Mark Easton is BBC News home editor. Last week at the Hay Festival during a talk he was giving, he gave some thoughts on economic division in our society. Journalists who do their job well should be able to take an objective analytical view on the subjects they write and speak about. Someone in Easton’s position with access to so many resources is in a strong position to talk with credibility, so it is worth listening to what he said. This extract is from a report on his talk by We Love This Book:
“We’re going backwards. I’ve been exploring our relationship with the poor, and we’re much more judgemental of the poor here than anywhere else in Europe. They’re scroungers, we think. Attitudes are hardening rather than softening…we’re stagnating, not improving.”
The Britain etc. author said we love a scapegoat. “We confine the person who can take the blame for everything that’s wrong in the country.”
Looking at the current government’s narrative on the need to reduce the welfare state, you do get the impression that a view of those on benefits as scroungers is being encouraged by government and media. Whilst much of the focused attention has been on the long-term unemployed who are seen by some to be milking the system, the potential effect is that anyone on benefits irrespective of the reason is negatively labelled in the process. The poor do have a serious image problem in our society and as our belts continue to tighten, it’s unlikely to change any time soon.
Tolerance is diminishing but it’s never going to help our society function any better if we dehumanise one section of it. It will just produce more negative consequences and division in the long run.
Mark Easton’s solution is not to throw more money at the issue, which I have a suspicion is partly why this judgemental attitude has evolved, but rather something I didn’t expect him to raise:
He said the solution to creating a more understanding, accepting society is to “engage young people to hang out with people of different ages.
“British kids spend an inordinate amount of time with other teenagers – which is normal. But the old lady who is scared of the hoodies outside the post office is scared because she doesn’t know them. Thirty years ago she would have known at least one of them…we need to find different ways of getting generations together.”
He said the divide and the suspicion of older generations is caused mainly by the “SW1 news agenda…a story about knife crime has to fit into the prime minister’s lack of effort at solving the problem. It’s all political terrain. Crime is actually falling, and has been for several years, but no news desks would ever do a story on that; it doesn’t fit the political narrative.”
This is an unexpected way to attempt to build bridges and not one that is immediately obvious. I’m struggling to link scapegoating the poor to breaking down the divides between the generations, but he is certainly on to something as for the need to try to rebuild the broken connections between our different generations. How can it be good for us to live in a country where the elderly live in fear of young people or where young people to feel that they have been rejected by those older than them?
The fragmentation of our society has led to increased mistrust and misunderstanding between rich and poor and also old and young and so maybe this is where Easton’s connection lies. Do we just accept this as inevitable or is there good reason to make a concerted effort to do something about it?
When I think about this big and very complex problem, I’m drawn to a Biblical basis of how community should function. If Christians in churches can model effective community between the generations then that gives us hope that it potentially can be achieved elsewhere.
If you look at passages such as Ephesians 6 there are clear commands for children to respect and obey their parents and for parents to make sure they do not embitter or exasperate their children. Then in 1 Corinthians the need for both unity and diversity in the body of Christ’s church is explained.
When this all comes together communities can function beautifully, but the reality is that it is not straightforward. When I was employed as a church youth worker, I did my best to make sure that the young people had plenty of time away from the adults to have fellowship and learn together in a way that they felt at ease with. This worked well, but it was also blatantly obvious that the different ages suffered if they were permanently apart. There was a need for everyone to spend time together too in order to build up and encourage each other. Getting the balance right wasn’t easy and it involved everyone making some compromises, but this combination of diversity and unity with mutual respect for each other was and still is an effective combination. What we aim to be as a church is a family bonded together with God’s love.
In one sense our society is a big family that is rather dysfunctional in places. When you take God’s love out of a family it becomes harder to make it work, which is why almost all problems will continue linger no matter how hard we try to solve them. However when we’re looking to build community on sound principles that echo a Biblical model irrespective of who is doing it, then we should expect to see results.
Healing divides between the generations is far too big an issue for me to adequately address here and I’m not sure how many practical answers I have. What I would say though is that where I’ve seen progress being made it usually involves one generation reaching out to another through time, commitment and love. It’s mostly involved adults going to young people and showing them that they care, although I have seen it work in reverse too. Mentoring is something that I know works where adults get alongside young people and look to support and befriend them. Charities such as XLP in London have seen the lives of even the most difficult young people turn around because they’ve met adults who have taken an interest in them.
We can’t expect things to improve if we all wait for someone else to do it or if we’ll only do it if there’s some sort of financial reward. There are plenty of people out there who are looking to build bridges between the generations who deserve support and help, but there are also vast swathes of people who could be doing something but aren’t. How we enable the first group and motivate the second are challenges that need to be addressed seriously if we want to see our society and communities strengthened and generational bridges being restored again.
It’s a huge ask whichever way you look at it, but we have an assurance from God that nothing is too much for Him. With prayer and action all things are possible and for the sake of our country it’s important that Christians lead by example and put God’s love for all people into practice.