Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Action or apathy?

I've just had an interesting conversation with my best friend about social responsibility. She is a new mum of a 15 month old and expecting her second child at the end of the year. I have two children of 4 and 5. My friend works part time as a hospital doctor.

We began talking about her life. As I said, she is a doctor and her husband is training to be a vicar in the Anglican church, and they are considering going to Africa to work. I think they feel like their efforts perhaps fall on stony ground here in the UK. And perhaps they feel like there is more 'real' need in the developing world, more that they can do to help. I do understand that view, although I remain convinced that there is real need in the UK as well, which is deep-rooted and insidiously tied up with social and political issues of all kinds. It is certainly the case that the gap between rich and poor in the UK is ever-widening, which is deeply concerning for 13 years of a Labour government...

But the question we came to was - where does your responsibility lie? Is it to your own family or is it to the wider community? If everyone took their family responsibilities seriously, then would society be in a better position? If we do have a wider responsibility, then where is the line drawn between putting your family first and helping others? For example, would you put your own children at risk, for example by moving to a politically unstable country, in order to help others? Would you move around the world, going where the need is greatest, and take your children with you? And if the answer to those questions is 'no', then are you just complacent and selfish?

Maybe one of the answers is about apathy. My friend sees direct action as the answer. I agree that direct action can be effective, but I see the long-term solution as being a political one. The risk that I run, from my position, is that it is easy to sit there and say, 'This is nothing to do with me, it's a political matter. I'll vote, but beyond that, it's not my problem.' There is no direct personal responsibility being taken. If I do nothing, that could be seen as apathetic or uncaring. But, if I bake a cake for the homeless centre or volunteer occasionally, is that enough? Or is that just a 'box-ticking' exercise to assuage my guilt?

I, and my friend, are hugely lucky. We have both been born in the developed world. We were born into affluent (by world standards) homes. We have been educated. We have access to health services. We are incredibly fortunate, but should we feel guilty about it or empowered by it to effect change? Where do our responsibilities, and the answers, lie?

With the general election coming up, these questions are running in my mind at the moment. How can my vote be used wisely? Where does personal responsibility end and social responsibility start?

Any ideas?


Lola said...

I don't have any children, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, or maybe I'm more objective. It's only the children that complicate things: just you or you and a partner can easily balance individual personal risk against the good of the wider community.

The risks and benefits to 'family' (i.e. children) are less clear. Exposure to different cultures around the world when growing up can be a huge benefit. Exposure to risk is a more tricky one - nothing might happen, or the worst might happen. Staying where you are, you could be knocked down by a car, beaten up or robbed in the street (or worse).

The difference between a risk of one in a million or one in ten thousand is actually irrelevant if it doesn't happen to you. I've never won a lottery prize at any odds, even when there were only 100 tickets sold.

I think the ultimate decision may be affected by your attitude to risk - are you the sort of person who looks on the bright side, or anticipates the worst that could happen? Do you deal with problems that arise after you've taken action, or do you consider every possible difficulty before taking action?

Having said that, both direct and political action have a place. Luckily we are all different, so some will take one path and others will take another, and hopefully all the bases will be covered. I pick up litter from the street outside my house even though I don't have to, but I will lobby the council if I think they are neglecting to provide street cleaning.

Everyone must do as much as they are capable of - the people I disapprove of are those who justify doing nothing by saying "There's no point in me doing something, it's their responsibility."

[Sorry about the long comment - I'll do anything to avoid revision at the moment...]

ideasinforum said...

GOOD QUESTION. I'm not too familiar with the UK context but you bring up some pretty good points... doesn't stuff like this just make your head want to explode?!

I wish I had something insightful to say, but I really am at a loss... However, I do think it is important to just act with consciousness and really be aware of the impact of everything you do. It keeps the two choices from being in drastically separate realms.

David A. Rollins said...

It's a great debate, and I think the mistake you make is beleiveing that these are opposing points of view. They are not. They are merely varying degrees of the same answer. Help is help, whether it is on a global scale or an individual one. We do what we can, when we can.

Who is to say that the charity of a local community church is any less worthy than that of an international relief effort? It's all a matter of degree. Perhaps, when you feel you should be doing more, you can take comfort in a slogan that has been around for some years now . . . think globally, act locally. It's the small things we do that matter, a smile can change a life, and a life can change the world.

Be at peace,
David A. Rollins

claires inner world said...

Hi Lola. Wow, that's a great comment and very insightful. Risk is an interesting concept, no doubt. I find it fascinating that my attitude to risk has changed since I had my children, both in relation to risks I would take personally, and risks I would take with the kids. I think what you say about a combination of direct and political action is right - bit it's just a big question of what is the right balance of those things?

Hi ideasinforum and thanks for your comment. I think being 'conscious' as you put it, is very important. I guess, as we are even having this discussion, that we must be some way towards being conscious, right?

Hi David, Thanks for stopping by my blog. And thank you for such a lovely comment. I totally agree that it is the small things that matter. I have always liked the concept of 'pay it forward' - a generalised reciprocity that starts with small actions and can end up helping whole societies. Thanks again.