‘Grenfell Tower is a reminder that life isn’t fair – and your students are right to be angry about it’

20th June 2017 at 11:50
Young people are right to be angry about society’s gaping injustices: it’s utterly misjudged to dismiss your students’ concerns as youthful naivety

According to Freud, there are three phrases during normal human psychological development. The first, known as child-child, is characterised by black and white thinking. The second, child-adult, is when we begin to understand the world is complex, develop empathy, but still hold on to "child-like" ideas around fairness and morality.

The final phase, adult-adult, is when we have understood fundamental life principles which make it easier not to work ourselves up into a tizzy all the time, such as the fact that you can’t please everyone, you shouldn’t crave the approval of people whose opinions you don’t respect and that most repeated universal ‘truth’ of them all: life’s not fair.

In fact, according to eminent psychologist and best-selling author Professor Steve Peters, accepting that life isn’t fair is a fundamental facet of functioning effectively as an adult.

Throughout the child-child and child-adult phases of my life, I have always maintained what my parents call an "overdeveloped sense of fairness". This went beyond the usual infant musings on why you’re not allowed to eat your ice-cream before dinner and took me into philosophical realms involving homelessness, poverty, the existence of the then-named "third world" and the pointlessness of war. According to my mum, I was fairly exhausting company.

Today, while I strive to be an adult-adult most of the time, I’m often held back from what psychologists would call a "mature" response by my sense that the world should be fairer. While multiple therapists I’ve visited in the past have advised me I need to let go of my relentless quest for justice if I ever want to achieve happiness, there’s a fundamental obstacle to this in the form of the fact that, actually, I don’t want to.

First and foremost, being concerned with fairness is part of what makes me good at my job, because it gives me a commonality with young people, who for the most part still cling on to political and philosophical idealism. (Russell Brand said it best - "maybe my ideas are a bit ‘sixth form’ but what’s wrong with that?")

Secondly, I can’t help but feel that reconciling yourself to the idea that "life’s not fair" makes it easier for people who want to oppress you, or take you for granted, or put you in danger for their own agenda.

Appetite for change

During the recent election, more than 60 per cent of under-30s turned up to the polling stations, a recent high and a factor which was later deemed instrumental in the Labour party gaining seats.

61.5 per cent of under-40s voted for Labour, whose manifesto was one characterised mainly by wanting to address the social inequality between rich and poor. Their reward for this was to be labelled "naïve", despite the manifesto being fully costed and therefore, at least in principle, achievable.

Right-wing pundits clamoured to sneer at young voters, using the patronising catchphrase, "there is no magic money tree". Meanwhile, comments on right-leaning news websites were awash with claims that the country under a left-wing government would be flooded with illegal immigrants and benefit-scrounging squatters, who would somehow steal our jobs *and* be a drain on the welfare state.

Their problem, I concluded, is that they believe life is already fair and therefore no further work in addressing inequality is necessary. They cannot comprehend the vast obstacles which present themselves if you are born into the "wrong" postcode, or socio-economic group, or race, or gender, or sexuality – and therefore believe that all misfortune is a result of personal laziness.

In some ways, I envy the right-wing view of the world, because it necessitates what must be quite a comforting belief – that racism, sexism, homophobia and class divides do not exist and that if you "work hard" you will reap rewards. As radio host James O’Brien puts it, these are people who "were born three-nil up and believe they have scored a hat-trick".

And then something like the totally avoidable tragedy at Grenfell Towers happens and it all stops being so amusing. As I write, there have been 79 confirmed deaths, but there are likely to be in the realms of more than 100 in total. An unsafe structure, whose inadequate cladding was engulfed in flames in a remarkable 15 minutes.

These were human beings who had reportedly spent years writing to their local authority to warn that their building wasn’t fit for purpose and who were ignored, dismissed and even issued with "cease and desist" warnings. Because "life’s not fair" and if they wanted to live somewhere where they weren’t in constant danger of dying, or losing everything they possessed in an instant, they should have worked harder, right...?

Bridging the divide

Grenfell Tower is just one example of what happens when people reconcile themselves to unfairness. So, the next time one of your pupils says "that’s not fair", try to resist responding with "life’s not fair". Or, if you find it slips out, add "but I’m so glad you still have the energy and vision to want to make things fairer".

The gap between rich and poor in Britain is set to become a whacking great chasm before 2020 according to independent financial forecasts. We need to cling on to our sense of fairness more than ever.

Natasha Devon is the former UK government mental health champion for schools and founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team. She tweets as @_NatashaDevon.

For more columns by Natasha, visit her back catalogue.

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