I love the Declaration of Independence, especially the second sentence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights (and that these include having 30 people in our garden.)”
I shudder at those dark days when our gardens were empty of 11-a-side football matches with four substitutes, a referee and three assistants. At last, I can simultaneously host a game of baseball and a performance of Twelve Angry Men.
It matters more to be released from my bubble. Out into the world I march - no longer surrounded by people genetically “just like me”. Instead, we can all fling open our doors to life’s rich pageantry (well, five people).
But as you welcome “The Chosen Five” into your home, take a closer look. How diverse do they seem? Don’t they – just a tiny bit – seem rather similar? Here’s the truth – they probably are.
Across the west, as our societies became remarkably full of difference – by race, income, age, politics and education - our social circles have remained remarkably full of people “just like us”.
Half of graduates only have friends with degrees. Most pensioners have no contact with millennials they’re not related to. Half of us have no friends of a different race. A fifth of Remain and Leave voters in the Brexit referendum socialise with no-one who voted the other way.
Our divisions remain greatest by class. A trained lawyer would have to invite 100 people into their garden before inviting someone who was unemployed.
So what? Why does it matter?
The trouble is, these social divisions do matter. They weaken our democracy, creating opportunities for Dividers-in-Chief like Donald Trump. It is much easier to convince half the country that the other half is lying if your supporters never meet the other half.
Our class divisions make our country less fair. Why? Because “it’s not just what you know, it’s who you know”. In a divided society, the middle class children get access to networks that poorer children never experience. As research laid out in my new book shows, these divisions slow our economies and heighten our anxieties.
But so what? This is a free country. If I want to spend all my time like that, that’s my business. If that means that poor children stay poor, our democracy turns tribal and our anxieties spike, tough. There is nothing we can do about it.
This is madness. It is also the west’s present approach to our fractures. Pretty much every government so far has sought to bridge our divisions by an appeal to British values, a few garden parties for the Queen and greater use of the flag.
We are bringing warm words to a gunfight. It is the Barrington Declaration approach to our divisions: do nothing, and hope it all goes away.
It is time to change course and start bringing our society back together. Here’s my radical proposal. We should be mandated – at some points in our lives - to spend time with people “unlike us”. Yes, you read that right.
We are mandated to pay taxes. We are mandated to serve on a jury. We are mandated to drive at a certain speed. We live with these appalling impositions. Why? Because it benefits our society. What our society needs right now, is for each of us to spend some of our time on this earth with people not entirely like us.
What would this actually mean? It might look like this: a community service programme for teenagers as part of the school curriculum, a fully funded parenting programme for new parents that brings parents from different backgrounds together or a national retirement service helping us to transition to a life after work. Three new institutions, designed to start knitting our country back together.
The end of the Covid-19 pandemic is in sight. The end of our greatest national crisis since 1945. We should learn from that generation. They did not let their crisis go to waste. It had thrown them together – in battle and on the home front. Connected like this, they saw something wrong in their society. People got sick and died, unable to afford treatment.
They did not shrug. They acted. They built a National Health Service free at the point of need. This crisis has revealed a new problem. We have become socially distanced from each other and it is making our society ill. It is time to stop shrugging. It is time to get out of our bubbles
Jon Yates is an author and charity leader. His book, ‘Fractured: Why Our Societies Are Coming Apart And How We Put Them Back Together Again’, is published by HarperCollins on 10 June
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