Small worlds and lost diamonds

October 12, 2010 by
Filed under: Arts and Society, Education Matters, Social Economy 

Fairness seems a recurrent theme of late. Today’s breaking news cries: UK society divided and unfair, report claims.”

That ‘report claims’ gets me every time. UK society is unfair: we do not need social network analysis to tell us that who you know matters. UK society is divided: the world is only ‘small’ (all six billon, eight hundred million of us) because we inhabit very specific parts of it.

But my science only gets me so far:  I can construct you a diagram that highlights divisions; others can produce research that suggests that inequality fosters both unhappiness and unsafe societies; academics can debate as to what the conflicting libertarian and egalitarian views of fairness are.  Yet birds of a feather flock; we fear difference and help our kind; and if inequality and stigma become the very lay of the land, then it is hard to see them.

If it is most often those born at the top that rise to it, we must either believe that it is only these children that hold the seeds of future success, or we are victims of a collective insanity that allows raw diamonds to pass for pebbles, as we laboriously polish cubic zirconia.

Our flocking and fearing are very human, but are they fair? Fair for me is that distribution of benefits and duties that reflects our conception of human beings.  If we understand all human beings to be equal, then that distribution should reflect this. If a woman is worth half of a man, then so too is her testimony. Whilst this all very much ties into how I view human rights (a post for another day), and borrows from Rawls in a way both outmoded and possibly to his displeasure, this understanding of fair is very important for the good of society.

Leaving the various statistical squabbles to more accomplished statisticians and their point-scoring, this unfair distribution of opportunity harms not just the individual but, lest we forget this is in our liberal age, it harms the collective. Our collective talent is our collective wealth, but this is squandered to stigma and lack of vision. If it is most often those born at the top that rise to it, we must either believe that it is only these children that hold the seeds of future success, or we are victims of a collective insanity that allows raw diamonds to pass for pebbles, as we laboriously polish cubic zirconia.

In my recent dissertation, alongside positing an understanding of social capital as the indicator for whether the right to participation is fulfilled (another day!), I followed the development of five girls as they took part in a film making and human rights course. These girls found a voice, found themselves as agents of change , and will soon find themselves addressing panels of their fellow residents, and Universty of London MA students. In this project, as in others I have worked on, we see that little is needed to turn aspirations around. And it is our aspirations that drive us.

The UK has shown us that equal opportunities is not equality of opportunity. If social mobility can be understood as sets of escalators, with some automatically on the up, and others automatically being driven down, then it must be surely viewed as discriminatory to not focus efforts on halting the downward trends of the marginalised ‘escalators’, and to instead provide equal amounts of electricity and oil and wish them both well.  The fact that in a liberal society any individual can aim for anything in theory, must not be used to obscure the fact that in a liberal capitalist economy individuals are constrained by their societal and economic circumstances in practice. Life isn’t fair, but less stigma and more tailored and deliberate help to those handed a raw deal might help us on our way. And here my science may help.


Comments

  • Terry Dillon

    As a teacher in the 90’s I remember being asked the difference between teaching in the private and state sector. I had enjoyed teaching in both. Rather than talk about the difference in resources which was quite evident, I used to answer the question in term of aspirations. If I asked children in the Comprehensive school ‘What do you want to do when grow up?’ I might get grunt or a shrug of the shoulders. The same questions asked in the private school would get replies such as doctor, lawyer or pilot. That’s how I remember it and I imagine it was a characterisation rather than factually accurate. I doubt that every child in the private school had a clear ambition and likewise I am sure there were children in the Comprehensive that aspired to a professional career. I am equally sure that not every child that aspired to be a doctor or a pilot made it. And even if this was only true in a directional sense, an emphasis if you like, it explained for me a key difference between the two. I was always left feeling that the children in the private sector had more of a sense of purpose. It seemed to give their schooling a little more meaning – and I think this rubbed off on everyone. I think it affected the staff too!

    • Gaia Marcus

      Thank you for your comment.

      My experience of youth work has shown me that it is exactly that: aspirations give our actions more meaning. I think many people do indeed end up in completely different places to where they thought they were going, but it was their initial trajectory that helped them get there.

      I can’t aim towards a job if I don’t know it exists, and I can’t really contribute to society if I feel I have nothing to give.

  • Terry Dillon

    As a teacher in the 90’s I remember being asked the difference between teaching in the private and state sector. I had enjoyed teaching in both. Rather than talk about the difference in resources which was quite evident, I used to answer the question in term of aspirations. If I asked children in the Comprehensive school ‘What do you want to do when grow up?’ I might get grunt or a shrug of the shoulders. The same questions asked in the private school would get replies such as doctor, lawyer or pilot. That’s how I remember it and I imagine it was a characterisation rather than factually accurate. I doubt that every child in the private school had a clear ambition and likewise I am sure there were children in the Comprehensive that aspired to a professional career. I am equally sure that not every child that aspired to be a doctor or a pilot made it. And even if this was only true in a directional sense, an emphasis if you like, it explained for me a key difference between the two. I was always left feeling that the children in the private sector had more of a sense of purpose. It seemed to give their schooling a little more meaning – and I think this rubbed off on everyone. I think it affected the staff too!

    • Gaia Marcus

      Thank you for your comment.

      My experience of youth work has shown me that it is exactly that: aspirations give our actions more meaning. I think many people do indeed end up in completely different places to where they thought they were going, but it was their initial trajectory that helped them get there.

      I can’t aim towards a job if I don’t know it exists, and I can’t really contribute to society if I feel I have nothing to give.