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Systemic Cruelty

When bailiffs broke down his door on the 20th June 2018 they found Errol Graham emaciated and dead. He weighed just four and a half stone (28.5kg). There was no food in the flat except for two tins of fish that were four years out of date, no gas or electricity supply. He was 57, lived alone in Nottingham, England and due to severe anxiety had little or no contact with family or friends. Unable to work he relied on state benefits to pay his rent, cover the bills and feed himself, benefits that were stopped when Graham did not attend a capability for work assessment. It was an isolated, painful life that ended tragically.

The conclusions of an inquest into the death of Errol Graham published last week, suggested “the removal of benefits by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), despite his long history of mental health problems, may have contributed to his death,” The Guardian reported. His daughter-in-law, Alison Turner, went further, blaming the DWP for his death; saying, “he would still be alive. He’d be ill but he’d still be alive.”

This dreadful story took place in Britain, but it, or something like it could happen anywhere in the world. It is but one of countless examples of institutionalized cruelty and systemic brutality, the greatest example of which is perhaps starvation and food insecurity in a world of plenty.

We have created a world in which the structures, systems and institutions are, by design, devoid of compassion, promoting suspicion and division; unkind policies flow from governments concerned solely with financial development and international dominance. False values are relentlessly promoted and crude methods of motivating people (i.e. competition and desire) to do what the architects of the machine want them to do are employed.

Growing selfishness

This hostile approach to living has infiltrated all areas, including schools and the home; parents, fearful for their child’s future in a brittle world, are more concerned than ever with academic achievement – believing success in this area will somehow enable their offspring to build secure lives for themselves – than with the cultivation of social responsibility. This conditioning into selfishness is borne out by various empirical studies; The Observer reports that, “psychologists find that kids born after 1995 are just as likely as their predecessors to believe that other people experiencing difficulty should be helped—but they feel less personal responsibility to take action themselves. For example, they are less likely to donate to charity, or even to express an interest in doing so.”

In addition to growing levels of selfishness and social isolation a widespread result of systemic cruelty coupled with intense competition – in the workplace, in schools and colleges and in the social arena – is psychological fear on a massive scale; ‘the world’ as currently constituted is seen to be a frightening place, indeed without the resources (physical, mental, family friends and financial) required to live – to ‘face the day’, pay the rent and feed oneself etc.—it is a frightening place.

Institutions and government agencies are regarded as threatening bodies of control; employees are constrained by procedure, drilled in rules and regulations denying flexibility crushing the humane, forming division. Once division is present the distance between procedural enforcement to impatience, and verbal insults to violence, is a good deal less than might be imagined; once an image of ‘the other’ is built and the threshold of self control, decency and mutual respect has been crossed all manner of abuse becomes possible.

For those on the margins of society – those with mental health illnesses; minorities; people who are uneducated or don’t speak the language well; men and women like Errol Graham, and there are many such, dealing with unforgiving inflexible forms of bureaucracy, corporations and bodies of control, is impossible, it literally makes them ill. As a result they retreat, hide away, are unable to follow the suffocating dictates and relentless demands, are overwhelmed by official letters, marketing emails and text messages. Frightened they simply stop responding, refuse to open letters, turn to drugs/alcohol, or some other addicted form of escape. To some the urge to ‘give up’ becomes irresistible and suicide holds out the promise, true or false, of release.

On a larger scale it is systemic cruelty that allows one billion or so people to live in absolute poverty, most of who are in South-East Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa. Merely surviving another day in a world that is threatening to crush them totally, is the aim of life; ‘God’ then is a loaf of bread, a bowl of rice, a cup of drinking water. That such injustice and needless suffering exists in a world that is more connected than ever, is aware, more or less, of the problems and has the resources to end them is shameful and inhumane.

When we build systems rooted in injustice and division, devoid of all kindness and compassion we encourage selfishness, suspicion and fear; and where there is fear there will be anger, and with anger comes conflict – within and without. Mankind is not this dispassionate machine, certainly not just this, and arguably not this at all. But intolerant ways of living beget discrimination and hate, violence triggers violence, hate fuels hate; this much at least we must have learned. And yet the systemic methodology that is feeding division persists, becomes louder, uglier, more extreme. It must end.

Institutionalized cruelty stifles humanity’s natural tendency towards expressions of kindness, concern for others, tolerance of difference and cooperation. All of which are extolled as moral virtues throughout the world, all of which allow a person to feel at ease with themselves and happy. And when a person is relaxed they can think more clearly, more creatively; kindness then becomes a facilitator of intelligence.

Social harmony, whether within a family unit, a school, workplace or a city rests on a series of interrelated pillars; trust is key, sharing helps cultivate trust and in a healthy social setting would be the natural way of things; forgiveness is another essential ingredient, as is tolerance. All of these principles of goodness flow from love – not sentimental emotional pink love, but that vibrant creative force beyond thought that animates all that is good. As the existing systems crystallize and become more extreme, it is upon a foundation of love and compassion that the new modes of living must be built.

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Graham Peebles is a British freelance writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and India. 

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