It’s not very often I repost other people’s blogs but this contains one of the most perfect examples of a social conscience in action, it would have been a crime not to. We can honour the sixty-nine victims of Hillsborough, and their family’s twenty-three year campaign to get at the truth, for giving us such a perfect and terrible example of how a social conscience works upon the individual.
When I decided to expand upon what ‘social conscience’ means, interesting things emerged from my brief research. The first, which came as a complete surprise, was that there was nothing about it in Wikipedia. The closest entry was ‘social consciousness’ which is not the same thing at all. The subjects are very different. So there needs to be a clarification of what is meant by the term. This is what I found:
Dictionary.com: social conscience – definition: an attitude of sensitivity toward and sense of responsibility regarding injustice and problems in society
Oxford Dictionaries: social conscience – definition: a sense of responsibility or concern for the problems and injustices of society
Before I embark on this exploration, it’s also worth considering the meaning of conscience in the personal sense, which goes something like this:
- the inner sense of what is right or wrong in one’s conduct or motives, impelling one toward right action: to follow the dictates of conscience.
- an inhibiting sense of what is prudent: I’d eat another piece of pie but my conscience would bother me.
- the complex of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual.
We know we have a conscience when we start feeling guilty, i.e: “to have something on one’s conscience, to feel guilty about something, as an act that one considers wrong”
It is probably fair to say that if we don’t have a personal conscience when it comes to our actions, then the chances of our having a social conscience are probably quite low but there are exceptions. The best example of this is probably mine!
As an ex-offender, I have a choice about whether I reveal this information to others or not. UK law requires that this be made available to potential employers but, in a social setting, if I want to hide the fact, I can. That I choose to disclose is a matter of both personal and social conscience.
On a personal level, if I am to be successful in my ambition to fully rehabilitate, hiding my immediate past is a road to disaster where mutual trust is concerned. We never know who knows what about us and my social conscience tells me that any trust that might be built will be destroyed altogether if those who trust me discover such a significant omission from my autobiography. To avoid this problem means, from my perspective, that it is far better that they hear it from me first. Any subsequent trust that might be built will have it’s foundations in solid reality and anyone who thinks to cause harm by disclosing my past will fail because the information is already out there. On occasions, this viewpoint has been a very strong point of contention especially when I was supervised by Probation. One officer I dealt with was convinced that my opinion and disclosures were just plain wrong. I disagreed and this probably figured among the reasons used to recall me to prison. Despite this, I still haven’t changed my mind. If someone honours me with their trust, I feel guilty if I don’t tell them. In this, I am guided by my conscience.
Given the obvious action of a guilty conscience in the above example, I am very interested in what appears to be my failure of guilt when it comes to the crime itself. It is quite true that my offense was wrong and I regret that it ever happened but, somehow, I’m not sorry. It was something I had never done before and will never do again. These points I freely accept and I have made strenuous adjustments to my behaviour as a result. Nevertheless, no matter how insane it might sound to others, I know that my guilty conscience would have been far worse if I had failed to act. I can appreciate the social viewpoint and know I will never act that way again because I have put an alternative in place. If the same situation arose, it would be me that got hurt and not anyone else. My social conscience tells me that as a result of my offence, I am required to be: honest about myself; truthful about my past; accept that there are social opportunities no longer available to me; and that I must always give priority to the safety of my community over and above any needs or concerns of my own. These are how the issues of conscience function within me.
If I go back to the blog that inspired this, the experience of social conscience is described thus:
“I once heard a Townsend-Thoresen employee apologise for the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster. He wasn’t on board but felt tainted by the mistakes. I now know what he meant.”
In some ways, this explains my problem with feeling guilty for my crime. At that time, the city I was living in had a lot of problems, some of which were being perpetrated by individuals responsible for the public good. They were not acts I had committed but I felt deeply for those who were victims and found myself unable to stand by without trying to do something about it. The result meant that the perpetrators turned their attention to me. It’s a long, painful and embarrassing story which can wait for another time but my experience resonates, in small part, with the victims of the Hillsborough tragedy. Although innocent, they were subject to sustained, long-term vilification in order to hide the failings of those truly responsible only now confirmed after twenty three years. Those responsible sought to hide their failings by blaming the victims. The amount of collective guilt contained within this appalling loss of life is so great that it can felt by those who were never involved.
To experience such guilt is the consequence of having a social conscience. It means that what harms one, harms everyone – participant and observer alike.
