David Cameron’s oppressive Big Society
The Conservatives’ passion for the Big Society chimes with a deep human desire to be an esteemed and popular part of a social group – whether it be a family, a peer group or a neighbourhood. Indeed, psychologists report that even the most ambitious people – doggedly independent, seemingly – are actually motivated by a longing to achieve membership of some exclusive grouping. A strong sense of belonging to a group – a duty to, love for, and respect from others – is deeply satisfying and enriching.
Too many people lack this in our society, plunging them into depression and worse. Just look at those children from turbulent homes, where families are in an unstoppable cycle of indifference and conflict: they are more likely to suffer from mental health problems and become anti-social.
But though group security can bring comfort and belonging, it can also perpetuate injustice and ignorance. The understandable craving for affection and status within a group – and what esteemed physicist and author Leonard Mlodinow claims is the deep need for an “affinity with a group identity” – often leads to people immersing and identifying themselves in only a few social networks.
And so we have group-think: too little interaction, and thus empathy for, other groups. Instead, a deep internalisation and fierce defence of one’s own group norms. Indeed, as the psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his new book The Righteous Mind shows, what people find right and wrong is often not universal, but different from culture to culture.
Problem is, this leads to people prioritising loyalty above facts: assumptions and values – sometimes regressive and repressive – are passed on from generation to generation. Fresh evidence and ideas that could lead to individual emancipation and greater social progress are ignored.
So, yes, the Big Society can be oppressive, antithetical to individual freedom. Tories have, rightly, always worried about the state restricting individual autonomy: whether it be nannying regulations or, at the other end of the spectrum, the clamping down of freedom of speech through government intimidation and force. But they should be worried about continuing repressive social norms too, which hamper people from doing what they really want to here in modern-day Britain.
Let’s take three examples of repressive social norms that are prevalent in too many families and communities: the undervaluing of education; the belief that mothers should not work when their children are young; and the belief that gender determines preferences.
First, studies have shown that in some social groups, parents are less likely to value the long-term benefits of education for their children. So a culture of expectation of exam success and university attendance is less likely to be created. Indeed, research from Mexico finds that children from less advantaged socio-economic groups under-estimate the wage premium from higher education considerably. Without a belief in the life-changing nature of education, the chances of social mobility, economic advancement and cultural capital are reduced.
Second, among some social groups, there is a strong intuition that it is the role of women to stay at home and look after their young children full-time for many years. Yet, analysis of the Millennium Cohort Study shows that children’s character development at nine moths or five years of age is not affected by whether their mother is working or not, but the quality and richness of the parenting and caregiving the child receives. Evidence shows that many children would in fact benefit from being exposed to social environments outside the parent-child relationship, such as formal childcare. As two-earner couples are considerably less likely to live in poverty, maternal employment would also have wider positive effects. Still, many women find they have to accept it is their role –and their role alone – to leave the labour market for long periods of time – damaging their job prospects – to look after young children.
Third, and the most widespread, is the belief that men and women think and behave differently because of biology. As for this this pseudoscience of neurosexism, its chief cheerleader John Gray who wrote Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, has no evidence to support it. Scientists are increasingly showing the intellectual differences between men and women are not innate, but learnt. If you look at the verbal test scores of young children, for example, gender plays a minimal role in explaining variation.
The reason why men and women behave differently is because of social custom: some tasks and professions continue to be seen as masculine or feminine – for instance, plumbing or childcare. Such prejudiced assumptions prevent people from discovering and developing their true preferences. Doing so would be seen as too abnormal, potentially leading to stigmatisation in the social network they belong to. What we need, as psychologist Sandra Bem wrote, is “to help free the human personality from the restrictive prison of sex-role stereotyping”.
In modern-day Britain, we do not need communities with archaic assumptions constraining individual behaviour – we need strong individuals building diverse and tolerant communities. Its big people who create the Big Society we want.
Photo credit: Getty ImagesTagged in: big society, Conserative, david cameron, tories
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