When the stock market crashed in 1987, I heard many a pundit sagely extol, “The era of ‘greed is good’ is over.” At best they were stupid idiots.
Greed didn’t die, and if anything we’re seeing the effects of an increasingly greedy society all around us. Individuals can be kind, giving and caring, but collectively there remains a breathtakingly large amount of greedy and mean spirited behaviour.
Australia’s attitude towards asylum seekers is one such example. A good dose of xenophobia coupled with greed. After all, if you scratch the surface, or wait for another one of those memes to go around, you’ll see that what people don’t like about asylum seekers is money. And it’s in two different ways:
- The fact that some asylum seekers scrape together thousands or more in order to flee (how dare they have thousands of dollars when I can’t afford a 90 inch TV on my maxed out credit card?)
- The ‘fact’ that asylum seekers live off public largesse once they arrive.
The second fact, of course, is an utter lie. The problem of course is that people naturally tend to believe things they read or hear which back up their inner beliefs or prejudices. It takes continual effort to not fall for it, even if you’re aware of it*.
Which is what memetic prejudice thrives on. Yet, emails, forum chatter and Facebook posts endlessly circulate stating that asylum seekers get more benefits than old aged pensioners, and better access to health care than Australian citizens, and all manner of lies simply because the people who read those lies want to believe them. Those lies justify their bigotry and therefore they’re accepted as truths.
And so, people who are kind and caring to their family and friends, who may even stop to help a neighbour or a stranger on the street from time to time remain callously determined in their attitude towards asylum seekers, not because of the truth, but because they found a lie that suits their prejudices.
Australia is not the only example of a meaner society, of course. The UK has proved that the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge is alive and well. Changes to public housing rules has meant that people who have been placed in housing with multiple bedrooms are now considered to be abusing the system if there’s not someone in each of those bedrooms. Yet, public housing in the UK rarely has single-bedroom units available, and so a person placed in a two-bedroom unit because that’s all that’s available gets slugged for ‘wasting’ the other bedroom. Such policies sell to the public because enough elements of the public hear the word waste and agree with everything else said. How dare someone requiring public assistance have anything other than a hard life? These are the same people who would insist that the moment someone starts receiving welfare payments or public assistance they should only eat minimally, sleep and spend the rest of their time looking for a job before they’re allowed to do anything fun again.
And then of course you’ve got the United States as the shining bastion of mean-spiritedness. Republicans have tried to get the affordable healthcare act struck down dozens of times since it was introduced. It’s practically halted the rest of government while they gnash their teeth and scream about the injustice of a system that helps others. Arguments will run hot on the basis of people literally saying they don’t want to pay into anything that will help someone else who should be helping themselves. Others will decry any possibility that a health fund they’re aligned with offers services they don’t agree with or don’t personally need**. Meanwhile, real discussions about the affordable healthcare act (i.e., whether it goes far enough, or offers sufficient protection), get drowned out in a sea of meanness.
It’s a sad state of affairs when people spend so much time begrudging others in worse circumstances than themselves for the apparent crime of receiving assistance. It’s a tragic direction of society if keeping up with the Joneses has become annihilate the Joneses.
It’s times like these, when I look around at how mean and greedy society can be, that I’m damn grateful I don’t have, nor will I ever have kids. Yet I’m equally horrified that people who can collectively act so mean-spiritedly can drag more kids into the world – their world of mean-spirited attitudes.
Here’s hoping that 2014 is the year when collectively mean and selfish behaviour starts to ebb.
* Even I fell for it a few weeks ago when I read an article about radical reforms proposed by Pope Francis. I looked before I leapt because I wanted it to be true without checking to see if it was true.
** My private health fund and plan in Australia has various rebates for services which can only be used by women. Apparently I should be outraged about it.