End the ‘don’t give a damn’ culture
November 13, 2008 — Comment
Written by Herman Ouseley
Lord Ouseley* addresses IRR’s fiftieth birthday celebration conference on the connection between the lacks in political leadership and public morality and the crisis of youth out of control.
‘The event today is a reflection of past struggle and continued struggle. And I think it’s very important to acknowledge that just to be here today after fifty years has been a struggle for the Institute. It needs to be understood what people have gone through for the Institute still to be here today: the fact that it has relied on volunteers, and staff working for a pittance, and working long hours and sacrificing personal life as part of the struggle. IRR has been there when you needed it to provide support. It’s been collaborating for fifty years with activists on the ground here, in this country, and across the world; recording and preserving information about the struggles for justice and making that accessible to those who need it and who want it for educational and organisational purposes; producing unique and expert analysis on race and class issues and global oppression.
The issue of racism is one that we must never lose sight of. The media in this country have, along with their friends and foes in political leadership and government, driven race off of the agendas – political, economic, institutional and corporate. It’s off those agendas because this government wants it off the agenda. It’s off the agenda because this government has created arrangements such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission to soften and dampen down overt activities against racism. It’s off the agenda because public institutions in this country believe that, following the 2000 Race Relations Amendment Act and the struggles we went through to reform and improve the Race Relations Act following the Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, everyone had done what they had to do by writing their race equality schemes, and that was about it. It’s off the agenda because of light touch regulation. It’s off the agenda because the British media, and in particular their newspapers, are very powerful in setting what they call the anti-‘political correctness’ agenda. One of their modern heroes declared this week that the only positive action needed in a race equality context is for poor Whites.
What we’ve had over the last fifty years have been the responses to issues by way of moral panics. And they’ve not been underpinned by any morality – they’ve just been driven by media responses. The media sets the agenda. Have a look at the issue around Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand this week. Hardly anyone had heard about it – apparently only two complaints of a programme made late at night were received about the content of the programme which was clearly offensive. But nevertheless, the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday decided that this would be a big issue. “There’s a guy we want to get rid of – he earns too much money and it comes out of our pockets and it’s payback time.”
Whenever I have challenged such unacceptable, abusive and offensive behaviour in either TV or radio or newspaper coverage, I have always been told that the freedom of expression and free speech, notwithstanding standards of taste and decency, are overriding, non-negotiable rights. Twenty-one days after New Labour came in, on 21 May 1997, I had a meeting with the then new home secretary, Jack Straw, when I told him the big issue he had to confront was the British news media’s hateful coverage of immigration and asylum issues. The front pages were promoting prejudice and hatred in the minds of British people. The reaction I got from him was that we have freedom of expression, we have freedom of speech in this country and that was unchallengeable. That was even more effectively demonstrated later on in his term of office when he made very disparaging remarks about Travellers and Gypsies and was rewarded handsomely with fulsome editorial praise in virtually every national newspaper.
The financial banking crisis has brought to the fore a lot of the hypocrisy associated with free expression that I think is important to contextualise today. What it has done is firstly take guns and knives and gangs off the front pages. There are still stabbings, there are still killings but there have been bigger fish to fry. All of a sudden, we’re all going down! Money is more important than lives!
What it’s confirmed is the follies of the free market and its trickle-down theories which we’ve had driven from the days of Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher through to John Major, Tony Blair and now Gordon Brown. It’s exposed the fantasy economics. It’s confirmed that the whole leading coteries of New Labour have lacked ethical and moral leadership.
What we’ve seen since 1997 is a sucking up to celebrities, a worshipping of the bankers, a bedazzlement by wealth, a drooling over the oligarchs and their yachts. What we’ve created during the last few decades is a “Don’t give a damn” culture in our society. “I don’t give a damn.”
We’ve had no apologies over the last eleven years for the obscene wealth being acquired by the super-rich. In fact, back in 1997, Peter Mandelson said New Labour is very relaxed about people getting stinking rich in the UK. Today we’ve got one in three children who are living in poverty. They come from all backgrounds – one in three children living in poverty. And since 1997, there are 900,000 more people who are living in severe poverty. The government statistics like to say the gap between the rich and the poor has narrowed and social mobility has improved life chances of deprived communities. Try telling that to those people, in this, the fourth largest economy in the world, who are absolutely poor.
