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Two cheers for complaint

Recently I have struck by the number and regularity of newspaper and online news outlets pieces that feature people who have suffered in different ways. The suffering is usually framed as someone’s fault. The pieces are usually accompanied by a photo of the person affected with a sad expression and often situated in a way that displays their disadvantage.

The range of ills from which they suffer are many. They may be homeless, ineligible for benefits available to others, chronically ill, have received unsatisfactory medical treatment, been underpaid, delayed on overcrowded trains, excluded from playing in sporting competitions, or discriminated against by law, by schools, by churches or by sporting and other clubs. The stories must be popular. The online version of The Guardian even invites its readers to send stories of how they have been affected by various social hardships.

In the spirit of this genre, I have mused about my response to seeing so many such articles. A truthful pic would not show me wearing an angry, sad or put-upon face; it would rather be puzzled or two-faced.

In principle I applaud the trend. When considering the effects of policy and principle we should always move behind the sanitised and abstract world to the real human experience of people whom they affect. We also need to be reassured that the officers who administer policy meet and engage those subject to it as persons and not simply as its objects. They must have discretion to address humanely the extraordinary circumstances unforeseen by those who framed the regulations did not envisage. Stories that show the cruel unintended consequences of well-intentioned regulations benefit society.

Stories of people hard done by can also engender compassion for those who normally escape our attention. They give rich human texture to the necessarily narrow view we have of our society and challenge any naïve trust in the good intentions of those who frame and administer regulations. The malignancy of robodebt, constantly denied by its authors and agents, came to light only when people whose lives had been thrown out of joint told their stories.

Finally, such stories remind us of the importance of government to govern for the common good and not simply for its electoral prospects of for powerful sectors of society. To focus on the common good means caring especially for people who are least protected. This is part of the social license that is attached to the actions of government and of all those with power in a society. 

There are many good reasons to applaud the publication of stories of hardship, despite their critics. There are many who feel embarrassed or are exposed by them, and find contemptuous words to describe those moved by them. Do gooders, bleeding hearts, chardonnay sipping socialists, poverty poopers, and woke are just a few of such derogatory terms.


'Defending the rights of individuals and apportioning blame for failure to respect them are an important part of the human story. But they are not the whole story. The social bond that makes for a just and happy society must be part of all our relationships and decisions.' 


Such abusive censure reveals more about the critics than the stories. Nevertheless, I remain uneasy about the way the stories are told. Not about their content but about their framing. This often represents the satisfaction of the desires of individuals as a right, and consequently seeks to place blame on those seen as responsible for thwarting them. These are variously named as the Government, its agencies, medical staff, police, schools, businesses or churches.  

In such framing sympathy is channeled into blame and ultimately to moving on. It is well caught in a line of Anne Sexton’s poem ‘For God while sleeping’, recalling her time in a hospital with a crucifix on the wall:  ‘Skinny man you are somebody’s fault’. The underlying assumption is that we all have a right to happiness and that if this is denied us others are to blame. The emphasis on the individual’s right to flourish and on the duty of the world to enable it is self-defeating. It undermines the sense that being alive is a gift for which we may be grateful, and so the possibility that we may find gift as well as suffering in adversity. It may also block the path from sympathy to solidarity. Bystanders who pity and blame are less likely to help if they believe that each individual’s flourishing is their own business.

The linking of suffering to unfairness in the shaping of stories also overlooks the reality of social life and the limits of any government or group to meet all the desires and needs of its members. The social bond that makes governments responsible for governing for the good of all its citizens, and especially for those disadvantaged, involves complex decisions about the capacity to meet demands, about priorities and about the timing of initiatives. Even when a government recognises that a problem like homelessness has been brought on and exacerbated by the failure of past governments to respect the common good by building public housing, it will not be in a position to relieve the suffering of all those seeking shelter today. To remedy the suffering of those made homeless will take large decisions and time.

Defending the rights of individuals and apportioning blame for failure to respect them are an important part of the human story. But they are not the whole story. The social bond that makes for a just and happy society must be part of all our relationships and decisions. It binds not only Governments and businesses but local institutions, teams, neighbourhoods, families and each human being. Ideally In the case of homelessness people who charge rent will consider the renters’ ability to pay, people with empty houses will make them available to people left homeless, councils will make premises available to those in need, neighbours and families will offer shelter to their members, and local community organisations will be funded to mobilise local support.

Governments, of course, will address the gross inequality in society that its own policies have favoured. And news outlets will focus also on stories of solidarity that have blessed the lives of disadvantaged people and of the community as a whole.

A Utopian world, you might say.  But better surely than a Dystopia. 




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Woman at train station arrounded by commuters. (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Solidarity, Media



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