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The canaries in society’s coal mine

This has been quite an extraordinary week in the UK, even in a couple of years that have had more than their fair shares of surprises and shocks. I’ve spent a lot of the last year going around the country listening to people interested in Civil Society Futures and the more I do that, the more I wonder at the surprise expressed by those frequently described as the “political class.”

Nobody who was deeply connected to the communities in Hartlepool and Hull was surprised by the Brexit vote. Those who were surprised were simply not paying attention. Everybody working closely with tenants at Grenfell Tower in Kensington and Chelsea knew about their frequently expressed  safety concerns. They were of course devastated by the scale of the tragedy but they were not surprised. From the treatment of the Windrush generation, to growing  gang violence, to the damaging implementation of Universal Credit – across the country voluntary and community groups, churches and charities,  knew what was happening. But time after time they were they were ignored.

Every system needs early warning. Every system needs to know when things are going badly wrong. Every system needs to know about deep and underlying discontent. In the UK it seems to me that civil society is the canary in our coal mine. Shocks and surprises happen because we are not listening to those repeated urgent warnings.

And a society that does not listen very acutely to warnings of things going wrong, is a society that will always be shocked and dealing with crisis.

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Civil Society and public grief – rituals, ceremony and silence

In the public unfolding of grief in the last terrible few months a number of things stand out. The first is   of course, the helpers. The courage and generosity of those who run to the site of disaster – whether Manchester taxi drivers ferrying people home, or café owners providing drinks or people contributing money.  The community centres and sports clubs throwing open their doors. The collections of money and goods. Along with the heroism of our emergency services, we can be really proud of the way in which all parts of civil society respond so actively and so quickly, giving the lie to the myth that people don’t care, and lead entirely atomised lives. Solidarity exists, and we show it at our lowest, most terrified moments.

But there is something else too which I think speaks to civil society and how we organise. In the face of disaster people congregate `and seek out opportunities to come together physically, not in a web based chat room, but in squares, and gardens, on streets and on bridges. We need places for silence and for contemplation. We need time for reflection. Music and poetry, along with a particular form of oratory have all played their part in providing both a shape for, and an expression of, terrible grief.

Some of those spaces have been churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship. In observing this, and taking part in many solemn gatherings, I am struck by how much we can learn from people of faith about the power of the assembly. The use of ritual. The importance of belonging, and of sharing, and of collective expressions of grief, loss, and yes, in our increasingly secular society churches, temples, synagogues and mosques don’t only provide material support- essential though that is. They also teach us how to come together.

I have been also been reading Alain de Botton’s Religion for  Atheists. Although not an atheist myself, there is so much in his clear-sighted view of the contribution made by religion, whether or not doctrine and faith are accepted. And I’ve also been very stimulated by   http://howwegather.org examining how younger generations come together.

At times of national grief, just as much as at times for personal tragedy, we may lack the words to console and express our shared sorrow. And yet there are parts of civil society, both faith based and not, that have so much to teach all of us about the human need for comfort, for sharing and for very present and physical ways of expressing our shared loss and shock.

Civil society   requires us to recognise the value of every human being, and find ways of expressing both our pain and our anger in ways that bring us together. Civil society can be a dry concept, and its behaviour can be equally arid.  But behind that phraseology lies an immense emotional human impulse.  Civil society knows about celebration. It knows about memorials. It knows about collective action. It knows about art and music. We are about everything that makes us human. Let’s recognise that and harness its power