In one scene of the Christopher Nolan film Interstellar, Dr Mann (Matt Damon) acknowledges to Matthew McConaughey’s character Cooper that the problem with saving the human race is getting individuals to care to about the species as a whole. He argues that humanity’s ability to love and to care deeply about fellow humans has never transcended its line of sight.
It’s difficult to refute Mann’s logic. Collective emotion can exist, but it’s usually connected to family, friends or children. We might be willing to die for our country, but there needs to be an attachment to compel us to do so. Patriotism and love of country as an idea is a wholly different kind of feeling to the impassioned, fanatically defence of those who are figuratively and metaphorically closest to you.
Proximity limits our ability as a species to feel for those out with our network of familial connections. It also stands at odds with one of the most perennial and politically challenging statements, ever committed to paper: “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”
With no small irony, Edmund Burke is widely regarded as the father of modern conservatism. Although he might have been writing in the 19th century his words in the 21st are a stunning political gauntlet to his political heirs to explain their policies against disabled people.
When we combine the challenges of proximity to creating a sincere feeling and Burke’s normative statement together to look at the policies of the current Conservative government towards the disabled, we find David Cameron’s government wanting in an understanding of both.
The Government suffers from a very large Achilles heel in that it confuses ideological ambition with the wisdom of Burke. It proclaims to do right by the country but forgets the very people who the government represents. From the bubble of power that is Westminster, there is a very real detachment from the suffering and the lives of those who are taking benefits. It´s a politicised indulgence of the prejudice most of us, at one time or another, commit: if you are told of, but cannot see suffering, and are told that it is being alleviates by your benefits funded by your money then the mind fills in the blanks with feelings of resentment and anger toward the idea rather than the people.
In his famous 1972 essay, ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, philosopher Peter Singer makes the case that proximity and distance should make no difference to our duty to help others in need.
Singer gives the example that if you can jump into a shallow pond to save a drowning child, with little personal cost and no risk to your safety, but choose not to, you’re making an immoral decision. The geographical distance between the person in need and the potential helper do not reduce the latter’s moral obligations as the principle remains the same. He says:
“It makes no difference whether the person I can help is a neighbour’s child ten yards away from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away.
In regard to the government’s policies on disability benefit, the connection to the state is through taxation and not to the deeply personal stories of those in need of our help. For most people there is an immediate, angry reaction to the idea that people would be handed something when the rest of us have to work penny by penny to make ends meet.
Burke, as a founder of British conservatism (a precursor to the explicitly paternalistic and socially active ‘one nation’ brand of the Cameron-led government), is an embodiment of what Singer said. His philosophical connection to the government today makes him an important yardstick by which to measure how far removed they are from the social justice which they claim to uphold. Like any true conservative policy, Burke founds his view on empirical reality and not how he wishes the world to be. You cannot love that which is hideous.
So here is the question: are we proud of a country where we know there are those who, by no fault of their own, are struggling to meet ends meet just because they are disabled? Do we sleep sounder at night and feel a deeper love for the nation knowing that these people are out-of-pocket for sums which help to even life’s playing field?
These people are wrongly dubbed the weakest in our society. They’re often wrongly written off as the ‘most vulnerable’ when the reality is they’re the strongest because they have to be. They’re the ablest with the right support. Where exactly do we, as a society, gain in pride for our way of life if we are denying those who most want to make the most out of their lives the opportunity to do so?
The reality is disability support is not subsidised living. It’s ‘factored-in’ living. If you struggle with a competitive job advantage because of your physical or mental circumstances then you have to factor into your household budget the support from the state. It’s not right that a person’s freedom, already curtailed or certainly dramatically reduced compared to the majority in our society, becomes a talking point about whether or not they deserve the benefit of being able to get out the house, to go to the shops, to go and see a friend that many take for granted.
As a society, we should be empowering disabled people to get onto an equal footing. That’s all. Equality is not about uniformity, it’s about creating an equilibrium of opportunity; to ensure that we all have the chance to make the best out of what gifts and disadvantages we all have.
If we don’t do this, if we don’t want this – how can we love our country?