…”If the kids are united, they will never be divided”, so sang Jimmy Pursey, lead singer of Punk icons Sham 69. Jimmy famously, or infamously, then tried his hand at the visual arts, expressing himself through the medium of dance; if he had been David Bowie he’d have been hailed a genius, as it turned out he was largely ridiculed for his efforts…irony indeed from a generation that was supposed to cherish difference and self-expression. When I was a youngster, some years ago, this simplistic yet profound song was one of the anthems of my youth. It’s great appeal being its enduring message that people are stronger together and that we have more that unites us than that which divides us; united we might stand a chance but divided we will fall…it’s essentially a song about systems thinking, though I guess if Jimmy had sung “if we all have a more holistic sense of our interdependence we may develop a more equitable society that creates more meaningful opportunities for us”, is admittedly a less catchy chorus.. and to many it may seem a yawning platitude, but it is still the Achilles heel to progress for much of the human race where “I’m alright Jack” continues to pervade and despite Goodwin, Lay and Madoff, greed is still seen as good. This, in turn, enables the old concept of divide and conquer to thrive in many areas of society and of our lives because our species seems to possess an incredibly consistent if not wildly frustrating ability to fracture, divide and attack itself at the spin of a self-interested coin. Just grant someone a privilege once and watch the sparks of self-interest and self-preservation begin to burst into flame…
I watched the United Airlines video through widening shocked and disbelieving eyes; I already knew from Social Media that United broke guitars, but this was new territory. I wasn’t outraged at seeing a human beings rights so obviously and blatantly violated, I was shocked at seeing his fellow human beings, fellow passengers on the journey in every sense of the phrase, sitting back nonchalantly letting it happen…it made me wonder what we have come to when we are prepared to simply sit and watch such unsavoury events unfold, doubtless counting our blessings that, “at least it’s not us”. What I also found thought provoking, was the use of Social Media as a proxy for real action; sure Social Media was useful in that it generated awareness and attracted a lot of attention, but it does seem to reflect a sense of impotency when posting something on Facebook becomes a substitute for acting in the moment. And if I’m being honest, a trait which has got me into way too much trouble thus far in my life (I blame my Mum), then I don’t know how I would react in a situation like that…though I’d like to think I would be courageous, I guess I could just be another one of the hapless amateur photographers hiding behind the lens of my phone-camera whilst telling myself that, “at least I was doing what I could”.
For me, the United Airlines video demonstrated perfectly a manifestation of the concept of Wilful Blindness. The use of their phones gave the passengers the perfect excuse to collectively sit and do nothing whilst telling themselves they were doing something. No-one acted, no-one appeared to stand, people could see a fellow human being treated disgracefully, physically manhandled; and yet they did nothing. What is also worrying is that those people who “were just doing their jobs”, the man-handlers who used force to remove a person from his seat…where was their moral compass? I’d like to think that if a manager asked me to “pull someone off a crowded plane and humiliate them in front their peers” I would tell them where to get off and encourage them to do it themselves. Alvin Toffler in his book The Third Wave noted, more eloquently than I will express, that people will pretty much go along with and put up with anything if they have been brought to a point where their very own self-preservation is at stake. They will watch others get bullied and worse, as long as it’s not them and as long as their lot is safe.
All it has ever taken for bad things to happen is that others, including you and I, let them happen. In today’s society, with an increasingly squeezed working and middle-class, all having to run faster and faster on the hamster wheel like domesticated rodents on speed simply to keep up with the ever-increasing financial and emotional demands life places on them, we find that we exist in a climate where there is less and less room for the courage and challenge that we collectively need. I found myself walking through Preston this week, a place who’s claim to fame is that it became the UKs 50th city in 2002…I haven’t visited Preston for some years and I was shocked to see a number of homeless people on the high street. I’ve witnessed the obvious and disturbing growth of homelessness in Manchester, Edinburgh, London and Liverpool, but Preston is a relatively small city, a stone throw from the edges of the Lake District. And as I bought my copy of the Big Issue, not a bad read if you’ve never tried it, I found myself saying, there but by the grace of god (I know, strange for an atheist), and at least it’s not me…as if by seeing someone living on the fringes of existence, someone obviously worse off than me, somehow gave me a licence to feel better about my life and my lot. We are a strange bunch aren’t we?