A race to the bottom on mental health?

Aspiration is simply not compatible with a race to the bottom

In the same way as we so often confuse liberty with greed these days, so we have also somehow come to confuse “aspiration” with looking down on others. Worse, we have come to confuse “aspiration” with simply keeping others down.

Tell me if any of these arguments sound familiar. Public sector workers should not defend their pensions – even the lowest paid, and the part-time public sector workers – because in the private sector there are many people who have no pension at all. Civil liberties are a luxury because in Saudi Arabia they behead people. Electoral reform is a waste of money because in North Korea they execute people for speaking out against the government. Child poverty shooting up isn’t worth much attention because in Sierra Leone children are made to fight wars. Tuition fees aren’t outrageous because some people don’t even get a chance to go to university. Benefit claimants suffering from changes to their benefits should shut up and be grateful because once upon a time we used to let people starve in the streets in the first place.

Yet time and time again, these arguments come from people who consider themselves to be proudly on the side of “aspiration.” Well, aspiration surely involves looking up, not looking down?

Real aspiration is important. It just goes far beyond economics. One of the saddest and most dangerous examples of a race to the bottom masquerading as “aspiration” comes in the form of our actual quality of life itself.

How many times have you heard someone say “But we all get depressed! I get depressed, I just carry on?”

Now, often this will, of course, just be someone lucky enough to believe “getting depressed” just means “having a rubbish day.”

But sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it is an expression of something deeper. An expression of the same resentment that prompts people to say “But I don’t have a pension!” or “But I would be sacked if I went on strike!” or “But I struggle to pay my heating bills on my salary, and I work! Why do people who can’t work get so much help?” or “Well I have people discriminating against me and being nasty to me all the time, why do black people get special treatment?”

In other words, the words of someone so powerless in the face of injustice they face and cannot tackle, they look down, instead of looking up, because it is less painful, and misdirect their hurt towards people who speak up instead of people really to blame for their position.

In other words, the very opposite of aspiration.

A few years ago, a particular friend of mine, who I’m not going to name, attempted suicide. He was, it only occurs to me now, one of the first to shout angrily that he “gets depressed too but just gets on with it!” with a degree of venom towards people getting any measure of support, whether professional or friendly, for their depression, that always seemed disproportionately bitter.

Perhaps if someone had said “Well, why don’t you?” and explained that he was perfectly entitled to get help for his depression, he mightn’t have come to his crisis point in such a painful way.

The point is this: the race to the bottom is not just economic: it is cultural. It isn’t just about leveling down pensions and wages: it is about allowing ourselves to be emotionally, intellectually, and morally less than we are capable of. It is about thinking we do not deserve happiness. It is extremely dangerous.

And, let’s all be absolutely bloody clear, it is the stark staring opposite of “aspiration.”