Telling the public that they're ignorant is not a way to convince them
There’s no denying it. The sight of those miserly free school meal ‘hampers’ is truly rage-making. Of all the items on display, the most pathetic were what Sam Freedman (writing for PoliticsHome) described as “vegetable fragments” — half a tomato, a third of a pepper — individually wrapped in plastic. If we can’t even allow people the unthinkable luxury of a whole onion, then how do we expect them to ever hold down a job?
This is not treating the poor with dignity — and Freedman is quite right to point that out. However, he then goes to blame the ignorance of the general public for the shortcomings of welfare policy. Harshness is politically popular, he says, because the public believe “myths” about poverty:
Similar arguments are often made about overseas aid and immigration — with surveys showing that voters tend to over-estimate the relevant numbers.
The truth, of course, must be defended against falsehood. If politicians and journalists get their facts and figures wrong then that should be exposed. However, ‘stat-shaming’ the general public is unfair, misleading and counter-productive.
Firstly, it isn’t the private citizen’s business to be prepared for any social science researcher who may come their way with a clipboard. Secondly, they’re called opinion polls and social attitudes surveys for a reason: people are asked for their opinions and attitudes — it’s not an exam. Thirdly, the scribbling classes (in which I include myself) would do well to remember that we are used to being asked for our opinions — even to the extent of being paid for them. However, most people are not — and certainly not by the great-and-the-good. So when, on the rare occasion, this does happen we shouldn’t be surprised if some respondents use exaggeration to emphasise their point.
Given these realities, using an opinion survey to ask people factual questions and then judge them on the accuracy of their answers is, to say the least, unhelpful.
In any case, telling people that they don’t know what they’re talking about is not an effective strategy. The Remain campaign tested that approach to destruction both before and after the Brexit referendum. Furthermore, an excessive focus on what the other side gets wrong about selected facts can narrow one’s own perspective.
Pro-welfare campaigners need to remember this when advocating for the poor. It’s all very well to reject the Victorian narrative about the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. But an inverted-Victorianism — in which personal responsibility goes unrecognised and unrewarded — is also distorted. Those who struggle and strive to stand on their own two feet deserve to have their dignity respected too.
If instead of scoring points, we address legitimate concerns about fairness, we might just get somewhere.