Last week New Zealand's centre-right party won the election as thoroughly as you can or need to in order to govern unimpeded for the next three years, and the left-leaning among us are doing the usual post-mortem.
Do we blame the non-voters? The misinformed voters? The greedy voters? The unappealing centre-left party? The corrupt centre-right party? The naive internet party who thought that people would change their votes when corruption was alleged?
No, I think we need to accept the fact that 48% of voters honestly believe
that the centre-right's economic policies are standing us in good stead as a country. Partly they believe this because said party has lied to them about how we're in fact doing. But mostly they believe it because it makes sense. It fits the Story, the story that's wound its way about the globe and is shaping society and economics worldwide by convincing us to fear and distrust our fellow human beings and vote for the government that will protect us from them.
I call the Story "Bludgers vs Bootstraps". It's a story of the lazy beneficiary who's bludging off the state. You know they're a lazy bludger because they're a beneficiary. If they weren't lazy, they'd pull themselves up by their bootstraps, get a job, and become a productive member of society. But they don't have a job so they're not productive so they're a bad person -- or at the very least they've made bad choices and now they need to take responsibility for that. (At worst, they're actively milking the benefit for all it's worth, or even defrauding it.) And if they won't do it themselves, then they need to have their benefit taken away from them in order to motivate them to go and do the thing with the bootstraps.
Like all victim-blaming, this story is tremendously comforting. Because if every poor person made a Bad Choice, then all you need to do to avoid poverty is to make all the Right Choices.
And because people need the Story to allay their fears, the harder you work to point out a case that doesn't fit the narrative, the harder they'll work to identify the Bad Choice that proves it does fit it. (To see this happen, I refer to every newspaper comment section ever.) It's still worth telling these counter-narratives, I think, as innoculation if nothing else, but it's not sufficient.
What we really need is a New Story, and this is what it is:
People are inherently good.
People want a job that's meaningful: a job that doesn't just support themselves, doesn't just support their families, but actually improves the world in some other way too. People will settle for a meaningless job if they have to, but they won't be happy about it, because people want to be useful to their fellow human beings
And whether luck grants them a job or not, people help their fellow humans in a thousand other ways. They look after children. They edit Wikipedia. They garden, making the environment more beautiful and sharing vegetables and fruit with neighbours and colleagues. They volunteer time in churches and clubs and charities. They write cheques and donate old clothes. They smile at people in the street. They pick up a wallet and hand it in. They give spare change to someone asking for 'busfare'. They yarnbomb construction fences and set up bookcrossing zones. They see a house on fire and go in to rescue the inhabitants and then they carry on to their dayjob.
Running into a burning building isn't a smart thing to do, but it's the human thing to do. Because people are just this incredibly hardworking, generous, caring species.
And when we all believe this
story, we won't have to fear poverty because we'll know that people will support us. Just the way we support other people. Because this is what people do.
And we'll want to spread this story, and there are two ways of doing that:
- Telling the story: Tell your friends and neighbours and colleagues and busdrivers and checkout operators about one of those many times that someone did something nice for you. Obviously you want to try and have this bear some relevance to your conversation, but you know what I mean.
- Creating the story: Be that person doing something nice for your friend or neighbour or colleague or busdriver or checkout operator, so that they have a story to tell too.
I'm not going to promise that spreading this story will get the centre-left party straight back into power. Actually, I think its real success will be judged by how it changes the policies of the centre-right party. This will take time, just as the old story took time to spread in the first place. But it will
spread, because it's true and because it's awesome -- and because each act of spreading it makes someone's life better, and that's what we all want to be a part of.
[Links are welcome, as are stories of you or others doing nice things for someone else.]
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