Chavs, scum or feral underclass: Who is your favourite scapegoat?

Our Coorindtaor Niall Cooper challenges the blame game.

Chavs, pikeys, townies, scum. Single parents, pure criminals, drug-crazed gangs, disaffected youth.   Who do you blame for the riots, or the ‘slow motion’ moral decline of the nation?

According to Ken Clarke, it is the "feral underclass".  Michael Gove, apparently, prefers the "educational underclass".

Meanwhile, others, with a more leftward leaning, have countered by talking about a “feral elite” – wealthy bankers and tax avoiders, whose greed helped create the £80 billion hole in the public finances. And even the not so left-leaning Spectator magazine has recently taken a pop at the "undeserving rich".

This is strong – and deliberately emotive – language. 'Feral' is normally used to describe wild beasts, but since the riots there has been growing talk of a “feral underclass whose thuggish behaviour and looting of shops was fuelled by opportunistic greed". More generally, rioters are increasingly being described as part of ‘the underclass’, even though there is no evidence that an ‘underclass’ actually exists.

Professor (now Baroness) Ruth Lister describes all of these processes as ‘Othering’. Othering is a way in which politicians, journalists and, sadly, many of the rest of ‘us’ chose to talk about ‘them’, as a way of setting ‘them’ apart as somehow different from ‘normal society'.  And because ‘they’ aren’t like the rest of ‘us’, ’we’ can feel free to exercise high moral judgement, absolved of any responsibility for our own attitudes or behavior. So, the feral underclass – along with the chavs, single parents and ‘pure’ criminals (surely a contradiction in terms if there ever was one) become just the latest in a long line of scapegoats.

As Luke Bretherton has written, "in scapegoating particular groups, we seek to avoid taking responsibility. And this gets to the heart of the problem: the refusal of all involved – rioters, government, the police and society in general – to take responsibility. This is a profound malaise at the heart of our body politic."

So who is our neighbour?

As Christians, we can have no truck with the language of Othering.  In a church committed to radical inclusivity, it can never be right to describe anyone – rich or poor – as ‘undeserving’, an ‘underclass’, and far less as ‘feral.’

Now, more than ever, there is a need to move beyond the blame game: to engage with those who feel at the margins and who feel that they have no stake in society.

Are we up to the task? Are our churches ready to welcome in the rioters and well as the rioted-against? Are we really prepared to listen to those who live at the margins of our communities? Are we prepared to open our doors to folk who are radically different from ourselves?

Don’t bother, if you think you already have all the answers….

Now is not a time to presume that ’we’ have the answers to all ‘their’ problems.  Far too many peoples’ life experience is already marred by being labelled as ‘the problem.’  Problem families, with problem parents, problem children and problem youth, living on problem estates. No one is a ‘problem’ for other people to solve.

But do bother, if you take hope seriously….

Now, more than anything, hope is needed: in a post-riot, post-recession, post-industrial age of austerity, it is easy to lose hope.  Can we be bearers of hope? Not by offering cheap words; nor still by claiming that we as Christians somehow have exclusive ownership of the idea; but by working with others of good faith (and none) in engaging in specific, tangible – and costly – acts of hope, that engage with and mean something to those others would label as ‘hopeless.’

For the radical message of the gospel is that ALL are made in God’s image, and that ALL are called to share life in all its fullness. In God’s eyes, there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, there is only ‘us.’

This article first appeared in the October edition of Reform magazine. Join the conversation at Niall's blog!

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