Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The `Big Society?` Blink and you`ll miss it.

Post by Ash

The `Big Society` is back in the headlines and again dividing opinion. It seems to induce one of those moments that author Malcolm Gladwell attempted to define in his book `Blink`. It was his premise that the vast majority of key decisions we make as individuals are based upon that one or two second `blink` moment when we first see or hear a person,or become aware of a situation or event. It`s rapid cognition, the sort of thing that some would refer to as intuition, but which in his opinion much more rational than that.

So no suprise he might suggest, that when we are presented with the phrase `Big Society`, particularly when uttered by a politician, there are instant responses ranging from the encouraging or perhaps just a weary resignation, through to the downright dismissive. Even the marvellous Archbishop Of York Dr John Sentamu was minded to tell viewers to last Sunday`s Andrew Marr show on the BBC, that this is an idea that has been around for at least 2,000 years.

I guess that we`re all prone to the `blink` mentality, and of course a small dose of cynicism is thought to be good for us. Is organised traditional religion similarly affected ? For example;
The `Big Society`?- (blink) "we`re already doing it."
Full-House worship ?-(cynicism) "great ideal but we live in a secular society with so many competing demands upon time,the world has changed,so it will never happen."
The way to God ?- (blink) "er..., through us please, not any of the other lot."
Cairo-style revolutions ?-(cynicism) "yes it`s lovely that they`re striking out for democracy, but it`s likely to end in a pyrrhic victory."
Maybe though we should take some time for a closer examination.
The `Big Society` ? This may mean different things to different people, but most seem to agree that if it`s about anything then it must be a `sense of community`and a way of letting `people rather than bureaucracy` take control. Helping others is the key or as Therese Coffey MP rather neatly stated, "go and do it". The Archbisop Of York was right in his assertions in that for over two millennium, we have had access to a religiously driven moral code, a way to lead a life, a divine light. Much great work has been undertaken as a result including magnificent projects and outstanding contemporary examples of lives being led that we could all quote. But if the social actions of traditional religions in the UK today were to be compared for example with those of just over a century ago, it would be difficult not to reach the disappointing conclusion that it has played anything other than a `bit part`in the overall scheme of things. How many of the buildings for example, are purposefully used for communities across the day, let alone throughout the week ? Everyone knows that the Salvation Army works directly for the support of the vulnerable.It`s surely no coincidence therefore that their motto is `belief in action`; they are a `doing` as well as spiritual organisation-their buidings at least are certainly put to work.

And how many individuals in our society would be sufficiently engaged to search out advice or support, or would seek to test their opinions on important matters in their life through contact with their community church. How many would even know where this was ? So can it really be assumed that `we already do` the Big Society ? Individually maybe, but via our collective assets ?

Full-house worship? Well I`m not suggesting for a minute that this has to be an essential pre-requisite for success; increasingly for example groups and individuals are using modern technology for support in their quest for both for a personal and fulfilling spirituality, and for reaching out to others. That may well have its place for some, but what`s so daunting also about working in the the collective expectation that a vibrant and contemporary spiritual message should and could be shared with as many souls as possible ? Why the general defeatism ? Has traditional religion not kept pace with the society that it espouses to serve ? Does it no longer have a common touch ? Has it a vision,confidence and energy that will free it from an over-reliance upon dogmatism ? Why, when confronted by such issues, do so many seem to despair that change is possible ? There are, after all, shining examples where places of worship are literally joyously rammed with people, places that contradict this trend toward negativity and seeming acceptance of decline; yet so often these are dismissed as `happy clappy` or `fortuitously located at the centre of a large housing estate`, or they`re `dynamically led` or `culturally different`, as if suggesting that these alone are the reasons for their success, and could never happen `here`. Surely these are places from which lessons should be learnt , the most basic of which being that they`ve actually worked hard to know and provide what their congregations need.

The way to God ? Well it takes very little prompting to remind us all that despite perhaps the best of intentions, the traditional religious default position of `my route to God` can too frequently dominate all reason. In the worst instances this can instantly repel or be too fundamental a message to either encourage personal spiritual discovery or welcome newcomers. Faith and belief demand respect, but such credentials are diminished when used to exclude those many and `different` others.

