Winter 2017

Dr Hugh Mackay: the state of the nation starts in your street

Street mural of an elderly man and woman. The mural is very large - the figures are about 5 metres tall.
Street art by Smug, corner of Lonsdale and Spencer Streets, Melbourne.

The Gandhi Oration is delivered each year at the University of NSW by a person whose life’s work exemplifies the ideals of Gandhi. The 2017 Gandhi Oration was delivered by Dr Hugh Mackay.

I wonder what Gandhi would have made of Australia in 2017—a place that many people who live here regard as the best country in the world.

It’s true that we have a robust parliamentary democracy, even if we’re replacing prime ministers at an unsustainable rate. Paramedics no longer use the question ‘Who is the prime minister?’ as a reliable test of cognitive function of the bewildered or concussed.

We have our spectacular beaches, Sydney Harbour, our bush, our mountains, some of the world’s cutest wildlife and the world’s most liveable cities.

We have a well-educated population, with unprecedented numbers of students enrolled at our universities—many of which are world class.

We have relatively low unemployment. A high—though falling—rate of home ownership. A record period of sustained economic growth and a sound financial system, though accompanied by record—perhaps worrying—levels of personal and government debt.

This is a place where we pride ourselves on the fair go. A place where we enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press.

No wonder we’re such a highly desirable destination for tourists, immigrants and, yes, refugees. This is a place where you might think the dream of egalitarianism could finally come true. It is certainly a place where we have managed to create a harmonious society out of extraordinary cultural and ethnic diversity, bringing together people from almost 200 birthplaces around the world.


And yet, all is clearly not well. We are a society in the grip of epidemics of anxiety, obesity and depression—20 per cent of Australians experience some form of mental illness.

More than 700,000 children are living in poverty.

Although we pride ourselves on our low rate of unemployment, we often overlook the problem of underemployment. About 2 million Australians are either unemployed or underemployed. 100,000 Australians are homeless.

We are further from egalitarianism than we were 50 years ago. We are showing signs of a disturbing retreat from the values of an open, tolerant society for which we were once famous.

How did this happen? Where did this edgy, anxious, too-violent society come from? This uneasy blend of arrogance and timidity?

Could it be the result of growing income inequality that has produced an unprecedentedly large gap between rich and poor Australians, with greater numbers than ever before at the top and the bottom of the economic heap? Inequality certainly breeds insecurity, and poverty certainly has bad consequences for health. But anxiety and depression are not confined to any particular social or economic stratum.

Could all this anxiety be the result of declining respect in the community for our institutions—the church, politics, the banks, the trade unions, the media, even universities—that has led to widespread disenchantment and disillusionment?

After all, we create institutions to formalise many of the functions of our society: they exist to serve us, so when we suspect they are being corrupted by their own power, or becoming inward and self-protective in their focus, we are understandably disappointed, and perhaps even outraged.

You may have seen recent media reports of research by the Edelman organisation showing that trust in big business in Australia is in sharp decline. And we all know what has happened to respect for the institutional church—and for politics.

An international survey conducted by Ipsos showed that more than 70 per cent of Australians believe the nation ‘needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful’; 68 per cent believe ‘the economy is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful’; and 61 per cent believe ‘traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me’.

That decline in respect for contemporary institutions of all kinds might well contribute to our level of anxiety, though I suspect the main response among people who lose faith in an institution is disgust rather than anxiety. They are more likely to switch off, or retreat into cynicism, rather than to worry about it.

I believe Mahatma Gandhi might have had something to say about all this. I suspect he would have wanted to remind us that if we lose our capacity for unconditional compassion, if we lose sight of our true nature as members of a society—and if we focus too much on our own wants, our own entitlements and our own gratifications, with little regard for the needs and wellbeing of others—there will be an inevitable threat to our mental health.

What would Gandhi have made of Australia in 2017?

‘We don’t know our neighbours’

Over the years, my own research has consistently identified ‘loss of community’ as one of the most common concerns among contemporary Australians. That concern is often expressed as a regret that local neighbourhoods are not functioning as well as they once did.

‘We don’t know our neighbours’ has become a cliché of contemporary urban life. That is never said with pride or pleasure: feeling like a stranger in your own street is bound to fuel your insecurities.

A disturbing piece of research from Edith Cowan University has shown that only one-third of Australians say they trust their neighbours. Clearly, that could not possibly mean that 65 per cent of neighbours are untrustworthy—what it must mean is that most people in our society don’t know their neighbours well enough to have learnt to trust them.

I’m not of course suggesting that the erosion of our commitment to the community we live in is the sole cause of anxiety, or even the primary cause in many cases. Anxiety and depression are often the result of a complex blend of biological and social factors.

What I am suggesting is that when we lose sight of our role as neighbours, the health of the neighbourhood suffers. And when the health of the neighbourhood suffers, we all suffer.

When we ignore our biological destiny as social creatures—people who need each other; people for whom a sense of belonging is fundamental to our wellbeing; people who utterly rely on communities to define us, sustain us and protect us—then our level of anxiety is likely to rise.

So, is there less community engagement than previously? Are local neighbourhoods less stable and cohesive than they once were?

When you look at the evidence, it’s hard to argue with the popular perception.

Rooftops in an urban area.

A fragmenting society

Let me remind you of some of the factors that have been propelling us in the direction of becoming a more fragmented, more individualistic, more competitive, more aggressive, less cooperative and therefore more anxious society.

