Inward or outward looking?

My husband and I, in the aftermath of these terrible floods that hit much of Australia, have chosen to go out looking for a home to buy. We cannot afford it yet, but we are going to talk to a financial advisor to work out how we might in the next year or so. Something about cutting up credit cards, I think!

I saw an interview with an Australian academic yesterday (can’t recall his name) on ABC’s One Plus One (not yet available to download), and he suggested that people were becoming more “inward looking”, that we had lost our community spirit and world views and that we were more concerned with watching home renovation shows than watching documentaries about starving children in Africa. He stated (and I paraphrase, sorry), we are more concerned with consumerism, and that this is evidenced by our changing television habits, where shows promoting inward, home based activities were more popular than ever before. While I have not the tools nor the data to really argue effectively with his point, I both agree and disagree with this statement.

During the late 1980s in Australia, we experienced a pretty awful recession (depression, if you like). I recall that comedy shows began to be broadcast on tv, and that they were extremely popular. Also during this time came a craze for all things country cottage, a return, if you like, to the simple life. I speak only from memory, and these occurrences may not have causal relationships. In the early nineties this trend continued, and then came the explosion of the home renovator show. I think the first was Burke’s Backyard, which began in the late 80s, then Changing Rooms, a British import remodelled for Australian audiences. Thereafter the plethora of tv shows encouraging us to renovate our homes and paint and scrape and sand and polish became the order of the day. There are less than there used to be on free tv, but there is a pay tv station called Lifestyle that shows all the old reruns of home renovations.

Does this mean we are inward looking? Bill Bryson, who recently published a book on the history of the home (fixating just a little on the UK and the USA), suggested that, actually, we have spent a considerable amount of time in our homes just aiming to feel comfortable, and that we are now the most comfortable we have ever been. He reckons that this evolution of the house as a comfortable place is relatively recent – no more than about 300 years old.

I think, actually, that Australians are probably the most worldly-wise and savvy they have ever been. Immediate access to news and current affairs means that the world is more than ever on our doorstep, rather than being constrained by the “tyranny of distance”. I think we choose to watch programs about home renos because they are available. When so much in the world – now on our doorstep – is horrible, nasty, evil, destructive and uncertain, isn’t it plain nice to go home to a house you love, to things which are comforting and soothing and right? Isn’t it just plain nice to sit with your drink on your deck you built yourself and look over your garden you planted yourself? Isn’t it just plain nice to watch programs that show you what other people are doing to their homes to make them nice, to retreat from the world for a while?

I suspect we cocoon ourselves as a way of just getting through. We do acknowledge the pain and suffering in the world: look at our rates of donations to people in crisis. We despair at unnecessary loss of life and we have more access to news and current affairs than ever before. We watch shows that encourage home pride because I suspect we need to, as a panacea for the pain.

In these Queensland floods we have seen the most extraordinary volunteer effort taking place. It may seem new and unusual, but I think catastrophe brings people together in ways that normal life just does not.  I think there is always a place for making one’s home one’s palace, but I’m not sure there is a causal lack of care for others as a result.

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