Fake authenticity: the compassion lie

I may lose friends. I may attract abuse. But this is one of those moments when I feel like I can no longer resist the urge to point and shout “the king is in the altogether.”

What am I talking about?

Fake authenticity.

Never heard of it? There’s a lot of it about, and you’d do worse than read this piece by Jonathan MacDonald – The Fallacy of Social Media.

In it he touches upon the fake approach taken to telling stories and building relationships online, particularly in the realm of social media.

Someone once said to me that to use expressions like “telling stories” in the context of PR was to admit that it was all spin, lies and bullshit.

The more I reflect on that the more convinced I am that it’s one of the most ignorant things anyone’s ever said to me and I should have said as much at the time.

Whether you are an individual, a brand marketer, a politician, a social media coordinator, when you are telling people something about who you are, what you do, how you behave, or what you believe in, you are telling them your story.

If you bullshit them you’ll get found out eventually.

Something Jonathan MacDonald picks up on is a piece of advice mooted by someone that says: “Act like you’re a company made of real, actual people, and good things will surely follow.”

It’s a liars charter in tl;dr form. And I find it quite distasteful.

As I’ve already said, there’s a lot of it about. And it’s not just brands that are doing it. I see a lot of people in my stream doing it constantly.

Recently jazz musician Terry Callier died. But for his work with the likes of Massive Attack he would only have been known to a fraction of the people in my stream – those who are serious-minded fans of music, or seek out interesting non-mainstream things to listen to. I don’t fall into either of those categories, just to be clear.

I remain unconvinced that a great many people who own something he worked on had ever heard of him either. In fact, I got a bit nauseated by the wave of “oh that’s terrible. #rip” tweets I saw from people who spend most Saturday evenings are watching X-Factor.

Oh, yes you are a very serious and dedicated follower of interesting musical collaborations, aren’t you?

No, you’re not. You’re a bullshit merchant trying to make yourself look cool, or – worse – desperately hoping to connect with something real, something meaningful to fill that foetid hole you drag round with you everywhere you are.

It was also evident in the wake of Hurricane Sandy making landfall in the US. “It’s awful,” read one tweet I saw, “13 people have been killed. #sandy”

Yes, of course it’s awful. Truly awful. Particularly for those directly involved. But do you know what else is awful…? The fact that the person whose tweet I saw – and the dozens more like them – had expressed no concern or compassion whatsoever for those left dead, displaced and traumatized by Sandy in Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, the Bahamas, and probably other parts of the Caribbean too. Haiti hasn’t recovered from the earthquake it was hit by in 2010, and was in the midst of a cholera outbreak when Sandy passed close by. So fucking what, eh..?

The death toll in the Caribbean is around 70. Probably more. It’s possible no one will ever know.

The only time I saw anyone on twitter referring to that was as a counterpoint to the many, many, “I hope everyone in New York stays safe” type tweets.

Why is it that so many people, here in the UK, were so eager to express such concern?

Dislocated empathy. Not misplaced. Dislocated.

Of course we all hoped that everyone was going to be ok in New York and elsewhere in the US. The same ought to apply to everywhere that was in the path of Hurricane Sandy. No..?

Yet it would appear to be ok, desirable even, to carry on ignoring the plight of poor black countries hit by disaster, when latte-sipping, iPhone-using, GAP-shopping people, wherever they may be, have also been affected by something bad.

I know it’s easier to identify with people who have similar lives, but that’s no excuse, in my opinion, for not giving enough of a damn about the rest of the world to pause your lazy thinking and cast off your me-opia.

It made me rather cross. Still does. You might have noticed.

But more than that, it was telling to see the stories people tell about themselves.

Who do I indentify with..? Who can I identify with..? What kind of person shall I be today…

If you’re a genuinely compassionate person, and care about what happens to others, you can see further than those that wear the same clothes as you, or even the countries where you have personal contacts.

And you aren’t compelled to bleat about it in public in an attempt to define yourself.

Fake authenticity.

Nice work people.


Brothers in arms – my interview with Veterans Aid CEO Hugh Milroy

Veterans of the armed forces are at risk from many of the same pressures as anyone else, I learned from speaking with the CEO of Veterans Aid. It’s all too easy to generalise about drunk, homeless ex-squaddies, and doing so isn’t just wrong, it fails to get to the heart of the matter. 

Dr Hugh Milroy leans back in his chair and fixes his gaze upon me from the other side of the desk. His is an intense stare that accompanies a relaxed manner and a ready smile. This is not, I find myself thinking, quite what I had expected.

A former Wing Commander in the RAF, recipient of an OBE and holder of a PhD, what I had expected was that the CEO of Veterans Aid would be altogether more formidable and imposing.

The room itself also belies many of the usual preconceptions you might have of a CEO’s office. Boxes are stacked from floor to ceiling against one wall, full of clothes and other essentials. Another wall is dominated by a painting of a WWII Spitfire. There’s a meeting table, which I’m later told is second hand. Elsewhere there are collection tins inserted into old boots, a portrait of the Queen, and artwork produced by some of the veterans the charity has helped. But more on that later.

Dr Hugh Milroy, CEO of Veterans Aid

What wasn’t in evidence in his office was any trace of standing on ceremony, of self-importance or of lavish expense. It is a businesslike office with enough personality about it to feel genuine, without being over-bearing.

Affable and amiable he may be, but Milroy is clearly a driven man, a man with a clear sense of purpose and deep understanding of the people Veterans Aid supports. And it is in regard to these people that I soon begin to realise that much of what I had considered to be received wisdom was actually nothing but misleading.