First, the most obvious one: the rate and the relentlessness of social, cultural, economic and technological change. Ever since the Industrial Revolution radically changed the way we live and work, we have struggled to adapt to those changes.

And while, as a species, we are still—after 250 years—trying to absorb the impact of that revolution, we have had many more recent revolutions to cope with: the gender revolution, an economic restructure amounting to revolution, an information technology revolution, and even a revolution in our sense of who we are—our cultural identity as Australians.

The symptoms of those revolutions are familiar to us all:

  • changing patterns of marriage and divorce, with 36 per cent of contemporary marriages expected to end in divorce and the consequential disruptions of families, friendship circles and communities—including for the 1 million dependent children who are now living with just one of their natural parents;
  • a record low birth rate: meaning children, the great social lubricant, are in shorter supply than ever (while compensatory pet ownership has soared);
  • the rise of the two-income household, with a greater sense of ‘busyness’ and less time and energy available to nurture the community;
  • our rapidly shrinking households, with the average now down to 2.6 persons per household and single-person households the fastest-growing type, expected to reach 30 per cent of all households within the next ten years—increasing the risk of widespread loneliness, social isolation, even alienation;
  • our increasing mobility (we move house on average once every six years);
  • our almost universal car ownership reducing footpath traffic; and
  • the IT revolution that has led us to confuse data transmission with communication, altered our perceptions of privacy and identity, and, above all, made it easier than ever to remain apart from each other.

The likely cumulative effect of those factors is easy to imagine. Taken together they exert great pressure on the stability and cohesiveness of communities. But that pressure is not irresistible—yet unless we resist it, the pressure will steadily increase the risk of fragmentation and social isolation.

It’s already clear that many of us are severely stressed by the struggle to keep up with the rate of change in our lives. One of the consequences of that stress is anxiety; another is violence—both physical and emotional—often in response to a seemingly small irritation that turns out to have been the last straw.

We can change

To conclude, let me revisit the state of the nation: our growing disenchantment with institutions, our tendency to disengage from the serious social issues that confront us—homelessness, the plight of asylum seekers, the enduring problem of Indigenous Australians’ health and wellbeing, the problem of growing inequality of income, the fragmentation of families, neighbourhoods and communities, and—perhaps as a consequence of that—the rising epidemic of anxiety.

It’s easy to complain about ‘the state of the nation’ and to wish that a leader could make everything right. There’s a very long history of human societies placing too much faith in their leaders to save them from whatever they think they need saving from.

In Australia, we’ve had a couple of very recent examples of what happens when we over-invest our faith in leaders—their fall from grace, and our ultimate disappointment in them, is all the more poignant.

It’s true that the best leaders can both inspire and reassure us by placing us in a narrative we can understand and by offering visionary policy solutions to our social and economic problems. But, as part of the general decline of trust in politics, our esteem for the current crop of leaders has plummeted. Both Donald Trump and Brexit can be partially interpreted as reactions to similar disenchantment in the US and UK.

In one way, that might be no bad thing. It might encourage us to look differently at the situation and take matters into our own hands by embracing the idea that the state of the nation actually starts in the street where you live.

We can’t manage the economy, but we can decide to spend and save wisely, and to be more generous to the needy—the marginalised, the disadvantaged, the brutalised.

We can’t stop the rising tide of technology but we can be its masters, not its servants.

And when it comes to the character and the values of our society, it really is up to us. We can have a powerful influence on the state of the various communities we belong to—in the neighbourhood, the workplace, the university, the church or other faith community, the sporting association, the book club or other community organisation. How we contribute to the minutiae of life—in our own family, street, suburb or town—will ultimately help to determine the big picture.

We all know how to act like neighbours when there’s a crisis—floods, bushfires, storms, or horrific events like the carnage in Melbourne’s Bourke Street in January. Of course bystanders rushed to the aid of the injured. Of course people instinctively help those in obvious pain and distress—that’s the kind of species we belong to.

So why does it so often take a crisis to remind us of our responsibility to the other members of our community, including the elderly and the isolated, whose need of help—perhaps in the form of nothing more than a bit of conversation—might not be as immediately obvious as an accident victim’s.

You think people aren’t as friendly as they once were—that, especially in Sydney, avoiding eye contact with strangers has become an art-form? Then be more friendly. Start making eye contact with strangers. No, do better than that: start smiling and saying hello—at the bus stop, in a lift, in the checkout queue, and especially in the street or apartment block where you live.

You don’t know your neighbours? Try knocking on the door and introducing yourself. Become the kind of person who is always alert to the possibility that someone needs your help or attention.

Join a local book club or a community choir; participate in a community garden; play a team game with a local club; become a regular at your local café. In other words, engage. Be there.

And don’t worry about how you’re feeling about any of this—whether being kind to people is making you happy. That’s not why you’re doing it.

If you’re looking for something to worry about, worry about whether you gave someone your undivided attention when they needed it—whether you really listened, or just pretended to.

Worry about whether you apologised quickly enough, and sincerely enough, when you wronged or offended someone; whether you forgave someone readily enough when they wronged or offended you; whether you were there when someone—perhaps even a total stranger—needed your encouragement and support.

If enough of us start living as if this is the kind of society we want it to be, that’s the kind of society it will become. As Gandhi put it:

You may never know what results come of your actions but if you do nothing, there will be no results.

This is an edited version of a piece that was first published by The Conversation. View the full article on The Conversation website.

Dr Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and author. His latest book is Selling the Dream, a satirical novel set in the advertising industry.

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