Dole scrounger. Benefits cheat. These are familiar epithets, catchy soundbites that stick in the memory. Beloved memes of modern day society, and a symptom of the loss of compassion for others. I’m very sorry to tell you that following a long illness compassion has died.
Here in the UK there is still pride when people recall times such as the Blitz. The popular image of people coming together, helping each other. Children evacuated from areas most at risk of bombing being taken in by strangers, being welcomed and cared for. It wasn’t true in all cases, but that’s the image people have when they think about it. That was compassion.
On to the 80’s: I grew up in the North of England during the miners’ strike, near Wigan. I can remember the familiar sight of the towers of winding engines at the pit heads, now long gone with nothing to mark where they once stood. Wigan wasn’t nearly as badly affected as other towns, having other industries besides mining. But for some communities the coal mines were the only significant source of employment. As the strike went on month after month those communities were reduced to poverty: the fight to preserve their way of life ultimately hastening their end. And yet up until the desperate end there was a camaraderie among the strikers, a willingness to share what little they had, compassion for each other.
Still in the 80’s, that was when I first encountered the term “dole scrounger” applied by the lower echelons of the press to those caught up in the mass unemployment that characterised the Thatcher years. It was the era of the yuppie and the movie Wall Street, when capitalism and self-interest became the new gods and a belief took hold that anybody who didn’t profit did so because of moral failings. Those unable to work, or unable to find work at a time with millions unemployed were portrayed as burdens on society, leaching money from those who were more fortunate.
Selfishness as a virtue dealt a killing blow to compassion, although it would linger on for decades. The final nail in its coffin has been austerity, a set of policies introduced following the global financial crisis. Deflecting blame from those whose greed triggered the collapse, the focus has been on those who are deemed a drain on society’s resources. Those who find themselves at the bottom of the heap, looked down upon and neglected by those higher up on the social scale.
The “dole scrounger” of the 80’s has been replaced by the “benefits cheat” of today: the semi-mythical fraudster who lies and cheats their way to a comfortable life by exploiting the welfare system. The small number of actual examples doesn’t prevent the media from painting a picture of an endemic problem sucking billions from the welfare pot. They cast doubt on the legitimacy of all who claim benefits, building a case on the flimsiest of foundations for tightening the rules, chasing the chimera of a perfect, foolproof system that would prevent 100% of false claims.
It’s all misdirection. Stoke people’s fears that somebody somewhere is getting away with it, and keep their attention away from the fact that so many who are in genuine need are denied assistance. That fear has replaced compassion. Instead of caring and ensuring that nobody goes without sufficient means to live, we are constantly being told that the most important thing is that not a single person gets more than their entitlement.
Increasingly restrictive rules deny the provision of basic services and a subsistence income to those who are most in need. People are dying. But then that saves money too. Is the thought of a handful of families paying for luxuries with benefits money obtained through deception so terrible that it justifies a man starving to death because his benefits were withdrawn? Because that’s the society we live in today. And that’s why I say compassion is dead.
Farewell compassion, you will be sorely missed. Requiescat in pace.
Dedicated to my wonderful, compassionate friend Sonia Boue whose post Eugenics in the UK inspired me to write this.