Thinking Your Way Through a Labyrinth of Contemporary Issues
Taking on board the general climate in the UK over immigrants, by a large part fostered by the tabloid media using inflammatory language such as Europe’s “migrant tide” but also the Conservative Party, Ukip and even the PM describing fleeing refugees as a “swarm”, you would expect the British public to be highly critical and cynical about the recent influx of Syrian refugees into Europe (Mail Online, 2015; BBC News Online, 2015). Despite the tone of the popular tabloid media which can often mistakenly be used as a marker for public opinion in the UK, it seems the British public actually are thinking about the refugee crisis in a sensible and empathetic way, as they generally tend to do when faced with such heart-wrenching stories of desperate people (Ridley, 2015 – Huffington Post Online). Yet many still have concerns about letting these refugees across our borders. We sympathise with them as human beings but still there are concerns and hostile attitudes across the UK about the impact re-settling these refugees would have on people’s lives already living in Britain.
You here lots of people displaying sympathy with the refugees themselves, and even relating to their situation, considering how it would feel with the boot on the foot. Although a general humane level of empathy is apparent, what also is becoming apparent is a general view that despite how much sympathy we feel for the refugees, people are concerned that the UK cannot cope with a new influx of refugees and that it will put strain on our public services and welfare system. The latter point is a reasonable concern, especially when you come from the lower end of society income-wise, and therefore you may feel a sense of fear and insecurity linked to the thought of an ‘outsider’ coming to your country and perhaps being entitled to certain welfare and state generosity which all your life you have never experienced with regards to yourself, your family or you peer group. Personally, I get this, but this doesn’t mean I condone it.
Here lies my point regarding such elements of genuine concern, hostility and fear towards refugees. When inequality is already at high levels, when society is made up of a huge amount of people who are struggling on low-incomes, but are constantly exposed to other parts of society who seem extremely wealthy, when we already have people in society who don’t see themselves benefitting from state welfare provision and can’t seem to get anywhere in life due to a lack of good education, career opportunities and housing provision, it is then understandable for people at the lower end of society (financially) to feel concern towards an influx of refugees.
In his 2004 book on Status Anxiety, Alain De Botton explains that people on similar income levels, from similar backgrounds and at similar ages tend to be envious of each other and seem to be more critical about what other people in their peer group are entitled to. I would say this is generally the case from my own experience of growing up in a working class environment, especially with regards to state provision of welfare. De Botton tells us how someone on a low income would generally not feel desirous or envious of a family in a hugely separate and higher income bracket to themselves such as the Royal family, precisely because they have no resemblance towards your own family, and therefore you cannot relate with them; they are a separate class who live in a separate universe. Furthermore De Botton explains how status anxiety is linked to inequality as it tends to become more prevalent with higher levels of inequality. The concept of status anxiety helps us understand why generally low-income families seem to express high levels concern, are fearful and bitter about a potential influx of refugees. These low-income families would see themselves most likely having to live alongside these refugees who tend to be housed in in poorer areas, they would see them most days, relate to them but also make judgements based on what state welfare provisions they seem to be entitled to. You don’t have to be a genius to work out that tensions may arise between refugees on state provision, and low-income families already suffering from a cost of living crisis, lack of proper jobs, career opportunities, decent and affordable housing; our lack of social mobility in Britain.
In The Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett’s 2009 ground-breaking study, a huge amount of evidence gives a strong element of legitimacy to the theory that more unequal societies suffer from more extreme levels of health and social problems, are more prone to high levels of anxiety, illness, stress, suffer from a higher levels of mistrust but also more unequal societies tend to foster excessive levels of consumption. It may or may not shock you that Britain rates as one of the most unequal of all the developed nations. The US far outstretches us and the rest of the world for inequality and therefore suffers desperately from all the health and social issues previously mentioned. So we are clear that we are a highly unequal society in Britain, then it would make sense according to The Spirit Level that we in Britain would also suffer quite desperately from the side-effects of inequality. Particularly regarding our subject ‘the concern and hostility towards refugees from the poorer parts of our society’, it is interesting to learn that mistrust and anxiety feature as two of the main side effects of inequality from the study.
De Botton’s Status Anxiety has provided extra clarity on this issue, arguing that we live in a society where media and many other sources, tell us we can achieve anything we want as long as we have skill, talent and a bit of energy, touching on our hollow and controversial notion of a meritocratic society. De Botton explains how a ‘spirit of equality’ fostered by media, government, advertisements etc. combined with, in reality, deep inequalities and low levels of social mobility can result in immense health and social problems in society, causing confusion, stress, low self-esteem, suicide, anxiety and yet also triggering burgeoning levels of envy amongst people in similar income brackets. Could these effects of living in an unequal society help explain our confused and cautious reaction towards Syrian refugees? Status anxiety and The Spirit Level can help us understand why it seems to be the case that people from poorer parts of society are more concerned, fearful and even hostile to an influx of refugees into Britain, despite recent signs across multiple media platforms that most in Britain and across Europe do tend to have a real empathy for these desperate refugees.
Tom Bone – Editor at Consensus44
BBC News Online, (2015) Politics, David Cameron criticised over migrant ‘swarm’ language, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-33716501
De Botton, A. (2004) Status Anxiety, Penguin Books, London.
The Mail Online (2015) Europe’s Migrant Tide Ripples Through Venice Film Festival, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/reuters/article-3224284/Europes-migrant-tide-ripples-Venice-film-fest.html
Ridley, L (2015) Huffington Post Online, 14 Signs Compassion Is Winning In Our Attitudes Towards People Migrating To Europe, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/09/05/migrant-crisis-refugees-syria-sympathy-help_n_8075878.html?utm_hp_ref=uk
Wilkinson & Pickett (2009) The Spirit Level, Penguin Books, London.