Once upon a time, in a 20th century age of ‘things’, people used to make sense of who they were by what they owned – land, house, car etc.

Barbara Hole and sons at home in Maribyrnong an area ranked by Bureau of Statistics as Australia's most disadvantaged suburb. Pic by Graham Crouch

Today, in the age of communication, people are defined by who they know and what they share.

The phenomenal success of Web 2.0 vehicles such as Facebook and now Twitter (which I was told by a reliable source this week has seen 6,500 per cent growth in users in the last financial year), has demonstrated an astonishing need for people to connect and interact as the basis of their identity and wellbeing.

Have humans always harboured this need, with technology being simply the enabler to bring it out into the open? Or has the essence of what motivates us, what makes us happy, actually changed?

According to the scientist Abraham Maslow, we tend to follow a relatively simple pattern in getting what we want out of life.

First, we look to fulfil our basic ‘survival’ needs – being able to eat, drink and sleep etc. Second, we try to fulfil our ‘security’ needs – a safe home, a steady job etc. Only then do we start the need for friends, a sweetheart, children, affectionate relationships in general, even a sense of community, before moving to self-esteem and finally, at the end of the road, realising your potential and ‘being all that you can be’.

How far does this theory hold true in today’s world? Perhaps not as much as we might think, if we pay heed to a recent study of the human brain that has turned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs on its head.

According to neuroscientists at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), the brain of today equates social needs with survival, for example, by activating similar neural responses to being hungry as to being ostracised.

This is a powerful finding, suggesting that we experience similar kinds of distress when you break your arm as when someone else breaks your heart or rejects your friendship. So much for the age-old proverb of resilience ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but hard words cannot hurt me’. 

The tragic consequences of cyber-bullying that have unfolded in recent months are a warning to us all in this regard, and imagine what it must be like for the 700,000 disadvantaged kids in Australia for whom social isolation and rejection is an everyday experience.

Recently, I hosted a session at the Brisbane Writers Festival with author Amy Barker (winner of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Best Emerging Author), whose new book, Omega Park, hauntingly depicts the prolonged and devastating impact of life on the margins of society.

Set in a housing commission on the Gold Coast’s outskirts, the book strikes a powerful chord in communicating this blurring of physical and social pain that comes from being shut out of another life of which you are all too aware.

For a group of us sitting there listening to Amy talk about her characters’ lives, and the difficulty she faced in writing such a confronting book, the white noise momentarily subsided. We were all captivated by the overwhelming and challenging circumstances the characters found themselves in.

It was perhaps most confronting for the locals in the audience who had never realised these kinds of conditions existed in their own backyard.

This lack of awareness is understandable, especially when Australians are constantly told what a lucky, well developed country we live in. Yet as numerous studies have shown, our society remains one of the most inequitable in the developed world, and I would argue we need stories like Omega Park, however uncomfortable they may be, to broaden our understanding of what disadvantage and social exclusion look and feel like.

Fortunately, many Australian authors have done much to shed light on the issue of disadvantage through the characters they’ve created in the poems and novels they’ve scribed over the years.

Banjo Patterson often wrote poetry about the Aussie battler’s trials and tribulations in the bush, as did Ruth Park (although born in New Zealand) in her depiction of the financially disadvantaged Darcy family living in Sydney’s Surry Hills, in Harp in the South, and its sequel, Poor Man’s Orange.

These kind of stories are difficult to tell, but powerful to read and in some instances, succeed in bringing an issue out into the open to be recognised, debated and actioned.

Lack of access to basic education, health, and general life opportunities, may not be the elements of disadvantage we can most easily identify with, but if we pay heed to our ever-enhancing understanding of the brain, they may be just as devastating to an individual’s wellbeing as the inability to fulfil Maslow’s ‘survival’ needs, with similarly tragic consequences.

The solution is in our hands, and in the principle of the ‘fair go’ that is at the heart of Australian culture. We know that to provide kids with a quality education unlocks the opportunities they need to participate and become productive and responsible citizens in our global society.

And perhaps most importantly, we have the empathy from our own experiences of social rejection at whatever time in our life and whatever context, that can activate our understanding and set in motion a response.

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    • Matthew da Silva says:

      08:38am | 25/09/09

      Great post. And how do other chronically-disadvantaged groups in ‘our society’ feel when their needs are ignored or, even worse, vehemently rejected by the mainstream?

