Our calloused hearts and people of unnoticed lives

By Jill Segger
February 14, 2017

“People of unnoticed lives”. These words leaped out of the radio for me last week when BBC Radio 4's 'Aftermath' revisited the deaths of 23 Chinese cockle-pickers on the sands of Morecambe Bay in 2004.

Those horrible deaths have been described as the “dark underbelly of globalisation”. This is true. Paid far less than the going rate for local workers, these men and women had been illegally brought into the UK in shipping containers by a combination of Chinese Triads and UK gangmasters. Things have changed in the intervening 13 years – the exploitation of these desperate, vulnerable people was a direct cause of the establishment of the Gangmaster Licensing Authority and its legislation for the protection and reform of moral and legal standards.

But of equal importance, this knowledge also calls to us to reflect on the immense gulf of perception between that which we know and that which is the reality of experience for so many. At the risk of coming close to the 'known unknowns' of Donald Rumsfeld territory, it should be remembered that to notice is the beginning of knowledge, and knowledge, the beginning of empathy. To be content in not noticing, is to will isolation and moral deformation.

Most of us would never have noticed the Chinese cockle-pickers had not their handlers been ignorant of local tides which sweep in faster than a man can run. These were disposable people in the thinking of those who had power over them and who believed they could stay beneath our moral radar. We are more aware now and, in an interconnected world, have fewer excuses for remaining unsighted. But too many lives still remain hidden in plain view because we live in silos of comfort, ethnicity, religion and fear. It is perhaps, economic status which most divides us. If you have a reasonable disposable income, live in a pleasant neighbourhood and feel fairly secure in your job, what do you see of the insecurely employed and housed, the food bank user or the zero hours worker struggling to manage rent, utilities and children's shoes? You may read about them, but you don't look in their eyes and hear their experiences. Prosperity prefers to keep disquiet at arms length.

It becomes easier to attribute fault and failure to those whose lives are not like our own if we do not see them in a physical sense. Our common humanity is not acknowledged and understanding is unlikely to be enlarged. If the just-about-managing, the not-managing-at-all, the migrant worker, the asylum seeker and the Muslim are not sharing our space, we are not encountering their experiences. Stereotyping has free rein and a malign feedback loop is created which makes true encounter ever more unlikely.

It is, of course, easier to identify a problem than to find solutions. But if equality and justice are to mean anything, they must challenge us to self-examination. A wave of nationalism and racism is rising in Europe. The weirding of American politics is unsettling societies throughout the world. Our own politics is increasingly being evacuated of vision, altruism, compassion and truthfulness. There is an urgent need to begin the building of moral communities. And if that is to happen, we must notice each other across boundaries of location, economic status, race, faith and party. It has been said: “For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.” In the just society no one is invisible, no one can be disposable.

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© 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.co/quakerpen

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