Cairo-style revolution ? It`s natural to be concerned by uncertainty. Sitting in a comfortable house watching the reporting of the revolution on our TV`s, it`s maybe not an unusual response to assume that such popular uprisings will lead to some undesireable outcomes for ourselves; higher oil prices, islamic fundamentalism,and a limiting of western influence maybe ? Establishing a comprehensive democracy which includes free speech as we know, won`t just happen overnight. And yes, maybe these people themselves will come to regret at least the speed of changes that they have brought about.But surely this is their choice, and theirs alone.In their circumstances, would we be brave enough to take this route ? Is it not really the concern about the potential for a state to become guided by religious zealots that drives us ? Do we really understand the chances of this happening, or the deeper how`s and why`s involved ? Should we not also allow the Egyptians, in this case,to try to address these matters for themselves ? Are we not becoming so self-interested a society as to be unable to generously interpret the genuine needs of others beyond our own borders? Dictatorship, after all, is a prison sentence, not a way of life.

So maybe those of us who in particular hope that at least we are trying to live our lives `religiously`, should spend a little more time than just the odd `blink` considering the `Big Society` that we`d most like to belong to. The exercise may actually serve us well by requiring a re-examinination of the possibilities . By keeping cynicism to a healthy bare essential, we may even find a route to God that could be shared by many others; and perhaps upon that journey embrace the fact that society really does mean `all`; even those in Cairo.


  1. Looking at the recent news, those people in Cairo and elsewhere in the Middle East could teach us a few things. Reports of people in Libya taking on jobs such as sweeping the streets or directing traffic, keeping things going without a working government. This is a fine example of the Big Society at work.

  2. A challenging blog. For me the first hurdle to get over is the jargon. The ‘Big Society’ as it has been politically presented to us is not so much a concept but a label, a brand name. If you want to sell something unsellable sell the brand name instead. Make it bold from one perspective, and fluffy from another. Better still, let everyone make up their own version of the product to identify and support.

    Its prime function at the moment, is that it is to draw attention away from the polemic of overzealous short term cutting that has long term consequences for the most vulnerable.

    This I know smacks of that dreaded word cynicism. But for me, it’s important to put distance between the moral or spiritual ideas of the Big ‘S’ and the blatant political manoeuvring that conceived it.

    Political rhetoric concerning the big ‘S’ is not about taking responsibility but shifting blame. Those wealthy enough to never need government supported public services simply carry on as before. Those who are at the blunt end of the cudgel, now surplus to requirement of those who are alright, need to be cut adrift to sink or swim. It doesn’t matter which, so long as they are not costing the true deserving.

    The big society then represents those not quite on their knees able to do little more than shout at those sinking to ‘try harder.’ Then If the unfortunate do sink it becomes societies’ fault for not shouting loud enough, rather than the fault those who cut them lose in the first place.

    You cannot act in support of a service or benefit that is cut or lost. You can be encouraged to act alongside; but once gone, and structures and expertise are expunged, the cost of getting them back is prohibitive. Even if things get better.

    No one wants pointless bureaucracy, but frame works and facilitation are the forerunners of sustainable action. Individual action at the street level, by itself, cannot manifest a health service or run multi million pound community care for millions of people. We can watch out for our neighbour, but not guarantee individual responsibility.

    Pretending we live in tight caring villages or clans is no solution. In purely pragmatic terms, any solution to modern problems which relies on a sudden outbreak of Utopia, however laudable, has a slim chance of long term success. We can, bring down a government or regime, but building something big enough to maintain a country of people and all their diverse needs, with all their diverse failings, as well as gifts, takes organisation on a different scale. State responsibility and power. Though I’m not saying exclusively so.

    ‘Big Society’, repressive or good, ultimately, is something that is facilitated from above. Democracy is the closest thing man has found that enables input and some control or say from individuals.

    Likewise most ‘Big Religion’ in the world over the millennia has always been imposed, not simply accepted or chosen. Big Religion, regrettably, is not about individual needs it’s about power and control.

    When there is no imposing religious pressure, spiritual expression can become very low key. This is fine for small groups. It suits well for those not wishing to conform. A big religion and society conforms; but then, many love and need conformity whatever the size of the group.

    Vibrant contagious happy clappiness is often the ecstasy of religious compliance; the experience not the conviction rules; it’s all about a big buzz. Good society should not be buzz driven.

    I suspect most of what we really want and need, is dependent on a good higher bigger society that ticks along without us having to take personal responsibility for it. Alongside of which we have the freedom to implement small society, which may not be that small. If we fail the consequences are not catastrophic, if we succeed we all gain.