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Media Information: embargo 00.01 a.m. Monday 23 February 2004


We need a less 'caring' society!
Genuine caring is hard work
Superficial displays of compassion may do more harm than good

We need a less 'caring' society, according to the latest report from independent think-tank Civitas. In Conspicuous Compassion author Patrick West argues that wearing coloured ribbons, strapping red noses onto the front of your car, signing internet petitions, and carrying banners saying 'Not In My Name' are part of a culture of ostentatious caring which is about feeling good, not doing good. The three Cs of modern life - compassion, caring and crying in public - show not how altruistic we have become, but how selfish.

Sometimes these gestures actually do harm. People who wear ribbons may think they have done their bit, without actually contributing to the charity concerned. Writing off third world debt will make more funds available to dictators who want to buy arms. Internet petitions are often inaccurate. Celebrity endorsements of good causes are sometimes characterised by both ignorance and credulity.

The crocodile tears of 'grief-lite'

Patrick West attributes these hollow expressions of public caring to the decline of those institutions which formerly provided a framework for and gave a sense of meaning to people's lives: the family, the church, the nation and the neighbourhood (p.65). In the absence of real emotions, people manufacture ersatz ones. 'We live in a post-emotional age, one characterised by crocodile tears and manufactured emotion' (p.2). Patrick West describes peoples' extravagent public displays of grief for people they have never met as 'grief-lite' or recreational grief, 'actually undertaken as an enjoyable event, much like going to a football match or the last night of the proms' (p.11). These displays are a substitute for going to church:

    'Mourning sickness is a religion for the lonely crowd that no longer subscribes to orthodox churches. Its flowers and teddies are its rites, its collective minutes' silences its liturgy and mass. But these new bonds are phoney, ephemeral and cynical' (p.66).

Compassion inflation

Meaningless displays of grief that is not truly experienced lead to compassion inflation. The traditional two minute silence grew to three minutes for the victims of 9/11, five minutes for Milly Dowler, five minutes for the Ladbroke Grove crash victims, and ten minutes for cancer research.

    'When a group called Hedgeline calls for a two-minute silence to remember all the "victims" whose neighbours have grown towering hedges, we truly have reached the stage where this gesture has been emptied of meaning.' (p.20)

Countless thousands of people do good every day without show

Instead of piling up damp teddies and rotting flowers to show what nice people they are, it would be better to try to do some genuine, unostentatious, good:

    'If you do genuinely care about the poor and homeless, try talking to them... Don't just wear an empathy ribbon, give money that might help cure life-threatening diseases... If you want to stop a war, leave your ego at home... get to know your neighbours, talk to your friends and family a bit more. Most of all, next time you profess that you "care" about something, consider your motives and the consequences of your words and actions. Sometimes, the only person you really care about is you.' (p.69)

For more information contact:

Robert Whelan       020 7401 5470 (w)

'Conspicuous Compassion: Why sometimes it really is cruel to be kind' by Patrick West is published by Civitas, The Mezzanine, 39 York Road, London SE1 7NQ, tel : 020 7401 5470, www.civitas.org.uk @ 8.45 inc. pp.


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Civitas: the Institute for the Study of Civil Society