Paul Dundon’s Weblog


A little cheese and a little whine

A Failure of Neighbourliness

Reading of a move to deprive looters of their benefits, I realise there is no point in talking, in an ostensibly Christian nation, of the teaching about loving one’s enemies. Clearly, as a culture, we no longer have anything like the moral courage required for that. We should, however, be able to do better than this.

For as long as people have been writing about right and wrong, there has been a recognition that people act selfishly, but there has also been a recognition that such selfishness is moderated by a desire to care for those close to us. Even the most egotistical will learn that it is prudent to stand up for the interests of his friends and family. For each of us, there is a group to whom we act as good neighbours – people whose wants and needs we take seriously, often as seriously as we take our own.

For some, this group is small and perhaps volatile. They consider their own needs as paramount, and show no loyalty to others who get in the way of satisfying them. Others try to encompass as many as they can in their group, working tirelessly for the benefit of people they have not even met. Most of us find ourselves somewhere in between, but our moral aspirations – both individually and culturally – tend towards the latter position. We admire those who have the strength (and it does require strength) to put aside their own wants and needs to work for some more general good. We admire the man who puts his career on hold to help his wife advance hers; we admire the parents who spend less on themselves to invest in their children’s future; we admire the household that looks out for the old lady next door.

A crisis event like the recent riots inevitably becomes a text which we all interpret according to our favourite world view, a reason to espouse what we already believe, rather than a chance to understand something new. While I am reluctant to jump on this band-waggon (or rather, having resolved to jump off it) I don’t think I’m stretching a point to say that looting and arson constitute fairly basic failures of neighbourliness. In my limited experience, these failings are of two kinds – on the one hand, a failing by individuals to consider anyone’s needs but their own, and on the other, a failure of one group to see another group as their neighbours, this latter exemplified by the looters who regard themselves not as damaging their own community, but the “other” community of the rich.

These failings are neither so insidious or appalling, however, as the failure of those who have signed this petition. Not all those rioting and looting fit the bill of the disadvantaged youth from the broken home, but these were largely young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and it isn’t hard to imagine why they might lack moral development, and fail to understand the significance and consequences of their actions. Those signing this petition have no such excuse.

Quite apart from being massively counter-productive, this proposal is petty, small-minded and mean-spirited. But most tellingly, it represents exactly the same failure of neighbourliness as the riots themselves. It casts the rioters as some “other” group to be ostracised and punished, not neighbours but enemies; it is driven by the quick satisfaction of lashing out rather than the harder work of making things better.

I’m under no illusion that the vast majority of last week’s events were anything but lawlessness, and I think that pursuing the looters as criminals through the police and the courts is the right course of action. As right minded people, we want to see those guilty brought to justice, but as good neighbours, we must see that justice involves punishment not for our satisfaction, but as part of a process of rehabilitation and integration.

There is no practical value in punishment for punishment’s sake – in the end it reveals itself as cruelty and engenders not reform but resentment, resistance and further violence. Worse, it stems from just the same failings as we are trying to correct: a failure to see how other people’s needs and interests converge with our own. It is perfectly possible to condemn the act and not the person, to understand and forgive but at the same time to demand better, to help people overcome their failings rather than on the one hand punishing those people for them or on the other supporting those people in perpetuating them.

We must, as Ghandi said, be the change we want to see in the world, and the change we seem to want is a more cohesive society where people are more considerate of the needs of others. We want, in short, a society of good neighbours. There are all sorts of reasons we don’t have that society, and there is a great deal of work to do to bring it about. It requires strength and courage and real human engagement. A petty desire to punish people, expressed through a click on a web page, just isn’t good enough.

Filed under: Politics

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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