Veterans Aid works with former service personnel who, in civilian life, have hit upon hard times for one reason or another. The charity regards anyone who is ex–Army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, or from the Merchant Services to be a veteran. It also covers Reservists, such as the Territorial Army, and in fact just one day’s service qualifies any of the above to be considered veterans.

The charity sees itself as very much part of the Victoria/SW1 scene and has been for much of the 80 years it has been in existence.


Myth busting

Anyone paying even scant attention to the media will have read or heard that a disproportionate number of rough sleepers in the capital are veterans and that they all have drink and drug problems.

This is perhaps the first myth that needs dealing with, and it’s one that Milroy dispels with the relaxed sense of focus he displays throughout our time together.

“We see veterans who are in crisis,” Milroy explains. “Real crisis – homelessness is only one aspect of that.”

Veterans Aid provides in excess of 20,000 nights of accommodation every year, and can house between 60 and 80 people per night; in addition to its Buckingham Palace Road HQ, Veterans Aid has its own hostel in east London.

“You could look upon Veterans Aid as the accident and emergency service for the veteran community,” Milroy tells me.

“If someone needs accommodation we’ll find them somewhere, whether it’s in our hostel or in a hotel. If they need detox we’ll get them on a detox programme. If they need clothes, a suit for a job interview perhaps, we’ll do that. We try to be as pragmatic as possible in the way we handle things.”

There are no hand outs. But there is a helping hand up to those who need it and, just as importantly, are willing work hard to make the most of the help available.

I ask Milroy if this pragmatism is because the organisation, and the majority of the people working there are ex-military – do people with a military background have a particular approach to fixing things and making progress because of having served in the armed forces?

“There may be something in that, perhaps we are quite straight in our approach to things. But I think it’s important to point out that people don’t come to us because they’ve been institutionalised by the time they spent in the armed forces. If we were dealing with problems caused by institutionalisation, then it would seem strange that we rarely see people who have served for a long time.”


Common ground, common language

Milroy talks to me at length about the need to help people rediscover their resilience, something he describes as running like a thread through all service personnel. He refutes my suggestion that while those who have served in the armed forces are less inclined to accept hand outs whereas run-of-the-mill civilians are that bit softer, lacking in resilience, and will gladly take a hand out.

He is quick to correct me in a firm yet non-chiding manner that sits well with his overall demeanour of a man who is thoroughly relaxed and at home with himself, yet uncompromisingly focussed and alert. “The ‘service’ part is a very good way of getting to ground zero, where we can all talk the same language,” he tells me. “Beyond that it’s down to the individual.”

Finding a common language is clearly an important aspect of helping someone in need start to find their self respect once again. After all, few of us flourish as a result of being patronised and talked down to. Veterans Aid works to sow the seeds of a physical support network of friends and acquaintances in the lives of those it helps, addressing one of the most pernicious demons many of its clients are facing – social isolation. The downward spiral of drink and drug addictions, much like the burdens of growing mountains of debt, will ultimately push people away from their friends and family until, all too often, they have no one to turn to, no one to talk to.

The typical user of Veterans Aid’s services is male and aged somewhere between 38 and 45. It is generally the case that they joined up at an early age and served for around three years. Like many people they encounter difficulties in later life and some simply struggle to overcome these difficulties.

The younger veterans, in their 20s, encounter the same barriers to social housing that face anyone else of their age in the UK.


Far and wide

Last year, Veterans Aid received around 2,000 calls for help, and it put 216 people into accommodation. But it also works hard through a network across the country to identify those needing support before they arrive in London – Victoria coach station being one of the key magnets.

Milroy talks of people graduating from the Veterans Aid service, and how they must be ready and capable individuals that can sustain themselves once they’ve received the helping hand up. Otherwise, he cautions, it’s a waste of both time and money.

“We see people from all branches of the services and all ranks. But very few are in trouble because of their military service. They’re here because of life in Britain today – which can be difficult for anyone.

“In fact, it is extremely rare (Milroy places a great deal of emphasis on the words extremely rare) for Veterans Aid to see somebody with PTSD. What we see is people with complex problems. Addictions, alcohol abuse, debt, general mental health issues – just like one-in-four of the general population might also suffer at some point,” he says, referring to a statistic often quoted by the NHS and mental health charities such as MIND.


Not just art for art’s sake

It’s not all detox and emergency housing though. There are examples of veterans going on training courses that will enable them to get regular, well-paid jobs. Some have gone to university, and in December Veterans Aid will be hosting an exhibition at the SW1 Gallery of works of art created by some of the people it has helped.

Veterans Aid is an integral part of the Victoria community and this year is its 80thanniversary. Clearly held in high regard, it was the recipient of Victoria BID’s jubilee fund raising lunch in May and has received the support of the Lord Mayor of Westminster. It is involved in training officers from the Metropolitan Police on how to identify and help veterans in need of support. It seeks to stem the flow of homeless people arriving in SW1. It rolls up its sleeves and finds practical, sustainable solutions to the problems facing many people who at some point in their past have served Queen and country.

I reflect on what I’ve learned as I leave Milroy’s office, and upon the ordinariness of it all – the lack of pretention, the absence of affectation.

On my walk up the two flights of stairs earlier that morning I had met two Veterans Aid staff who had once been on the receiving end of the charity’s help, and a third man who was clearly there in need of said help.

It is someone’s birthday at Veterans Aid, and as I leave I hear an office full of people singing “happy birthday” to their colleague, as happens in pretty much any and every office all across the country.

You can find out more about Veterans Aid by visiting their website here.

Portrait of Dr Hugh Milroy is copyright Glyn Strong/Veterans Aid