Terence Blacker: The problem with society is everyone else

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The Independent Online

That great and virtuous institution, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, has for the past two years been studying why British society is in such a terrible mess. It has consulted with commentators and thinkers, and has conducted a survey of 3,500 people. Now and then, tantalising insights into its progress have been released to the press. A little over a year ago, we learnt that 10 social evils of our time, including selfishness and the decline of community values, had been discovered.

With the launch this week of a book called Contemporary Social Evils, it emerges that the figure has been whittled down to seven. On the other hand, they are all corkers. Greed tops the list, with those old Rowntree favourites, addiction, family breakdown and poverty, in close attendance. Declining values (something of a catch-all category, one might think) are also mentioned, as is a lack of tolerance and respect for authority. Immigration and young people, two troublesome areas last year, have slipped down the ratings but, for the first time, the failure of institutions is mentioned.

Launching this depressing document – a sort of inverse moral version of those rich lists which have become all the rage – the chief executive of the Rowntree Trust, Julia Unwin, has announced that we are living through "a social recession, the effects of which are far more devastating and long-lasting than any economic recession". We have, as a society, lost our instinct for kindness, she says. Our response to the world is conditioned by a fear of getting involved with others or causing offence.

Speak for yourself, Julia. I suspect that, when those 3,500 members of the public spoke to researchers of their "deep loathing for the 'me, me, me' society", remarkably few of them will have been referring to themselves. Individually, we do not consider ourselves to be unkind, intolerant or disrespectful. The problem is with other people, out there in society.

Perhaps that is right. Visit small groups in society – rural communities, for example – and you find plenty of generosity and civic virtue. At the other end of the spectrum, on the internet, millions of small acts of unselfishness occur every day, with people sharing music, enthusiasm, opinions and an odd form of friendship.

It is the way our culture looks at itself which has become distorted and off- kilter. For reasons of boredom or fear, we fixate upon the negative. The reaction that newspapers, TV networks and blogs seek most eagerly to incite is not emotion, excitement or curiosity but a general, enervating discontent. All public discourse is variation on a despairing grumble. It seems as if we need to complain about other human beings in order to feel alive.

Politicians lead the dance. Television programmes elevate those who represent the worst of us to the status of icons. Greed, self-interest and cruelty are, in that weird alternative reality of the modern media, not just excusable but are cool, desirable attributes.

However noble its motives, an analysis of broad social evils in early 21st- century Britain is likely to seem as futile as identifying promiscuity in a brothel. Bad things happen all right, but the restless, miserable study of them can sometimes add to the fog of masochistic self-hatred which already envelops us.

Sometimes it seems that the more we are told that generosity and kindness are forgotten values, the more ungenerous and unkind we become. The British public may be hungry for change, as the Rowntree study argues, but sometimes the way of changing the me-me-me society lies closer to home than we like to think.

The sorry tale of the modern-day climbdown

The full absurdity of the modern apology ritual has been revealed by a series of increasingly embarrassing events involving the respected Australian broadcaster Tracy Grimshaw, and the oafish celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. "Tracy, where do I start?" Ramsay whined, after a loathsome campaign of personal insult had backfired on him.

In his apology, Ramsay pathetically involved his mother, claiming she had complained to him, and explained that the original offence had occurred when he was carried away by the raucous reaction of a crowd at The Good Food and Wine Show in Melbourne.

Even by the high standards of insincere modern apologies, this is something of a classic. Mrs Ramsay denies the conversation took place. The remarks in Melbourne involved a morphed image of a naked woman and a pig appearing on a screen, and were clearly part of a scripted routine.

Ramsay's original remarks insulted Tracy Grimshaw. His bogus apology insults the intelligence of everyone else.

It's better to be switched off than switched on

Here is good news for the millions of people who have told Ofcom researchers that they are happy to remain unconnected to the internet. One of the hippest exponents of the viral culture has been having his doubts about the medium, too.

Bill Wasik has been something of an online gadfly, instigating all kinds of stunts, including sending out email chain letters which have led to mysterious "flash mobs" appearing in public places.

In a new book, And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, he expresses a worry that the success or failure of "aspiring culture makers" is increasingly decided by the internet.

The quality of approval online is irrelevant; what matters is whether you appeal to what Wasik calls the "hive mind". The result is that only work that is instantly digestible catches on.

The way to stay sane in a world of information overload is for us all to become "judicious controllers of our own context", says Wasik. For the non-viral, the message can be put more simply. Switch off the computer.

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