Sunday, 27 January 2013
We have to tackle these misconceptions...
I use social media quite a lot. My partner thinks I'm addicted to it. I'm not sure that's true, but it does allow for interesting conversations and some relief from baby responsibilities.
I'm not going to suggest that social media is a more accurate reflection of public opinion than the tried and tested methodology of opinion polling - after all, as in life more generally, there will always be minorities that make a disproportionate amount of noise. (Yes, Scotland for Marriage, I mean you.) But what is inescapable is that social media are not now the new media or "the future" but a very real part of our present. They inform opinions, communicate them, reinforce them. They even validate them.
What social media is very good at is to bring what would once have ended up in waste paper baskets onto thousands of people's computer screens. And so someone can put together some misinformed, prejudicial and blatantly incorrect assertions about the world or those who live in it, click a button and...well, sit back for the predictable response.
If this is the future of political conversation, then I am utterly dismayed. It's not that twitter, facebook and the like are not useful platforms for such. Indeed they are. Neither am I some kind of backward-looking nostalgic reflecting on the days when the public and politics were kept as far apart as possible. No, what concerns me is that, for many, this is all that engagement on politics is about now. It's not a conversation as such, rather than a broadcast of some simplistic and populist perspectives - usually aimed at immigrants, the underprivileged or gay people.
This flyer (see picture) has been doing the rounds. It's not untypical of so much else in circulation on facebook (although not quite as objectionable as the "snow settling" pictures, drawing obvious conclusions about immigrants). The comment accompanying such "pictures" are usually puerile and reflecting both prejudice and a lack of both knowledge and understanding of the wider complexities of the issues. And what we are seeing on social media is, very evidently, a reinforcing of attitudes that make distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor, that demonise those on benefits and that yearns for a "return" to the type of Britishness that only exists in the minds of backbench Tories like Peter Bone...a Britishness that never existed other than in the prejudicial mindsets of those who consider themselves morally superior.
Now, the above was "shared" by someone today, in agreement with it I must add, who really should know better. Not least because he volunteers for the CAB. It more than troubles me when such manifestly incorrect information actually leads more informed people to accept at least some of its conclusions. It demonstrates two things: a) that social media is powerful in shaping opinions and b) there is a need to tackle - urgently - both the misconceptions and the attitudes behind it, which are framing the political conversation in the UK and in no small measure are determining how certain groups of people are being perceived.
Whether it's a case of right-wing Tories heightening public prejudice or that of expressed attitudes of the public providing fuel to those in parliament keen to use populism to further their cause, it's a dangerous mix. These attitudes are dangerous and socially divisive - something I witnessed first hand while living in Sighthill in the late 90s (then it was misinformation spread about Kosovan refugess that led to one of their number being killed).
And so, in my small way, I decided to challenge the misinformation and blatant lies. I wrote, in response:
"This kind of thing does the rounds quite often, so here's a reply
1) People on benefits do not have all the advantages of a full-time job. Far from it, not least the social and well-documented positive mental health aspects of being in employment. They also do not have a decent income - I challenge anyone to live productively on the £118.50 per week my partner and I got (for a very short time) when on Income Support. Admittedly there's a problem that when much of the available work is part-time and for the minimum wage work very definitely doesn't pay but that's no reason to demonise those who receive benefits.
2) "Only working people don't qualify for benefits". Absolute tosh. In fact, out of the £188.4bn annual spending on welfare benefits, less than 25% is accounted for by out-of-work benefits.
3) "Free housing". A great deal of housing benefit is paid to families working on low incomes.
4) "Free utilities, free food". Erm, sorry. That's not provided by the state. Maybe if you're needs are so dire you're living in the Salvation Army hostel you'll get such provision, but not otherwise.
5) "Free medical services". Only there for those not working? Really???? Don't recall paying when the NHS saved my life. Or when my expectant partner received free dental treatment.
6) "Free transportation". There is for those over a certain age, yes. Whether they're working or not is irrelevant. People on benefits below pensionable age do not receive such "advantages".
7) "Free Legal Services". Legal Aid is available to anyone - so long as the legal matter is in scope of a prescriptive and limited range of matters allowed - whose gross monthly income is less than £2,657 or their disposable monthly income less than £733. Most working people in the UK are eligible for Legal Aid.
8) "Some of our families have received benefits for 2 or 3 generations." The fact is that only 0.3% of families contain two generations of people who have never worked. And if many have had to claim benefit for some part of their adult life, is it necessarily their fault? Isn't the answer job creation?
9) And now onto the pedantry. There is no such organisation as the Benefits Agency and has not been for 12 years. The flag is not the flag of England, but of the UK. Also, the DWP has responsibility for the whole of the UK, not just a part of it. The point I'm making really being that this neatly encapsulates the ignorance of the writer(s)."
Such ignorance is, however, powerful - which is why it should be resisted and opposed. We all have a responsibility for challenging prejudice and ignorance - something that is, after all, part of the drive to create a liberal society. The preamble to our constitution makes it abundantly clear that we exist "to build and safeguard...a society...in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity."
It seems to me that each of these three ills continues to plague society and that the challenges to the society we aim to create are both legion and tremendously real.
We have to rise to these challenges. We must find a rhetoric that empowers those in poverty and injustice, releases people from the chains of ignorance and prejudice the debate on welfare, challenges the voices of conformity and connects with the day-to-day concerns of the public. Perhaps one of the first steps should be to reclaim the debate about the future of welfare from the poisonous discussion framed by the harsh, uncaring and deeply prejudiced attitudes of the least savoury elements of the Conservative Party?
That - and tackling insensitive, misguided and judgmental assumptions such as this wherever we see them.