What do we do about social ills?

Judging from what we keep hearing and reading, social failure is the greatest threat to our life… and the family is in the red zone

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

While we all have to accept that change is the law of life and is inevitable, it is also a truism that such change can be for better or worse. It would be foolhardy to deny that mankind has made tremendous material progress since the advent of science and technology which allowed industrialisation to take place. This in turn put a variety of products, from items for personal consumption to gadgets for domestic use and entertainment, ranging from clothing and cosmetics to appliances in the kitchen, the bathroom, the rest of the house, the office: a bewildering range available all over the developed and developing world that has made life easy for billions. Sadly, it is also a fact that hundreds of millions too are still trapped in poverty for complex reasons, despite all the efforts being made globally over decades to lift them out of it.

Unfortunately, though, there has not been a corresponding level of progress on the non-material front, because we have understood ‘progress’ to mean essentially the improvement of our physical or material conditions of living, whereas true progress would be a good quality of social life. The focus has been on growth (increase in volume, e.g., products) and development (widespread availability of products) rather than true progress. An analogy would help to understand what this is about, and the human organism provides a wonderful example. When a baby is born, first there is growth in size, then the organs start to develop and mature; in so doing they work together in harmony and cooperation so as to continue the growth and development process smoothly, and that results in a healthy human being.

If we transpose this ‘model’ to society at large, then a good quality of social life would be the equivalent of a healthy human being: all the component parts are functioning in unison to achieve a common purpose, namely maintaining the psycho-biological integrity and life of the person. In this connection, there has been a study about happiness conducted by Harvard University some time back which is frequently cited. Its conclusion was that the happiest people were those who had stable and joyous social relationships, irrespective of all other factors such as wealth, profession, social status among others.

Most of us are busy chasing such factors because we think they represent success, only to find that falling short of achieving it causes dissatisfaction and despondency. When this happens, especially to the young, it can lead to impulsive and irrational behaviours. From there to spiralling down is but a small step, and is the root of many social ills. The faster are the changes taking place around us, the greater seem to be the possibilities of such ills emerging, as everyone tries to conform by hook or by crook to the prevailing fashions. And the youth are particularly vulnerable.

Of course, the problem of social ills is not peculiar to one society: in fact all over the world, all countries — from the lesser developed to the developing and the developed — are facing similar problems, although the scale may be different. Our standard of comparison has always been what are considered to be the more developed and advanced countries, but in the case of Mauritius because of our colonial past the two countries we tend to refer to most of the time are France and England. It is only in the past couple of decades that other countries such as the USA have come into our orbit. But with the advent of globalisation and social media, and the easy access to the devices that are their vehicles, the smartphones in particular, we are subjected to influences from all over, because the world literally lies in our palms now.

Nevertheless, while modern technology has no doubt accelerated the deterioration in the social space, even before that this slide had started. In fact, going back to my archives, I came across an article in the UK press a few years into the second millennium with the title: ‘Social breakdown is a threat to our quality of life which we ignore at our peril.’

It began as follows: ‘The symptoms of a broken society are all around us. Over a million British youngsters are neither in education nor a job. The incidence of knife-crime has doubled in two years. New victims fall prey to the feral young on an almost daily basis. Even if they do not necessarily host homicides, many public spaces are steadily growing scruffier and dirtier. They look as if there should be a sign: “Decent people keep out.”’ Does this ring a bell?

In trying to fathom the diagnoses of Britain’s social ills, the author pointed to the breakdown of discipline in the following terms, ‘from the Sixties onwards, in pursuit of the permissive society, there has been a steady erosion of authority. Policemen, parents and teachers have all come under attack. As a result, many of them have lost their nerve.’

The conclusion of the author was: ‘But the main problem is not economic. The decline of the family is the greatest cause of our social discontents. Social failure is the greatest threat to our quality of life. It ought therefore to be the major preoccupation of government, and of all concerned citizens for many years to come.’

Fast forward to today in our country, and we can see that, judging from what we keep hearing and reading, even here social failure is the greatest threat to our life. And we don’t have to look around with a loupe to make out that the family is in the red zone. Here too it is in the interest of one and all that not only must this be a major preoccupation of any government, but equally, it is citizens — the community at large – who must be involved at all levels of society and in a variety of forums and structures to rebuild the family as the fundamental unit of society so as to restore balance and sanity in society. We cannot keep crying wolf and throw our hands up in despair. We have to get up and go as it were. And do something, fast, and that will produce results. It goes without saying that the young will have to be fully committed and engaged in any endeavour in this direction, under the guidance and with the support of wise elders.

The latter are to be found in all communities, and while national efforts spearheaded by government or political leaders are both necessary and to be welcomed, each community in the country must mobilize its internal resources and find the role models who will inspire their likes towards responsible behaviour that will be conducive to the national weal. And inevitably, such individuals have to emphasise the universal values which form the basis of harmonious living. The major ones are few and simple: non-injury to self and others, honesty, truth, mutual respect and acceptance, love. As a matter of fact, if one follows sincerely just one these values, all the others follow automatically: it is like pulling one leg of a chair, and all the other legs will come too.

The question is how far are we prepared to do that, because the blunt truth is that if we don’t, the social deterioration will not stop.

* Published in print edition on 6 August 2021

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