Saturday, 22 March 2014

The myth of independence: how doing 'fun' online personality quizzes can lead to some pretty deep thinking

I've been at the 'fun' online personality quizzes again. Yep, like that one that told me that I am a 'prematurely old parent'. Thanks to the wonders of interconnective technology, I've learnt a lot about myself recently; I've discovered that I am the secret lovechild of Austin Farrer and Virginia Woolf, that I should actually be living in either Maida Vale, Portland, Oregon or, bizarrely, Milton Keynes, pursuing my career as a writer, having completed my degree in Women's Studies. Oh, and that I am basically Karl Marx. (If you ever wondered what the offspring of Austin Farrer and Virginia Woolf would look like, there's your historically questionable answer.)

Online 'fun' personality quizzes aren't renowned for their subtlety of thought or distinction, but there was one question in the 'How Leftist Are You?' quiz that has made me think a bit. It was this: 'The welfare state creates dependence. True or false?' The instinctive leftie in me rose up; the welfare state doesn't create dependence, I thought, as I clicked 'false', it supports people in time of need and supplies a basic level of material wellbeing so that from that base, people can aspire to achieve more and to make a fuller contribution to society.

It was only afterwards that I remembered this question, banal in its polarisation of 'left' and 'right' though it is, and realised that the question is intended to work on the conscience of the hearer by assuming that 'dependence' is a bad, and avoidable thing, and either that the welfare state either creates this bad thing and therefore must be rejected, or that the welfare state is not the cause of this bad thing, and thus can be supported. Either way, left or right, the implication is that 'dependence' is bad.

You don't have to look far to see that the language of 'dependence' is taken for granted in much political discussion; here and here and here are a few for starters. Funnily enough, the quiz is pretty much of the Zeitgeist in identifying 'dependence' (and its evil twin, 'entitlement') as the bad that must be avoided. The flipside of this is, of course, the approval of 'independence' as a virtue. Again, it's not very difficult to find the word 'independent' more or less used as a synonym for 'admirable.' On of the things I hear repeatedly when visiting bereaved families is 'he was such an independent man', or 'she was always so independent,' always with emotional pride. As a society, we are conditioned to accept that independence is good, and dependence is bad. It's easy, then, to separate out two types of people; the independent (or 'hard-working families' as they are often called), and the dependent (''feckless'  is another useful term to identify these people, and quite satisfying to say out loud). Thus explained, as it is daily in our newspapers,  politics becomes easy; it's simply a task of identifying, identifying oneself with and rewarding the independent, and identifying, distancing oneself from, and condemning the dependent. Job done.

Well, it would be, except that this polarised and polarising way of looking at people isn't all that accurate. If there's one thing that church ministry teaches me over and over again, it's that independence is, at best, an illusory and fleeting thing, and at worst (see, I'm still using those value-laden terms to define independence) a cruel hoax. Maybe I see this more than the average person, because I see the dependence in people. I look at people when I am leading worship or preaching, and I see their dependence on God, and on me. I hear about their hospital appointments, and I see their dependence on a vast, and mostly unseen and unknown cast of people whose work enables their treatment. I hear about how they are getting to their hospital appointments, and I see their dependence on their families and friends.  I see all sorts of things, which I could not and should not share in this blog, and over and over again, I see people coming to terms with their dependence. Maybe church is one of the only places that people can take off the heavy make-up of independence, and been seen in their dependence, and find within themselves and within the love of God an acceptance of them in their dependence. They go out, usually, lightened, lifted, peaced. From that perspective, I'd say that we've got it all wrong; dependence, or at least our admission and acceptance of it, is the good thing; it's the veneer of independence that keeps us struggling away with fear, with overwork, unemployment, loneliness, depression, isolation, and all the other things that stop us from being most fully the people God longs for us to be, and to know life in all its fulness.  

And if we think about this a bit more, it becomes utterly obvious; even people who look the very epitome of independence on the surface are, in reality, dependent on others. Even those of us gainfully employed in paid work are completely dependent on all sorts of people and forces to enable us to find, and keep, our jobs. (Of course, as I'm sure you know, many benefits claimants are in paid work.)We should really have learnt that by now, after several years of recession. If this current economic climate does nothing else for us that is good (and I fully recognise all the pain and poverty it has brought to so many),  I hope that it teaches us something about our inescapable dependence on one another, and our relative abilities to support one another in our mutual dependence and  produces in us a will to honour that dependence and to do what we can to help those whom we recognise are dependent on us. Ultimately, the company director is no more independent than the pensioner in the doctor's waiting room, but the company director is in a position in which she can use her greater relative means to support others. If we were to grasp this in a meaningful way, we'd have to find a new political vocabulary, because we'd see that the crass independent / dependent, hard-working / feckless dichotomy just doesn't mean anything. We'd have to think of a different way of asking the question; maybe something like 'What is it in people that prevents them from achieving their greatest potential and making the fullest contribution they can to society?' is a good start, and a question that needs to be asked over and over in different communities. People on the right still might answer 'receiving benefits', but...well, I'm not sure how high up the list of factors that would come.

As an aside, the one group of people who know this most clearly and embrace it most wholeheartedly are children and young people. They know they are dependent on others. The also know about their potential.  Maybe it's no co-incidence that one of the groups most willing to bring help and relief to those in need are teenagers, as they start to see both their own dependence, and also their potential to support others who are dependent.

So, back to the quiz: asking whether the welfare state is a good or bad thing is a valid political question. But couching it in terms of dependence as an avoidable evil, less so. The welfare state doesn't create dependence. Being human does.

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