Everyone tells ‘white lies’ or is careful with the truth sometimes. Often in advertising and marketing, anyone who wishes to sell a product, from the latest oven or microwave to private education, or advertise positions to potential employees, the full story is never told. The pictures accompanying the text are never quite right, the small print seems to leave out the big details.
This week it was Iain Duncan Smith who was Conservative with the truth. His Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has been found to have fabricated accounts from happy benefit claimants, who avoid benefit sanctions by doing the right thing and complying with instructions. Zac says that by informing his mentor appropriately and with good evidence he avoided a sanction; Sarah states that she was glad to follow advice to write a CV after being told that not doing so would slash her welfare. But Zac and Sarah do not look like their photographs because they are fictional. With 19,000 people’s names on the dotted line of a petition for Iain Duncan Smith’s dismissal, it’s evident that telling fibs to the public doesn’t go down well.
At the risk of being garotted on my return to university in September, I should admit that, at first, I sympathised with Iain Duncan Smith. The department is after all trying to promote (mostly) good principles. If people admit that they need help, but when offered help reject it, then you can’t blame the helper for feeling a bit miffed. When an unemployed member of the public approaches the DWP looking for assistance to find a job, the DWP offers that person a job but he rejects it, then I have sympathy for the DWP to say in return that their welfare will be henceforth limited.
But close scrutiny reveals that the DWP’s officials are under instruction to be as brutal as they can be. What Zac and Sarah do not represent is the body of people whose welfare have been thrown away without good reason. Some of these claimants can’t read well, or at all; some do not have access to the Internet. Claimants are deliberately badly-informed about what they can do in their situations. Consequently when people ‘reject’ the DWP’s help, by missing appointments they didn’t know had been made, by being unable to read the paperwork, by attending the funeral of a late family member, or simply by being unwell, it is seen to be evidence that they really were the feckless, morally-nihilistic parasites that the gutter press paints so many of them to be (refer to Toynbee and Walker’s Cameron’s Coup: How the Tories took Britain to the Brink). Therefore, when we know the truth of the matter, things are different.
Maintaining a narrative is an attractive political measure that has been utilised by this government and many others. One will no doubt notice that there are certain things to which members of one party or another will constantly refer; they always tell the same story in the same way. The Conservatives like to remind us of the mess they inherited but thanks to their long-term economic plan, Britain is open for business and all because of the effort of hardworking families. But what happens when there are discrepancies in the fabric of the story? It depends on for whom you lend your support: a Labour voter is more likely to consider the Conservative narrative to be false than a Conservative. One man’s revolutionary, another’s freedom fighter.
Maybe tall truths and dubious ‘facts’ are necessary evils if it inspires the people to strive for better. Plato, using Socrates as his mouthpiece (as he always seems to do), discusses the concept of a noble lie in Book Three of The Republic, where the population is told of a great story that should inspire them. Golden fathers, silver sons, oracles… all of them constituting a big fat lie, told to the ruling class of Socrates’s ideal city, but a lie that would give them the confidence and ambition to work in the interests of the city. Is it morally acceptable for the public to be, essentially, duped if it would motivate them to achieve greater things?
Of course, Plato’s noble lie is a whopper of great proportions, something that could lead to generation after generation being educated in a falsehood and never realising the truth; Iain Duncan Smith’s lie is just something to make the benefit sanctions scheme a little more positive, maybe showing claimants the ‘right way’ to behave. One is a monumental myth that will dominate society, another is a minimal fib designed to show an approach to welfare provision, and the punishing and callous background workings behind it, to not be as bad as those lefties in the Guardian say it is. There’s a philosophical debate to be had about whether the noble lie is something that can be justified, but I doubt many people, once made aware of the real situation, would be in support of the dishonesty coming from the Department of Work and Pensions.