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Trying to change the world on the cheap

One thing that the much-feted 'We Are What We Do' campaign won't do is transform society.

Stephen Bremner

Topics Politics

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A new campaign has been launched in the UK called ‘We Are What We Do’ (1). It has its own website (www.wearewhatwedo.org), and its message is also being promoted via a chunky little book called Change the World for a Fiver.

The campaign makes some pretty big claims, aiming to address poverty, voter turnout, loss of community and a decline in belief of the purpose of life. ‘We Are What We Do’ acknowledges that people have lost faith in traditional forms of collective action to solve social problems, but suggests that it can create a movement ‘with attitude’ to overcome this problem.

This has clearly struck a chord with some people. The campaign is backed by a number of pro-community and pro-therapy charities. Eugenie Harvey, one of its founders, became disillusioned with working in PR and decided to become involved with the Community Links charity. She retains links to advertising, though – part of the ‘high-concept’ of the campaign is to make ‘We Are What We Do’ into its own brand. The initiative is backed by Time Out magazine, Channel 4 has made a series of short films based on it, and 30 September was designated a ‘We Are What We Do’ Day. Business support was attracted at a breakfast hosted by Gordon Brown at 11 Downing Street earlier in September 2004. Sales of the book have risen sharply after being plugged by Richard and Judy on Channel 4.

What is this new movement to look like? Unfortunately, the campaign’s alternative to individualism is…yet more individualism. In an apparent attempt to convince isolated individuals that they can be part of a movement, the campaign just rebranded individuals acting alone – renaming those who act on its advice as ‘independent doers’. It is apparently the ‘individual doer’, by a ‘shift in attitudes and day-to-day behaviour’, who can be ‘part of a new type of community…following the same banner and answering the questions that we all want answered’.

The book and website are divided into sections, each giving a handy tip on how the reader can change their personal behaviour and hence make the world a better place. The ambitious talk of building a new kind of community soon reveals itself to be remarkably hollow. The reader is treated to a series of mini-lectures on personal behaviour, which treat them as if they had the intelligence of a young child (indeed one might suspect that the campaign was aimed at children, were it not for advice on how to bring up children). One section suggests that the task of rebuilding society amounts to little more than turning the household thermostat down by a degree. If you do this, you will apparently save £2 a month, which, the book helpfully suggests, ‘you can put in charity tins’.

We are told that we can rebuild social bonds and save the planet through a mixture of self-help style therapy (‘Touch someone you love…It’s the one piece of magic we can all do every day’) environmental awareness (‘give your kids a sense of Mother Nature – grow some mustard and cress with them and make a sandwich…it’s a great feeling and the nearest most of us will ever get to ‘The Good Life’) and an ‘ethically aware’ type of penny pinching (‘Next time you need to buy a friend a present, don’t. Make them one instead’).

The advice on offer has a therapeutic tone. In the section on depression the campaign suggests that people can make the world ‘a less depressing place’ by ‘just listening’. The suggestion seems to be that the most passive approach is the most desirable. ‘Listen to someone’, the campaign councils, ‘don’t make any comments, don’t try to solve their problems’ – a rather one-way conversation, which is unlikely to encourage us to engage with others.

If people would only take a few small steps to change their behaviour, is the implication, their ‘self-esteem’ will rise. People will consequently feel better about themselves, they will then feel better about the world around them, and will start to rebuild the social bonds that have been eroded. The book almost pleads with the reader to get to know people in their community, even going so far as to offer little ‘greetings tags’ to give to neighbours. Lists of community organisations are provided, and the message seems to be that you should join something, anything. This resembles an Alcoholics Anonymous outreach programme, and the 12, very small steps, programme for changing the world.

Such an approach will fail to tackle people’s isolation from one another in modern society. Society has become more individuated because of the absence of ‘big ideas’ and large-scale economic and social ambitions, not because of low self-esteem. What is missing from society are ambitions that might inspire people to form meaningful bonds with fellow human beings.

To tell people, for example, that ‘you can help…just by learning a few words in a foreign language, it’s amazing how much genuine warmth you can generate’ does nothing more than to dignify the achievement of the average British schoolchild with the power to transform the current state of society. Many of the suggestions on offer imbue the most trivial kinds of personal behaviour with world-changing significance. One suggested alternative to watching television (apparently a bad thing) is, for example, to ‘rearrange your pictures’; another is ‘shave something off’.

Yet ‘We Are What We Do’ clearly has some resonance. For those who are looking for meaning to their life, it provides some simple ideas that allow them to feel that they are ‘making a difference’ – without having to think too hard about what kind of difference they are really making. For the government, the campaign offers another way to promote self-restraint and responsibility as a new kind of morality. For business, it offers an unthreatening method of rebranding work as ethically sound, while keeping workers hard at it. Some businesses, for example, have taken up the campaign’s call to ‘get fitter, feel better’, by organising at-desk exercises and gym sessions.

The campaign’s lack of vision and conservatism is shown by its recommendation that New York at night would look better with all the lights turned out. It would seem to prefer a society where people huddle around (presumably homemade) candles, rather than going out and enjoying the bright lights and vibrancy of one of the world’s great cities. This would be a quiet and apologetic kind of life for the future.

The alternative offered to the current situation is simply one in which everyone takes personal austerity measures seriously and learns ‘at least one good joke’. If one wishes to find a few good jokes then ‘We Are What We Do’ will provide them – but for everyone else something a little more serious and ambitious may be required.

Stephen Bremner is an assistant headteacher in a north London secondary school.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) See the We Are What We Do website

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Topics Politics

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