Thursday, 16 October 2014

Freud's slip and the dangers of the unsayable

It’s been an Orwellian week in terms of any concept of free speech in the UK, with two rather different cases provoking the sort of widespread outrage that threatens once more to dampen the inclination to actually saying anything that might go against the accepted view of the (mostly) elite.

It can be all too easy, sometimes, to forget that the test of whether one believes in free speech is not allowing what you agree with, but what you don’t.

And there is a danger that, increasingly, social media in particular is rendering some things unsayable.

Welfare reform minister Lord Freud is under continuing fire days after a recording from a Conservative Party conference fringe meeting was released, appearing to show that he had described disabled workers as ‘worth less’ than their non-disabled counterparts – and therefore should not be entitled to the national minimum wage.

That’s a précis of how the story has been tackled, with calls from across politics, mainstream and social media for him to resign or be sacked, and screams about how it illustrates that ‘the nasty party’ is back.

Also during the last few days, TV personality Judy Finnigan made comments on the TV show, Loose Women, to the effect that, while all rape in unacceptable, some rapes are more serious than others.

A few more tons of metaphorical bricks were rained down on her head – and now, it seems that she and her daughter have had threats of rape made against them via Twitter.

There are a number of points here.

First, the hysterical responses disguise certain nuances and therefore deplete any proper debate.

It is not the first time that the issue of disabled workers and pay has arisen.

He was, of course, roundly castigated.

But there is a certain disingenuity in the way that Freud’s latest slip has been tackled in many quarters.

It is worth pointing out that the peer was responding to a question from David Scott, a Tory councillor from Tunbridge Wells, who had said:

“The other area I’m really concerned about is obviously the disabled. I have a number of mentally damaged individuals, who to be quite frank aren’t worth the minimum wage, but want to work. And we have been trying to support them in work, but you can’t find people who are willing to pay the minimum wage.

… “And I think yes, those are marginal areas but they are critical of actually keeping people who want to work supported in that process. And it’s how do you deal with those sort of cases?”

In response, Freud noted:

“ ...You make a really good point about the disabled. Now I had not thought through, and we have not got a system for, you know, kind of going below the minimum wage.

“But we do have … you know, Universal Credit is really useful for people with the fluctuating conditions who can do some work – go up and down – because they can earn and get ... and get, you know, bolstered through Universal Credit, and they can move that amount up and down.

“Now, there is a small … there is a group, and I know exactly who you mean, where actually as you say they’re not worth the full wage and actually I’m going to go and think about that particular issue, whether there is something we can do nationally, and without distorting the whole thing, which actually if someone wants to work for £2 an hour, and it’s working can we actually …”

You can – and please do – read the fulltranscript (and listen to the audio) at Politics Home.

It’s pretty clear from reading that that Freud was thinking on his feet. This wasn’t a policy statement – but ruminating on a question.

There is no evidence that the ‘not worth it’ aspect of his comments was not an economic comment.

Let’s take issue with that by all means – discussions of economic policies and markets and goodness knows what else often flounder on a simple, basic fact: that they are abstract and exclude the ‘real world’ and real human beings.
Let’s take issue with any sort of suggestion that lowering pay even further could ever be positive. 
But frankly, the approach seen in that exchange doesn’t sound as much ‘nasty’ as just downright patronising and paternalistic.
And if anyone wants to say that ‘the nasty party’ is ‘back’, well, you’d could do rather better by looking at Iain Duncan Smith, who has repeatedly lied about matters related to welfare, and been pulled up for it by the UKStatistics Authority.
By all means disagree with the gaffe-prone Freud, who has form for cretinous remarks – and presumably, Scott, although his comments seem to have been forgotten – but screaming for resignation or the sack because you disagree with something that someone said is way over the top. 

Better, surely, to use such an opportunity to engage with the subject and, as here, ask what can meaningfully be done to help to get disabled people into work.

This case offered an opportunity to raise the issue of the abysmal treatment of disabled people by the government since 2014; the general difficulties in disabled people finding work; the very idea of seeing human beings in purely economic terms, and even a chance to raise awareness of mental illness in particular.

Indeed, one positive on the social media side was the appearance of a list of famous people who had a variety of mental illness conditions, which was an easy way to illustrate that geniuses can be disabled (in our current use of the term) too.

After all, who would question, for instance, whether Beethoven was ‘worth it’?

Similarly, in terms of Finnigan’s comments, behaving as though she has no right to voice her views is ludicrous.

In fact, it was less a view than an observation of straightforward fact.

In the context of whether Ched Evans should be able to return to plying his trade as a professional footballer after his prison sentence for rape, Finnigan observed:  The rape – and I am not, please, by any means minimising any kind of rape – but the rape was not violent, he didnt cause any bodily harm to the person.

It was unpleasant, in a hotel room I believe, and she [the victim] had far too much to drink.

Now how can any half-way intelligent person conclude that those comments make Finnigan pro-rape, as was subsequently suggested on social media by some?
Disagree with Finnigan by all means, and make the case against what she said, but hysterical shouting down of comments such as that, to the extent that a row blows up and people are threatened (however credible or not the threat is), is completely detrimental to any sensible, considered public discourse. 
As is something that, in effect, would see any political meeting turned into something that has to be scripted in order to avoid something that could be jumped on in such a manner, rather than permitting open discussion that might be far more revealing of far more things.
Be Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells (or Islington) all you want, but your disgust should not stop a discussion. 
Indeed, there’s an irony in all this that seems to have rather passed some people by. 
Making certain things unsayable was a factor in the way in which the systemic abuse and rape of vulnerable girls and young women by groups of men from particular ethnic backgrounds was allowed to go unchallenged for so long in Rochdale and Rotherham. 

That point alone should be enough to convince of the dangers of making things unsayable – no matter how unpalatable they may be.

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