Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Hurrah, the citizen voice is here Over on Our Society, Your Square Mile founder Paul Twivy has posted a response to questions posed by Julian Dobson. He includes a couple of rather odd statements. 'Our role is as the citizen voice.' What can this mean? Was it deliberately intended to sound so incredibly arrogant, or did it just come out wrongly? On what basis can you attract large-scale funding and head off into people's neighbourhoods proclaiming 'we're here, we're here at last, sorry you've been waiting sooooo long, and you with such needs...' (A citizen's voice: 'Well, welcome, nice to meet you. Er, who are you?' YSM: 'We're the citizen voice.' CV: 'Er, I already got one mate. Are you saying I'm not a proper citizen?')... Wait there's more: 'YSM is about enabling people to make the changes they want to see in their area in their way and not about us imposing ideas from the outside.' Really? So what are you doing there? Were you elected? Do you have taxpayers money to allocate to services? Were you invited in? And if so, by who? As with big society and coalition government, we're seeing an insensitive officer-class attitude towards ordinary people in their neighbourhoods - from telling them what to do, through savagely cutting their services in ways they can't defend against, to telling them that important people have come to help them make changes. And expecting to be applauded for this peculiar form of imperialist behaviour. I'm tempted to ask, do you have a flag? One wonders who's next for the Grand Tour for Saviours of Low-Income Neighbourhoods.
Reflections on bonhomie snake-oil and social pharmaceuticals Disasters like hurricane Katrina or the recent earthquake in Japan understandably give rise to examples of neighbourliness and generalised discussion on the nature of community. I posted some points on post-Katrina social capital here. Here's an example of an article considering sense of community, following the Christchurch earthquake. The author, Emma Woods, writes: The resiliency of areas not only depended on how extensive the damage was, but also on what resources were available and how well these were pooled. A friend in one of the most damaged areas of Christchurch told me how one of her neighbours had a generator, several had barbecues and all shared the food that had been in their freezers. Everyone had something they needed and something they could share. The stories that emerge in this genre are not dissimilar to historic forms of 'necessity neighbouring' which became institutionalised, for instance in the mythology of British urban communities in the first half of the twentieth century. People share and collaborate and support one another partly because it is in their interests to do so, as well as out of a sense of common humanity. It seems to me that only a theoretical psychologist would feel compelled to separate these two motivations rigidly. If humans were able completely to separate altruism from long-term self-interest (of self, family, species...) then I suspect we would not have evolved as social animals. People rightly recognise enormous value in the social phenomenon of community when it emerges to play its part after a disaster, and it's not unusual to hear regrets voiced about how our societies have 'lost' the values that are starkly evidenced when adversity strikes. What is meant, I think, is 'wouldn't it be nice if we could have the community bit without the adversity?' Unfortunately the question tends to be asked with so little reflection on people's motivations to connect with each other, that it becomes meaningless. It might be better to understand the metabolism of community and study the micro-conditions under which the flourishing of highly-visible communal support emerges. Sense of community during times of large-scale crisis serves to fuel the interest already committed by policy makers who have been searching for strategic devices to stimulate routine neighbourliness. Yup, we're talking social chemical engineering, you just need a prescription-oriented culture and the elixir that captures the market. Schemes like the Big Lunch or l'incroyable pique-nique or European Neighbours' Day - or even the Big Lottery's recently-announced People Powered Change programme (see David Wilcox's report here) - all appear to be macro-level attempts to stem the supposed decline in social capital and sell us all some universal-cure bonhomie snake-oil. This industry sector appears to be growing rapidly. The Prime Minister has a term for it, wait, no, i've forgotten it again. Apart from asking where the money goes and where it might go if it didn't, it might help if we could be reassured that what is being injected into the social system is genuinely pro-social and not...

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