We have become insensitive to inequality

On July 2013 David Clapson, a 59 year old diabetic, died, in the words of his sister published in The Guardian, “penniless and alone” because the state department ultimately responsible for his welfare allowed him to fall through the gaps. Two days later, a child was born who will live out its life in a level of state-funded comfort unimaginable to most. While the first of these two events made some front-page headlines, the second was the subject of an extended media frenzy which made plain the fawning, obsequious nature of the British executive class.

These events, both repulsive in their own way, serve to illustrate the reason why the steadily-increasing gap in economic equality elicits little more from the chattering classes – from us – than an indignant sigh. To lament the passing of the man, and then celebrate the arrival of the boy, is to cry out in rage at a hacking cough, and then light another cigarette. And yet we continue to engage in this sort of abject hypocrisy because we live in a society inured to injustice; a society with injustice at its core.

Exposure to facts and figures, like those recently released by the Social Market Foundation showing that since the recession the rich have grown 64 per cent richer, and the poor 57 per cent poorer, does next to nothing in a society pre-conditioned to a belief in the permanence of overt social stratification. Though it may be a stereotype that we Brits are class-obsessed, the positive joy most take in implicitly asserting that a social group are ‘better’ than ourselves, are more deserving, by virtue of vacuous tradition, exposes the raw truth at the heart of it. So long as we accept that some are entitled to riches, we condemn others to a penury that sophisms can make appear natural.
And yet, despite this always having been the case, great strides were once made in ensuring a greater degree of equity for all. The experience of the war brought different strata of society into a contact with one another that no amount of data or so-called ‘human-interest’ stories could ever hope to achieve, and manifested itself in a post-war social-democratic consensus unbroken until the arrival of the 80s. Since then, the relentless focus on the individual-as-consumer has led to self-interested behaviour being not merely tolerated, but rewarded, and an atomisation of society without historical precedent.

Figures do nothing for us. They are but so many nails in the coffin of our long-since atrophied social conscience. Instead, we must self-consciously step outside our comfort zone, and rebuild cross-class interpersonal relationships worthy of the name. It is far more difficult to swallow the inequalities in our society when staring into the amiable eyes of a man who must choose between heating his home or feeding himself. Still more so when listening to one without the luxury of so much as a bed. We are all too accustomed to walking past the man shivering in the street, offering him at most a few spare coins, a cigarette, a sandwich. Would we do as little if he were our friend? Above all we must fight hypocrisy, and finally shake off our infantile attachment to an archaic institution symbolic of nothing but the backwardness of our state. Then and only then will we be able to approach all others as what they are; as equals.

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