In a balanced world, we understand the true meaning of a quality like a social conscience not only through its definition but also through its opposite. If we accept my personal definition that a guilty conscience demands that I change how I behave, what are the measureable indicators for someone who is guilty but maybe has no conscience? Using Hillsborough as an example, what are the responses from those who thought to vilify the victims? Well, here are a few examples:
Apologies seem to be the order of the day, with one notable exception
Bitter experience has taught me to be very careful about commenting on the behaviour of Chief Police Officers. Nevertheless, if an unconnected and innocent police officer can feel guilt over police actions, some twenty three years after the events, it might be interesting to wonder about the opinion expressed by Norman Bettison.
In my research for this piece, I came across a fascinating site that addressed these issues, albeit in relation to bullying amongst children. It describes three stages to the process of acquiring a social conscience. The first is ‘denial’ that there is a problem. The second, ‘acceptance’, acknowledges that there is a problem, however;
“The one who engages in bullying behavior is basically admitting to all that “I am honest about my actions, but I do not accept that my actions have a negative effect on anyone but see my actions as benefiting myself, and if there are punishments I manage to blame others.”
There’s another level to this stage wherein the one who engages in bullying behavior may also be saying, “I deserve this consequence because I broke the rules, but there is nothing deeply wrong with what I did except that I got caught.”
This is a key disconnect between actions and consequences.”
According to the author, the final stage is ‘awareness’ which may be correct for children, but I don’t believe it ends there for adults. The final measure for adults is, I believe, to change your behavior. An example of how that might work comes from amongst my peers:-
“One of her favourite “ups” was shortly after she had been studying the book ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver with some prisoners. A member of staff reported one of the prisoners had been talking in another group about how he’d suddenly realised the potential impact of his crimes (10 years later) on his family.”
From this, it would seem that one of the prerequisites to developing a social conscience in adults is empathy – the ability to stand in another person’s shoes and experience events from their perspective.
When considering the sudden flourish of apologies, after twenty three years of systematic scorn, I do wonder whether these are actually enough. During the years I was getting myself into therapeutic problems as a client, there came a point where the therapist said “I don’t want your apology. Your apology doesn’t mean anything. What I want is for you to stop doing what you are doing.” Whilst painful at the time, her intervention has informed me ever since because it was a fair comment. I’d been using apologies to get me off the hook of being caught rather than addressing the deeper need for change. Looking at this Hillsborough bouquet of them, it’s hard not to be reminded of this.
Do we believe these people mean it when they say they are sorry? In all honesty, with the possible exception of the Football Association, I’m not sure I do. My social conscience tells me that the responses from David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Kelvin MacKenzie fall into the category of;
“I deserve this consequence because I broke the rules, but there is nothing deeply wrong with what I did except that I got caught.”
As far as MacKenzie is concerned, I am not the only one who finds this unsatisfactory, given he was a participant in the impugning of Hillsborough victims.
With regard to David Cameron; his apology related to the cover-up of facts. Regrettably, Cameron has already found himself in political difficulty around similar issues. His willingness to accept apologies at face value and generously extend second chances to those he knows borders on parody. For those he doesn’t know, the story becomes very different. One of the manifestations of active conscience is balanced consistency of behavior. Cameron might be consistent but the evidence of balance is thin on the ground.
Boris Johnson also appears to have a history of cover-ups too.
In my reality, to have a personal conscience means we take responsibility for actions that may have caused harm to others. This may be remedied by an apology but this is not always the case. For example; I could apologise to my victim but I doubt she would accept it and, under those circumstances, it becomes disrespectful to offer one. Any possible forgiveness can only be attained by atonement. In matters of social conscience, I wonder if the same principles apply.
The answer to that question might well be found with the people of Liverpool. My own social conscience informs me I relinquished my right to comment on that when I offended.
There is one last step in the process of exercising my social conscience. As an outsider, uninvolved with the events of Hillsborough and its history, I have drawn a lot of information from the release of the report of the Panel. If I were one of the campaigners, I might feel invaded by this free use of their experiences. They have suffered enough and they certainly don’t need any more and definitely not from my hand. Yet my conscience feels the wrong they have suffered deeply enough to feel the guilt of inaction which says I could have done more for them.
A social conscience is more than just empathy. It is empathy that is going somewhere. If there is anything I could give to the families of Hillsborough and the people of Liverpool, it would be this: to make certain all those young people did not die in vain.
The ‘gift’ of Hillsborough has been to teach us all about what it means to have a social conscience. This is simply my opinion of what a social conscience looks like in action. May it contribute to ensuring society changes to ensure such events never happen again.