. There is currently a resurgence of interest ‘family trees’, our roots, and our story. Our yesterdays, todays and tomorrows are shaped by a great many things. ‘Nowt like stating the obvious’.
It is not the purpose of this reflection to provide information that simply describes how terrible social exclusion is, providing further conference material for talking shops. The last thing we need is another ‘review’, another report, we need action.
At the heart of the matter are our stories, and our ability to grasp the importance of listening to our story and the stories of others, rather than second-guessing and blindly following the latest trend, or catch phrase of social engineering, whilst leaving the situation untouched. The service mentality charged by targets is in danger of becoming a talking shop on such a scale that the emperors’ new clothes astonish us, we all follow in blind conformity without realising the growing fracture within our communities. There is a very real danger that we will redouble our efforts whilst loosing sight of the cause. In a nutshell we become imprisoned within a notion that busyness is a sign of development, it is not. Are we engaged in a cycle of seminars and conferences whose hidden agenda is to support our notion of ‘doing something’? Where do such events bridge the gap between the disengaged and the trapped?
For anyone trying to understand social exclusion – the effects upon the health, well being of the individual and community development – it is essential to grasp the centrality of ‘things’. Community engagement is about ‘things’, it is about being excluded from ‘things’, because of a lack of money, low self-esteem. It is about not having ‘things’ like a job, self-respect, self-confidence, or any plans for the future. But also, it is about having ‘things’ like disability, (visible of invisible). It is about isolation, depression, loneliness, ill-health! Where would you begin to tackle such issues? Would such ‘things’ enable and encourage you to attend ‘social exclusion seminars’ or other such ‘consultation events? Even if you could afford them! Would you have the resolve, the confidence, the heart, to face a room full of confident-professionals who speak of ‘empowerment and social exclusion’.
The failure to acknowledge the centrality of ‘things’ has been and sadly remains the major barrier to engaging those who are trapped by such ‘things’, and likewise challenging those who are disengaged from such ‘things’ to realise that: ‘apathy’ is an overused excuse to describe and dismiss those who are trapped by ‘things’ such as an environment that closes in on them, or ‘things’ that overwhelm and dispirit such as when ‘things’ breakdown or get damaged, they remain broken and damaged. Many people are being trapped by their situation and discounted as apathetic, ‘rough & ready’, benefit-scroungers, poor, and disadvantaged, is it any wonder that they become ‘excluded’. A sense of self-worth is vital to our lives; too often this is neglected and undermined by a paternalistic approach that reinforces the gap between the ‘helper’ and the ‘helped’. It can lead to a relationship that disables and dismantles self-worth, ‘brick-by-patronising-brick’. Affirmation is the tool to address the needs we find within our communities, not a Victorian-style-charity which keeps the poor, the rough & ready, the scroungers in a prison of benevolent charity. This serves only to make the ‘helper’ feel good, and the ‘helped’ still dependant. This dependency destroys self-worth, reinforcing a sense of helplessness.