We’ve had crocodile tears. We heard in September 2008 in Manchester at the Labour Party conference Gordon Brown say he was so hurt to think that people would think that he’s not on the side of the poor and the deprived and the excluded. For eleven years, no leading politician has apologised for their lies, their distortion and the “don’t give a damn” culture that they’ve created. Not once did you hear them apologise for those who were getting obscenely rich. In fact, they continued to praise those who were getting massive, unearned bonuses, especially for failure!
Light touch regulation is not just in the world of finance. In the world of equalities, we’ve had strengthened legislation but weaker enforcement. When the government introduced its white paper on the Equality Bill, there was a white paper that preceded it that said: there will be light touch enforcement with the private sector. And it couldn’t get any lighter. It is so light, it does not touch anyone. And that’s why people continue to discriminate, albeit more subtly. They know there are laws, but they know if you break them, you won’t get caught. So what do you do, you continue to discriminate. So yes, it’s tough on those who want to enforce in the world of equality.
There’s supposed to be a fairness agenda, but not in the world of finance. It’s tough on young people in particular who are seen as anti-social and we’re building so-called “Titan prisons” – mega-prisons to house all these young people we’ve got to lock away. You never hear about “Titan prisons” for bankers and embezzlers and fraudsters, who also destroy lives of families.
When have we had apologies for the lies about weapons of mass destruction, or resignations from public office when responsibility should be accepted for major mistakes and failings? Who accepts personal responsibility and how can our leaders ask others to do the right thing when they don’t?
The “I don’t give a damn” culture in our society has created the crisis (now pushed off the front pages) of young people killing each other. And I am not just talking of ‘Black on Black’ crime, although that is of itself a phenomenon the police and the Home Office have identified. Only three per cent of young people carry knives and that is three per cent too many. Most of them say they carry knives for their own protection, but that is unacceptable.
There is, undoubtedly, a small cohort of young people who are deeply disturbed, are out of control, and “don’t give a damn”. They’ve not heard any leading politician get on television and say “I am sorry”. This minority of young people are traumatised, have been emotionally vulnerable from their earliest years in their domestic lives and throughout their existence. They have had inadequate social intervention and support through their whole lives to help avert the inevitable disastrous consequences.
At the IRR we’ve had good links over the years with active organisations, with youth organisations, and we’ve seen the way that this has evolved with cuts in youth services, with removal of facilities, large-scale selling off of playing fields and not enough activity provided for young people, especially those who are particularly disturbed.
Many of them are now in mental institutions and many occupy the prisons, even young people. The traumas have worked their way through to this small deeply disturbed cohort. They “don’t give a damn” and that’s why they’re behaving this way, resorting to what appears to be mindless violence. We need to know more about the interventions that are necessary to help them through their earliest years and to support them through adolescence to adulthood. We need to connect with those youth leaders and local communities who are able to provide some assistance, some guidance, some support and we need, as an Institute, to re-connect more with the activists on the ground, notwithstanding the fact that they’re not receiving the support that they need from local authorities and government.
It is critical as we look for the leadership to guide us through the present crises, not just the economic and financial ones, but the social ones too, that we maintain our links, our empathy with the poor and with the powerless. And we’ve got to look for the exemplary leadership within our communities. We’re looking to you and others that you are in touch with; to help us to become clearer about the way we can support those who are in the struggle, who are able to exert influence on those who make decisions locally. There is a deep crisis among some of our young people and we have a responsibility at the Institute, while continuing with our work of providing analysis of those who are fighting oppression and fighting for justice, to ensure that we stay connected with the most dispossessed and the most vulnerable within our society. We have a responsibility, because we care, to help end the “don’t give a damn” culture that has pervaded our society. We are what we do!’
Read an IRR News Story: Catching History on the Wing by A. Sivanandan
* Lord Herman Ouseley is a former chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, the current chair of KICK IT OUT, the national campaign to kick racism out of football, and a Council Member of the Institute of Race Relations.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.