The fire at Grenfell Tower in West London prompted a great deal of anguish and anger – at the management company KCTMO which had ignored residents’ concerns about safety hazard, and later about the shambolic response of Kensington and Chelsea council.
From the beginning there was criticisms that speaking about wider issues of standards, social housing, gentrification in the city and the landlord politicians who voted against Labour proposals to improve housing conditions was an attempt to politicise the tragedy. It’s right that those whose lives have been shattered by this experience are honoured, that we grieve with those who grieve, and give space to their voices and experiences. But could it be right to ignore the cries against the injustice of our housing system that have also been expressed in the aftermath of this crisis? Grief, if it’s to be a full acknowledgement of the loss, has to include the anger and outrage, We should give space to those who need to mourn, lament and rage.
We seem to have so little in place culturally that seems up to the task, certainly not the minutes’ silence that attend national events, well-intentioned as they are. But how those cries against injustice are expressed and channelled matters. They can’t be censored, made anodyne.
But how we respond also matters. The framework for the Hidden Civil War last year was inspired by the philosopher Valerie Fournier’s argument that we need to provoke outrage, challenge inevitability and create alternative moral ecologies.
The trouble with the first one is that it can play into language that the tabloids put to effect, a stance of offence that we also see on social media. Outrage and calls for justice seem to be about building up a head of steam, but they’re not always effective; we have a finely-tuned blame culture that demands that heads should roll. But as the banking crisis showed, it doesn’t lead to real change.
Our concept of justice seems so caught up with outraged anger and punishment that it seems to have been emptied of the capacity to constructively make things right. Surely injustices of the kind that consign people to unfit housing as we create a city that functions primarily for the wealthy needs something deeper, richer, more profound? One that’s more creative, less about vengeance or ritual blame games.
Outrage can be a starting point. We can’t be complacent or indifferent to suffering of this magnitude; we should mourn and lament in response to suffering and react with anger against the economic dogma that has driven decision making that have rendered people’s lives and security less important than profits. But what comes after those feelings?
Anger is a good first response, but what actions could it provoke? Responding adequately to situations that we face today requires some deep thinking about justice – not the vengeful kind, but the kind that balances out wrongs, pursues what is right.
Simone Weil wrote in The Need for Roots, that politics required “a high degree of concentration” similar to that “required for creative work in art or science”, adding
But why should politics, which decide the fate of peoples and whose object is justice, demand any less concentration than art, or science, whose respective objects are beauty and truth?
Can we aspire to pursuing justice so assiduously? Things move so quickly, the election earlier this month seems far off, but nevertheless it seemed an important marker for hope, challenging the so-called common sense narrative of austerity that has held sway for so long. It suggests that people are inspired by richer, more connected values, not only narrow self-interest. Can we hold onto that hope for things being different and somehow marry to the pursuit of justice that is about more than punishment and revenge? The inevitability of our unjust and unequal society may have been dealt a blow at the election, but the fire at Grenfell Tower shows us just how much a new narrative is needed if we are going to build a different, more just world that our outrage suggests we long for.