In difficult economic times, when people are understandably scared and uncertain about their futures, it is an unfortunate human weakness to look for someone easy to blame. People of religion have a duty to boldly hold the line against any who would seek to demonize human beings for populist or political benefit. We leave the economic and political debates that consume so much attention up to the political journalists and think-tanks. However, to stake a claim on spiritual and moral authority means countering narratives of simple dichotomies that are not only unethical, but have real-life and tragic consequences.
In Britain, there has been a popular temptation to be seduced by a narrative of “shirkers” or “scroungers” living off “strivers”. According to this stereotype, strivers get up early in the morning and come back late at night from doing the right thing and working hard, in contrast to the lazy shirkers that lie around all day claiming government benefits and leeching off public services. Yet credible research by social policy think tanks and universities has demonstrated that the majority of benefit claimants are actually in work – apparently, by the logic of this dichotomy, strivers are simultaneously shirkers. This narrative is unhelpful because it is so obviously naive, dividing society into two categories while presumptuously making moral judgements out of economic realities (for example, the fact that many hardworking, employed citizens claim benefits because they simply aren't being paid a living wage). It is suspiciously convenient that these so-called shirkers consist of the most vulnerable demographics in society like single mothers, the unemployed, disabled claimants, or sick people.The image of an irresponsible family with several dozen children, living in a nice house provided by the benefits system and taxpayers, is peddled to give the impression that this is the lifestyle of most claimants. While the public might be united against these “shirkers” who avoid work, research has also shown that we become much more careful about demonizing shirkers if we actually learn about their situation – cancer patients or mentally ill people who are claiming disability benefits, for example.
While it is difficult to appear non-political in such a politically-charged debate, the reality is that no sincere religion would wish to see punitive attitudes and policies directed at the vulnerable in the name of a politically convenient narrative. No one disputes the values of honesty, thrift and hard work. They are common principles to all responsible citizens. We also understand that finding someone (or preferably a group or demographic) to blame is a typical human weakness in difficult economic circumstances.
However, an honest Buddhism cannot help but view with suspicion ideologies and narratives that seem to so gleefully divide and carve up living beings into the useful and useless, the productive and parasitical, the wanted and unwanted. Rather than demonizing, we must get about re-humanizing those who the world seems to have turned against.