Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent, rails on the way political and intellectual elites think about “public engagement.” Here are three snippets:
There has been considerable discussion in recent years about the lack of public engagement in civic and political life. But this discussion suffers from the fact that it’s conducted from the perspective of a political elite that is itself socially isolated. This elite therefore has a perception of the public as an object with which one engages. That itself tells me straightaway that when we use the word ‘public’, we’re almost invariably not talking about the public in the way that it’s been historically understood….
This displacement of public virtue happens in all sorts of ways. Just this morning, for instance, I heard yet another plea for volunteering – I almost felt like throwing up, I’ve heard it so many times. Now call me old-fashioned, but when I was young you volunteered because you believed in something. You wanted to help people; you wanted, for instance, to give blood. You didn’t do volunteering because it looked good on your CV. So, while volunteering certainly has a virtuous potential, it has been turned into a process that you adhere to much in the way that you clock on to a job….
An example of this stigmatisation of virtue relates to something I feel strongly about, namely, devotion and care. During the course of writing a book a few years ago called Therapy Culture, I noticed that aspects of devotion and care had become increasingly stigmatised, often being expressed and defined as a marker of a disease. In fact, any manifestation of love, friendship, loyalty or altruism was potentially labelled as a form of addictive behaviour. Altruistic behaviour – which hardly seems a bad thing – is actually diagnosed as compulsive helping. According to this definition, compulsive helpers disregard their own needs and feelings and focus on helping another person. That kind of sums up our current situation with regards to public virtue: in a different era, in a different society, this so-called disease would be seen as a positive thing….