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The family is where we learn love

Faith is the redemption of solitude.

As an answer to the question what makes us human, even in the age of neuroscience, it’s hard to improve on the Bible’s answer.

First comes the good news of Genesis 1. We are each, regardless of class, colour or culture, in the image and likeness of God. This is the most important statement in western culture of the non-negotiable dignity of the human person. It is the source of the idea of human rights, most famously formulated in the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal [and] endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

Like God, we are creative. Like God, we are free. All other life forms adapt to their environment. We alone adapt the environment to us, sometimes with disastrous results, but always extending our powers, making us ever less vulnerable to the random cruelties of fate and the indignities of powerlessness.

Then comes the complication from which all human history flows: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” We are supremely the social animal – part cause, part effect of our ability to use language. What makes us human, according to Judaism, is the strength and quality of our relationships. Jean-Paul Sartre was never more wrong than when he said, “Hell is other people.” Hell is the absence of other people. Solitary confinement is the worst punishment there is.

So the Book of Genesis is about relationships, focusing on the most important of them: husbands and wives, parents and children, and sibling rivalries. Only in Exodus does the Bible turn to the politics of slavery and freedom. Much of the Bible is about what makes a good society, but it insists on the primacy of the personal over the political. As long as family feeling is alive, said Alexis de Tocqueville, the opponent of oppression is never alone. Without strong families standing between the individual and the state, freedom is eventually lost.

The centrality of the family is what gave Jews their astonishing ability to survive tragedy and centuries of exile and dispersion. I knew this in my bones long before I was of an age to step back and reflect on the human condition. My parents were not well off. My father had come to Britain as a refugee fleeing persecution in Poland. The family was poor and he had to leave school at the age of 14 to help his father earn a living.

He had a small shop in London’s East End but he was not made to be a businessman. My mother came from a religious family at a time when it was not considered seemly for a Jewish girl to continue in education after the age of 16. So, though we never knew poverty, our parents had little in material terms to give us, their four boys. But they took immense pride in us and wanted us to have the opportunities they lacked. We all duly went to university and on to good careers. Ours was a story shared by many of our contemporaries.

When it works, the family is the matrix of our humanity. It is where we learn love and self-confidence and the values that will serve as our satellite navigation system through the uncharted territory of life. It is where we learn responsibility and the choreography of turn-taking and making space for others. It is where we acquire the habits of the heart that help us take responsibility and risks, knowing there is someone to lift us if we fall. A childhood lived in the stable presence of two loving parents is the greatest gift anyone can have, which is why so much of Jewish ritual and celebration centres on the home.

Family life isn’t easy or straightforward. The Bible does not hide that fact from us. The stories of Genesis do not contain a single sentence saying, “And they all lived happily ever after.” Families need constant work, sacrifice and mutual respect. But if you get home right, your children will have a headstart in making their own fulfilling relationships, and relationships are what make us human.

Which is why I sometimes worry about the future. A recent report by the Mental Health Foundation found that one in ten Britons is lonely, and the proportion among the young is higher and rising. We invest immense time and energy in electronic communication: smartphones, texts and social networking software. But are virtual relationships the same as face-to-face ones? A 2012 survey carried out by Macmillan Cancer Support revealed that the average 18-to-35-yearold has 237 Facebook friends. Yet when asked on how many of these they could rely in a crisis, the average answer was two. A quarter said one. An eighth said none.

This is where, I believe, religion has an immense contribution to make at every level: spiritual, personal and collective. Spiritually, the Judaeo-Christian ethic teaches us to see the trace of God in the face of the human other, the most sublime idea I know. Personally, it teaches the importance of love and forgiveness, the two great dimensions of a lasting relationship. Collectively, religions create strong and supportive communities where you have friends on whom you can rely.

Faith is the redemption of solitude, and this is its most humanising gift. God lives in the space between us when we come together in love and joy.

This essay will be broadcast on the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2 on 29 April (1pm)

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.