      What about Aboriginals and their need to celebrate their fallen?

    • Eric says:

      08:55am | 25/09/09

      I could also point out that men have lost their jobs from the recession—yet some social commentators have more sympathy for women who have only had their hours reduced.

      Does that concern you, Elaine?

    • PipSqueak says:

      09:53am | 25/09/09

      I dont think Elaine is making any distinction between women or men in her piece. Social commentary is not necessarily gender specific. Social isolation is felt deeply by all people of all gender persuasions and all ages.
      This is not a platform for your men vs women social bias - and stop trying to make it so.

    • MM says:

      10:43am | 25/09/09

      Oh Eric, you are really clutching at straws now. Women are not your enemy! Put you energy towards something more productive for a day or two and you might surprise yourself. 
      There’s a much broader issue being addressed in this topic here than petty gender wars. I don’t think gender comes into this actually.

      Good article Elaine.  I recently felt very uspet by the four corner’s report on homeless families currently emerging in greater numbers. If we want to call ourselves the lucky country, we need greater awareness of the families & children really struggling, and I believe we are mostly a scoiety that will want to help them out.
      I wondered watching these families, shifting from motels and cramped emergency accomodation, how these kids could really develop to their full potential when they were denied so much from the onset. The social interaction you metion is another important implication that is worth considering too.

    • Gibbot says:

      11:35am | 25/09/09

      Eric - have you considered surgery?

    • PipSqueak says:

      11:41am | 25/09/09

      I agree - Eric, I can recommend a treatment far simpler than surgery:
      a ridiculously good night out with friends and fun and fine food and few drinks. Lighten up! Jeez.

    • Shane From Melbourne says:

      12:58pm | 25/09/09

      Yeah, right, try being in some absolute crap place like sudan, zimbabwe or afghanistan and then you can tell me about disadvantaged people…..

    • Eric says:

      02:12pm | 25/09/09

      PipSqueak: If you are new to The Punch, you probably haven’t read Elaine’s earlier articles. My comment is a reference to her article titled “Women are the real losers in the Global Financial Crisis”, in which she makes exactly the same claim that I criticise.

      I think it’s onlty reasonable that when an author decries the stigma of words, their own words should be held up for examination.

    • xiaoecho says:

      03:39pm | 25/09/09

      Thank you Elaine. It is not only that Australia has one of the most inequitable societies but we are also one of the most blaming cultures when it comes to the disadvantaged.  Regularly, when the public are able to voice their opinions on blogs and other forums, when confronted with the many living hopeless lives on welfare, the tendency is to blame and denigrate them and make them a scapegoat for the sense of insecurity we all feel in this modern age. The poor are no longer merely the poor, but the deserving and undeserving poor. If public commentary is any guide Australians consider very few if any of the disadvantaged deserving of what used to be quaintly known as a ‘fair go’  We have lost our compassion

    • Lisa says:

      03:15pm | 26/09/09

      There has always beenthe concept of the more and less deserving poor. Ordinary, sensible people have always made that personal distinction when dissecting the circumstances of those around them in the community. The concepts of hard work and clean living persist as moral lamp-posts still, for reasons that are not hard to fathom.
      In relation to this particular article, which dissects the importance of ‘connectedness’, will the idea of connection as highlighted by online communities, lead toa knock-on of an increased cultural awareness of the importance of fair treatment, particularly in romantic relationships?
      I see an evolution in male/female relating brewing, which marries the best of traditional behaviour (including increased behavioural restraint ) with the best of our so-called ‘post-revolution’ thinking regarding gender and romance.

    • Chrissy says:

      03:47pm | 28/09/09

      Eric you made your point on Elaines article at the time so let it go. It has nothing to do with this one. Sheesh!

      Great article Elaine. Everyone deserves a fair go no matter what their circumstances.

    • work home now scam estate says:

      11:10am | 07/11/10

      Disappear Enjoy,article hand major like capacity contract period latter whatever primary totally with drive atmosphere door until meal where where fund play publish basic finance overall spot risk tour forward people than branch there interview module walk glass lawyer smile manager staff visitor code odd state catch sheet can father measure head attend card detail game fuel beyond session complete session office relief college argue impossible general attention on year chairman occasion neighbour son volume regard able plastic push nod exactly feel speech bus other dress leading dog


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