The virtues of others: learning to take risks for inclusion

By Jill Segger
June 11, 2018

High white hoardings behind which earth-moving equipment growls and gouges, and men in yellow helmets appear on rising scaffolding, are a familiar sight in both urban and rural surroundings. They will bear the name of a construction company, and frequently the announcement that what is being built is an ‘exclusive development’.

In a country so desperately short of affordable and social housing, and where the government is nowhere near meeting its own housebuilding targets, the notion that ‘exclusive’ should be considered an effective advertising adjective should bring us up short. Of course, we know its purpose – a coded message for people who don’t want to rub shoulders with their social ‘inferiors’ or even simply with those who are different. And like most forms of snobbery, it is as stupid as it is cruel.

I used to be a local councillor. The ward which I represented was, in estate agent-speak ‘desirable’. That is to say, you would have needed (and this was several years ago) a household income of at least £60,000 to buy even a ‘starter’ home. And of course, there were none of those available. Nor was there any perceptible desire among the majority of my fellow-councillors that there should be, or that a few social housing properties might be built: “we don’t want people like that here”.

The outcome was a demographic dominated by baby-boomers who had benefited from getting on the property ladder in easier times, few of whom worked locally or mixed much with the people who had been in the area for along time; a school struggling and in danger of closure because there were so few young families to populate it; and a general tendency to self-satisfaction at the agreeable quality of the ‘exclusive’ and therefore undemanding environment which had been handed to its more fortunate inhabitants.

It would be delusional to believe that any of us are immune to the tendency to create silos of preference and attachment, however egalitarian and liberal we may think ourselves. Our circles of support and friendship tend to reflect our beliefs, interests and – let it be said – manners. But this needs to be kept under review. I live on a small estate which is largely lower middle class out of skilled working class, or as my mother, rather ruefully, described it, “twopence halfpenny tempted to look down on twopence”. I am fairly easily pleased – I like quiet after midnight and neighbours who don’t swear too volubly. But when these conditions are not met, I have come to learn the very real enrichment of negotiating, of learning a better way of co-existing and understanding a little more of the virtues of others which may have been camouflaged by my own particular limitations (northern, Quaker, bookish, a little inclined towards puritanism.)

It is in the learning of what may be unfamiliar and the enlarging which that offers, that we may find ourselves challenged and blessed. “Answer that of God in everyone” George Fox told us. It is a standard response among Friends to observe that some people make a good job of hiding that quality. But that is what makes the admonition worthwhile. What comes easily often does not get us very far and it is in the effort expended that we may come to break down prejudices and begin to re-knit community.

Ghetto-making is deeply damaging. What we don’t see, we will find difficult to know. And ignorance can never be a tool of good governance. The public space has to be shared by all sorts and conditions of citizens if we are to be clear-sighted about difference and the injustices which may lurk within it.

The ability to isolate oneself from what may be uncomfortable or challenging is clearly a market function. Those who can afford it have the choice to live in an expensive house in a community gated by prosperity if not by wrought iron. Builders and developers are eager to fulfil these desires. On one level, that may be very pleasant. Whether or not it is a moral stance is another question.

When the public provision of education enters this territory, there are further reasons for concern. More than half the schools in this country are now academies, no longer under local authority control and thus far less accountable to the communities they are intended to serve than was once the case. Academies have power over their own admissions policies and there is currently considerable concern that some are exercising that power to exclude both cared-for children and children with special needs. As well as the burden placed on these children by a requirement to travel to a school that will accept them, the separation from friends and the sense of being unwanted in their local community, this deprives other pupils of the experience of learning alongside those whose lives have lacked the stability or health which they may have taken for granted. Forbearance, compassion and care are just as important as league tables and the relationships which children forge out of difficulty can be enduring and life-giving.

Exclusivity must always be challenged. It should never be a selling point and where it is, it appeals to those things in human nature which are the most fearful. Living, working and studying together is not always easy or comfortable, but fear will not mend this. If we are to be members of each other, humility and a willingness to take risk just might.

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© Jill Segger is 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. You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.