broken-hearted society

In the 2010 election campaign, Tory leader David Cameron suggested that we are living in a ‘broken society’; now he's telling us that the solution is a 'big society'.  In some ways this represents an improvement on one of his predecessors, Margaret Thatcher, who assured us in 1987 that there was ‘no such thing as society’.  So at least the party purportedly in charge of society (since they are currently in government) now acknowledges that society does indeed exist, even if they can only shake their heads and repeat the perception that it is broken.


It certainly appears that way from the perspective of certain newspapers and TV commentators who consider themselves qualified and able to make pronouncements about our society from studio couches.  A few statistics about crime figures, usually taken out of context, or perhaps a nostalgic look back at how things were in their own childhoods are presented as proof that society is broken, but it can, according to the current Conservative Prime Minister, be solved by the establishment of a ‘Big Society’ one which is somehow taken from the state and put back into the hands of the people.  So no society has become a broken society to which the solution is a big society. 


The idea of society – big, broken or otherwise – is hardly new.  More than three hundred years ago, Baruch Spinoza noted that: ‘Man is a social animal… Men can provide for their wants much more easily by mutual help, and only by uniting their forces can they escape from the dangers that beset them.’


And in the last century, Erich Fromm anticipated some of the symptoms of what is mistakenly perceived as our broken society: ‘The structure of modern society affects man in two ways simultaneously: he becomes more independent, self-reliant and critical, and he becomes more isolated, alone and afraid.’


His last point, about our isolation and loneliness, is borne out in a recent survey revealing that three quarters of us don’t know our neighbours.  When the authors of the biblical laws in Leviticus demanded that we should try to love our neighbour as we love ourselves, they could hardly have imagined a time when we didn’t even know who our neighbours are.


But the problem, I believe, lies in the second part of that groundbreaking biblical requirement.  The issue is about the extent to which we love ourselves.  We are lonely, alienated and afraid, and if we love our neighbours the same way that we love ourselves, our relationships will be tainted by the same loneliness, alienation and fear from which we all suffer.  The society in which we live is not broken; it is broken-hearted.


In our lonely, broken-hearted society, we cannot love ourselves because we are constantly being told that in order to find self-worth we need to own more, look younger or achieve some kind of celebrity.  So if we try to adhere to the Levitical law, we will simply see our neighbours as we see ourselves: inadequate, striving and ultimately in competition with us.


So it is no wonder that three-quarters of us do not know our neighbours – we do not want to know them; we see them as a threat.  We compete with them in a seemingly endless struggle to establish our self-worth by measuring our achievements and acquisitions against theirs.  Our hearts have been broken: we have lost our values and our sense of how to love – both others, and more importantly, ourselves.  We need to rediscover love, a deeper sense of purpose in our lives than the acquisition of status, whether it be financial, physical or social.


Another Conservative Prime Minister, from an even earlier century, also had something to say about society.  Benjamin Disraeli wrote, in his novel ‘Sybil’: ‘It is a community of purpose that constitutes society’.  It is no good just finding adjectives to attach to society; we need to discover purpose: purpose in ourselves and our own lives, a sense of meaning and direction for ourselves and our neighbours, working together to find real value in community, instead of chasing after material gain as individuals.  In this way, we can mend society’s broken heart together, and begin the task of making ourselves and our world whole again.

August 2010