Empathy and compassion are possessed, albeit in in differing degrees, by most human beings and their total absence is usually taken as evidence of a personality disorder. The attitude of the government over the damage that will be done to so many people by the Welfare Reform Bill has shown such a level of dissociation from from those qualities which enable us to relate and cohere, that there is a strong temptation to attribute strange pathologies to some of our elected representatives.
The misrepresentation of fact and the failure of consultation exposed by the Spartacus Report, the ignorance of, and indifference to, the plight of extremely vulnerable individuals and families and the collusion with right-wing papers in stirring up animosity through the false and mean-spirited rhetoric of “scroungers” and “hard working families”, was recognised by a majority in the Lords. Members of the revising chamber, listening to reasoned arguments and accessing the innate compassion which one hopes to find in the majority of people, made seven amendments to the Bill ahead of its return to the Commons.
During this process, there were a few moments which revealed the complete failure of some wealthy and privileged politicians to comprehend the realities of life for less fortunate citizens. Most notable was the view expressed by Lord Freud, the Welfare Minister, that the proposed loss of £1500 for some families with disabled children was “not a heavy cut”. Astonishing though this may be, it can be seen as an index of limited life experience rather than of moral disorder.
It is not possible to say the same of some of the behaviour which was on display during the Commons debate on 1 February when MPs overturned all the humane amendments of the second chamber. This made for difficult watching. MPs supporting the amendments referred to the experiences of their own disabled constituents and the manner in which they would be affected by measures such as the cutting of payments for disabled children, and the requirement for terminally ill cancer sufferers on chemotherapy to undergo work capability assessments. As they did so, members on the government benches jeered and sniggered.
This is so far removed from the usages of decency that I would like to posit at least the possibility that these individuals had fallen victim to the twin deformities of group-think and of a distorted view of masculinity.
Group-think - a phenomenon identified by the sociologist Irving Janis in the 1970s - has a dramatic effect on moral judgement. Members of the group become so convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that they no longer consider the consequences of their decisions. They will also tend to exclude and belittle evidence contradicting or calling into question the collective opinion. Any colleagues who do question the dominant mindset are likely to find themselves treated with derision or suspicion. Neither is comfortable; both are likely to be deleterious to promotion within the group.
Some of the worst and most juvenile aspects of maleness contribute to this damaging conformity. Women make up six of the 29-strong cabinet and 22 per cent of all MPs. The predominant culture is male and, as some of the recent jibes coming from the Prime Minister have revealed, an outmoded male culture at that. The desire to appear 'tough' and resistant to the ameliorating attributes of reason, compassion and discernment such as those displayed by the unelected house, has become the unpleasant norm of much green bench conduct.
If some of those who exhibited boorish and callous behaviour during the debate on 1 February could have been taken out of that bear-pit of testosterone and rowdy conformity and into quiet conversation from which they could neither gain advantage nor be humiliated, I would like to think that they might have been brought to a better frame of mind. The alternative is to believe that a significant number of our legislators really do have personality disorders.
A joint statement issued by the Methodist Church, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the United Reformed Church and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) says: “the benefit cap will make the UK a darker, less humane place for us all”. The manner in which our adversarial and excessively partisan politics makes it almost mandatory for MPs to crush whatever might be thoughtful and compassionate in their make-up, seems both a cause and forerunner of this prophecy.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen