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Refs blow the whistle on a selfish society

2010 November 28
by Paul Vallely

My mobile rang the other day when I was driving. I pulled over and stopped the car to take the call. Less than a minute later a posh four-wheel drive swerved violently in front of me and began reversing towards the side of my car. Seconds later it bumped into me and a bald man appeared by my window aggressively asserting that he wanted to get into his drive, which I was inadvertently blocking in the dark.

I was creating an obstruction, he barked, which was against the law, as he well knew since he was a magistrate. As, perhaps, I suggested, was backing his car into me. He did not reverse deliberately, he brayed, he had just omitted to put on the handbrake when he got out of the vehicle to remonstrate with me and the camber of the road had taken it into my side. Later he calmed down, perhaps because a passing taxi driver wound down his window to me, offered to act as a witness and gave me his phone number. Or perhaps because the magistrate began to recollect that allowing his vehicle to career out of control across the road might constitute a greater infringement of traffic law than obstruction.

Since this seemed pretty extraordinary behaviour for a justice of the peace I looked him up on the internet. He was a model citizen, giving generously of his time to local drug treatment services, youth work and the arts. So what caused him to lose control to such an extent that he could turn into an oafish bully?

He had given a clue. I’m fed up with parents from the school opposite blocking my drive, he fulminated. He had written to the headmaster to no avail. Parents’ cars still constantly blocked his drive. Out of pent-up frustration he had acted precipitately. It was, it seemed, just unfortunate that I was to be the scapegoat to bear the sins of all these other offenders.

The assertion of rights is not a sufficient basis for a healthy society. Who guards the guards? asked the Roman poet. Who judges the judges or, indeed as we have been reminded this weekend, who refs the refs? The entire cohort of Scotland’s senior football referees is striking as a protest against the growing levels of abuse directed at them by fans, players and managers. Things have gone well beyond the traditional grumbling about on-the-pitch decisions. Referees have received abusive phone calls at home. There have even been death threats. And if those are just the actions of a lunatic fringe, they are encouraged by vitriolic complaints by managers in post-match tv interviews. Even the former Home Secretary, John Reid, now the chairman of Celtic FC, used his club’s annual meeting to publicly question the integrity of a referee.

When neutral arbiters like referees are so routinely abused it tells you something about our wider world. As a society we have become more self-absorbed, individualistic, myopic and grasping.  The attitudes so manifest among players, managers and football fans reflect a worldview where winning is more important than playing well. The same thing is on display in a forum as banal as the unreality show I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here where cheating – one contestant admitted she had smuggled in food last week inside her M&S knickers – is a matter for triumphal smirking. So was it, until the global financial crash, among the wide-boys of the City. Fouls, shirt-pulling and unfair restraint in the penalty area are not just restricted to the soccer pitch. Such techniques are anti-skill, but then so is much of our homogenised demotic culture. Our sense of the transcendent is constantly evaporating.

I blame John Locke. This may all seem terribly modern but you can trace it back to the great 17th century empiricist. He pretty much invented the ideology that advocated unprecedented levels of freedom for the individual, along with increased constraints on the power of  government to interfere arbitrarily with that freedom. It demanded unlimited opportunities for those individuals to compete for material well-being. As science discovered the atom, political philosophy atomised society. And our ethics and intuitions shifted to accommodate that.

Globalisation should have asserted our interdependence. Instead it has just provided an even bigger market place in which we can feel alone. The good society is now one where individuals are left unfettered to pursue their private satisfactions and solitary self-fulfilment.  Economics has become a value-free technical business. Like the law of gravity, it operates entirely independent of moral vision.

That has had its upside. Over the last decade extraordinary economic growth has lifted millions of people in places like India and China out of poverty. But this etiolated growth has in other places brought a global economic crisis, unemployment, homelessness, and worldwide food and fuel instability.  The reductio ad absurdum of this is climate change where the chronic short-termism of modern individualism threatens severe disruption of ecosystems, economies and communities – on an unprecedented scale.

David Cameron went some way to acknowledging that last week when he announced he wants the Office of National Statistics to come up with some way of measuring national wellbeing. A comprehensive Happiness Index is, of course, a utopian impossibility, but the attempt should throw up some useful alternative ways of looking at the world. They will act as reminders that there is more to life than money and that a fundamentally acquisitive vision of what it means to flourish can actually be corrosive. All the surveys show that Britons are less happy than in the 1950s, despite the fact that we are three times richer. High-income countries, like the UK or US, also have high levels of addiction, depression, stress, family breakdown and obesity. And the more we see advertised the more dissatisfied we seem to be with the plenty we have.

Locke’s idea of the autonomous individual was, in his day, rooted in a complex moral ecology shaped by traditions of thinking about the common good. Institutions like family and faith were solid. A sense of a public spirit was shared and widespread. People entered into one another’s lives through community. It had its downside. It could be oppressive and intolerant. But it offered a vision which was far richer socially than one governed by the market interactions of isolated individuals. It had a solidarity, and shared some common values, which were far more profound than the shallow notions of “fairness” offered by the current Coalition.

Fairness is what we demand when we look at the world only through our own eyes; justice or equality is what we see the need for when we look through the eyes of others. That is as true of furious football fans, hidebound by their factionalism, as it is of short-tempered drivers unable to drive into their own gateway. We have devalued our relationships and impoverished our vision of what human flourishing should mean. We should require more of the good society.

The refs have blown the whistle.  But a few sendings-off will not solve the problem. It is time that we changed some of the rules.

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