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24 January 2014

Everyone is equal

Everyone is equal

Belgium is currently in the throes of a national crisis. The country, which has survived two world wars and countless invasions, has, according to the Telegraph, been "gripped" by the theft of the mayor of Brussels' underpants.

The underpants were part of a collection by anarchist Jan Bucquoy, who runs a museum in Belgium dedicated to exploring the relationship between politicians and their underwear.

However, Bucquoy's exhibition has hinged not so much on an unhealthy fascination with the undergarments of dignitaries and more with the idea that "
all people are equal in their underpants, whether they are famous, rich, powerful or all three at the same time".

Written starkly, as a political statement, I'm aware that these notions of equality and democracy seem a little commonplace. Surely it goes without saying that we're all equal, and Christianity has long affirmed the equality of all people, Jew or Gentile, slave or free.

Then I read

It's a feature by the Daily Mail, reporting the completely foreseeable news that Benefits Street is now the most watched Channel 4 show in two years (beaten only by the 2012 Paralympic Closing Ceremony).

I'll give Channel 4 their due: the show is fine-tuned to perfection. Showcasing the lives of the inhabitants of James Turner Street in Birmingham – a street where over 90 per cent of the residents are on benefits – it lingers upon the daily trials of life on the street in brutal, agonising detail. It's dark, depressing and impossible to turn away.

How did Channel 4 get people – ordinary people with lives and hopes and dreams like us – to give away pieces of themselves on screen, for our entertainment?

It wasn't for money, because apparently they weren't paid; it's claimed they were given 'gifts' to the tune of beer, cigarettes and McDonald's. (As long as it's all by the book, hey chaps?)

Did they just go around from house to house and say: 'Hey, we want to create a TV show that's going to completely humiliate you and oh, maybe ruin your lives, but
here's a Dairy Milk McFlurry'?

How did they get them to sign away their faces, their stories, their lives? What did they promise?

The thing that struck me the most was that, mixed with the quiet (and occasionally not- so-quiet) desperation on the faces of residents like Mark and Becky, a couple barely out of their teens, was a mute appeal for help. The kind of appeal made by those who feel they've already been beaten down by life.

Mark, a father of two who goes for his first job during the series, at one point heartbreakingly says: "I want my life to plan out and [I think about] what else I can do to make it better… but no answers yet." Meanwhile, another resident hopes that change will come when viewers, "take a step in our shoes and see how it is, living on benefits".

Maybe the residents believe too much in the power of television or in the empathy of us, their audience; maybe they're not quite as cynical and jaded as many of us. We know, most of us, to keep our head down and keep quiet (with the obvious exception of Russell Brand). We know that things can turn bad really, really fast.

If I were living on James Turner Street, I too might believe that this could be a way out, a way to gain a voice in a society that repeatedly shuns and ignores me.

It seems, by turning uncomfortable and confronting reality into entertainment, it becomes a little less threatening. When the tragedies of James Turner Street can disappear with the click of a button, we're able to distance ourselves from the horror of entrenched poverty.

I speak as a selfish and complacent member of my generation; I'm not pointing the finger at anyone more than I am at myself. But it's worth acknowledging that we all at times play a part in this particular kind of systemic and quietly malignant oppression. Meanwhile, we wrestle with the call to: "Speak up … and defend the cause of the oppressed and needy" (Proverbs 31:9).

This isn't so much a political manifesto as a challenge to myself, to all of us: James Turner Street may be abandoned by everyone else, but it should never be abandoned by the Church.

Because despite how clichéd it may be, I want to believe – I do believe – that Jan Bucquoy was right. We're all equal in our underpants.

Christine Gilland is an Australian freelance writer and editor.