A Double-Decker Dust Up And The Limits Of Data

The other day I was on a bus in outer London and the driver refused to drive a young man one stop for free when he said his Oyster card had run out. What was most striking was how this man’s response went from calm to frothing anger almost immediately. 

Other things struck me about this encounter. The young man clearly regarded the bus driver as some sort of authority figure, and that seemed to irk him. He looked a bit down on his luck and was clearly embarrassed to be shown up in public as being without the money for the fare. This doesn’t excuse his behaviour – the bus driver was only doing his job – but it was a clear example of status anxiety from someone who, in that moment, was made to feel acutely aware of their social position, and how they looked in the eyes of others. 

It also occurred to me how sad it was to live in a society where bus drivers have to be protected in a toughened perspex cage. A bit like how sad it is that more and more people seem to want to live in gated communities. It seems we are a very long way from being a society at ease with itself.

The bus incident kept coming back to me over the next week. First I read an article in The Spectator that wondered why everyone was so gloomy when the data suggested we’d never had it so good. As the article reported, ‘malnutrition, illiteracy, child labour and infant mortality are falling faster than at any other time in human history’ so why so much doom-mongering? The important fact omitted of course is that our well-being is not only determined by our material circumstances but also our relative position compared to others. In doing so it ignores the poor quality of social relations we now endure as a result of our extreme levels of inequality.

I would like to say the bus incident above was a rarity but, in my experience, examples of this sort of rage are fairly common on public transport and in the streets. Perhaps if journalists such as those writing in The Spectator spent more time on public transport, or around the general public, they would pick this up?  It doesn’t matter how well off we are as a society, on average, if inequality leaves us wracked with social anxiety and hair-trigger tempers.

Next up was the report that our teenagers are very stressed, particularly girls and often those from well-off backgrounds. And then, on a lighter note perhaps, there was the report of increasing demand for personalised number plates. Both these apparently unrelated reports have something in common; they show that the better off are far from immune from the stresses of living in an unequal society. They might not be kicking off on a bus to avert feelings of shame, but they are exhibiting status-oriented, competitive behaviour that is all of a piece with guarding or advancing their social position.

So, I guess my answer to the question posed in The Spectator article is that all the good data news in the world will matter for little if it can’t improve how we relate to each other. Inequality may not have been the proximate cause of my particular “bus hell” that day but it seems reasonable to believe that inequality vastly increases the chances of these sorts of incidents occurring.

This is especially true when we consider the robust evidence that shows a strong link between high inequality and low levels of trust between people. Also, with more inequality comes greater feelings of superiority and inferiority and greater social distances, all of which increases the scope for mistrust, stress, anger and violence across society. With less inequality, we can sand off some of the rough edges of our social interaction and these problems will recede.

Bill Kerry, Supporters and Local Groups Manager