So there’s been another terror attack in Britain. And what will change as a result? Of course you know the answer – absolutely nothing. There will of course be candlelit vigils and people will sing Imagine and one or two news reporters might cry on screen. But absolutely nothing will change.
The reason for this is of course the “it hasn’t happened in my street so it doesn’t matter” syndrome. People don’t care about bad stuff until it gets very close to them personally. They don’t care about crime until houses in their street get burgled. They don’t care about unemployment until it’s their kids who can’t find jobs. They don’t care about immigration until their suburb starts to get culturally enriched. They don’t care about terrorism until bombs start going off in their street.
Partly this is quite normal and healthy. We can only deal with so many worrying things and most of us have quite enough worries in our own personal lives. If we worried about everything, even things that don’t directly affect us, we’d all be in straitjackets in the local mental hospital.
Partly it reflects the fundamentally unnatural and unhealthy nature of modern life. We were not meant to live in huge cities and we were not meant to be constantly awash in a sea of mass media. We suffer from sensory overload, and more to the point we suffer from emotional overload. We cannot get upset by every single bad thing that happens anywhere in the world. So we have three choices – we can go mad, we can increase our dose of Prozac, or we can filter out stuff that isn’t relevant to us. Most normal people choose option three.
So it’s actually quite normal to take the “it hasn’t happened in my street so it doesn’t matter” approach. The problem is that it’s very important to distinguish between events that happen elsewhere that really are irrelevant to us and events that happen elsewhere that are actually likely to affect us in the not-too-distant future. It’s also important to distinguish between events that we might conceivably be able to do something about and things that we can do absolutely nothing about.
A rail disaster in Bolivia or an earthquake in Guatemala are both events that can quite reasonably be put into the category of things that are irrelevant to us and that we can’t do anything about.
On the other hand if crime has suddenly skyrocketed in a neighbouring town that should concern us since it could be an indication that we’re about to experience the same thing in our town. Unemployment should concern all of us because our jobs could be next on the chopping block. Immigration should worry us all because it could slowly but surely destroy our whole society. Terrorism should worry us. It could happen in my street. All of these things could happen in my street.
The real problem is that democracy is based on the idea that ordinary people can make these distinctions and can identify the things that they can and should be worried about. Even worse, democracy is based on the assumption that ordinary people can not only identify the important issues but also understand them, and understand what needs to be done, and send the right message to their elected representatives.
Unfortunately the things that really matter tend to be rather complicated. Do you have a clear and thorough understanding of which economic policies are best for the country? I have to confess that I don’t. Crime is complicated. It’s easy to assume that the best way to fight crime is to have more police but in fact the type of policing is more important than the quantity. Understanding terrorism might seem straightforward but there’s the difficulty that cynical and wrong-headed foreign policy decisions really have contributed to the problem, and foreign policy tends to be fiendishly complex.
There’s a further difficulty facing us today. Making the right judgment as to which party or candidate is likely to solve these problems is not easy when the correct decisions have been declared to be politically incorrect, wicked and forbidden even to think about. Solving problems such as immigration then becomes effectively impossible.
And of course if there’s one thing that ordinary people do understand very clearly indeed it is this – no matter which party you vote for they will betray you, they will break their promises, in many cases their actions will be the exact opposite of what they promised, and they will lie.
It is natural to take the “it hasn’t happened in my street so it doesn’t matter” view, but that view becomes even more attractive when the issues are complex and you know quite well that the politicians won’t listen to you anyway.
There is a solution and it’s an easy one – simply boycott the mainstream parties. There are and always have been alternatives if only people will take the final leap of logic – if you can’t trust the professional political class then vote for outsiders. They couldn’t do a worse job than the mainstream parties and at the very least it’s a way of putting the fear of God into the establishment politicians. But people won’t do it because none of these bad things have happened in their street yet.