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Exclusionary rhetoric: “doing the right thing”

April 24, 2010

The second of our three televised prime-ministerial debates was on Thursday, and the Conservative platform, manifested in the terrifyingly shiny form of David Cameron, held up slightly better than the first time round. It became noticeable after a little while, though, that Cameron was leaning particularly heavily on a couple of catchphrases. One was values. Not British values or family values, both phrases too overused by the right-wing fringe to be rescuable; just values, a word with the flexibility of mist and about as much substance.

Values as a term of political currency has become so debased as to be entirely meaningless; and, to be fair, all three of those present – Brown and Clegg as well as Cameron – dropped it in a few times. I don’t think its prevalence was particularly significant. The other catchphrase Cameron leant on, though, was very much his thing, and also appeared on the Conservative flyer that came through J’s door this morning; it seems to be a slogan they’re deploying party-wide. And I’m impressed. Much as I despise what they’re aiming to achieve, I have to give the bods at head office points for doing so much, so subtly, with four words.

Do the right thing.

It says something about what I’ve been doing lately that the first thing to cross my mind when I contemplated the phrase “Do the right thing” was the third-placed picture on this page. If the link’s not loading or you’re having other problems, allow me to summarise: it’s an entry for a Team Fortress 2 propaganda poster contest, showing a cartoon soldier in a blue uniform with his back to the camera, a shovel in his left hand. Beyond him is a pile of red-uniformed cartoon corpses. Beneath the picture, in all caps, it says simply DO THE RIGHT THING!

Now David Cameron is about the last person I would associate with TF2 or with the lethal application of a shovel, on the basis that one is below him and the other is a videogame. (That the soldier in the poster is also in blue is a total coincidence; in TF2 the RED and BLU teams are all but identical . . . hang on . . .) But I’m not entirely wasting my time talking about this poster. See, the thing about this poster is that it’s a propaganda poster. For a fictional conflict, sure, but very much modelled after those put about in real life – real wars, and real election campaigns.

“Do the right thing” is an incredibly potent phrase in the right hands, for two reasons: for what it doesn’t say, and for who it isn’t directed at.

It’s like pictures that use negative space. After a minute, those randomly shaped black blobs on a white ground become the spaces between large white letters on a black ground. The meaning exists in the bits that haven’t been filled in.

“Do the right thing,” says Mr Cameron; the sort of generally moral exhortation that you can’t pin anything on. It’s not specific enough to take issue with; we’re all in favour of (people) doing the right thing, aren’t we?

Well, yes. But the very nebulousness of “do the right thing” means that the phrase only gains traction if we, the listener, have some idea of what ‘the right thing’ is supposed to be. Neither Mr Cameron nor his party’s literature ever state this outright; however, a slightly closer examination brings into focus what the Conservative party considers to be ‘right things’.

The flyer for a prospective Conservative MP talks a lot about businesses and making things easier for people who run them. About houses and making things easier for people who buy them. About jobs and making things easier for people who have them. About children and making things easier for the couples who bring them up. All this is summed up in a cheery little slogan on the back page as ‘doing the right thing’.

I think, as a society broadly in favour of houses, businesses, jobs and children, most people are on board with that: these things have the same vague and difficult to argue with moral worth that “Do the right thing” possesses. The real insight comes from the negative spaces, the places round the edges: what this doesn’t say, who it doesn’t speak to.

Regulations relaxed for business owners – what about their customers? What about their employees?

Make it easier to buy (more) houses – what about those with no houses? What about those who can’t outbid those above?

What about the unemployed?

What about the childless? What about the children not being reared by married couples, or couples at all?

It becomes extremely clear in each case who, in each of these equations, the Conservative party are going to privilege over the other side. They never say it outright; no, they’re just going to “do the right thing”.

The stuff about jobs, houses and businesses isn’t my focus here; Conservative goodies – like, say, their proposed inheritance tax cut that would give £200,000 each to the three thousand richest people in the country – have historically gone to those already well provided. The Tories are fairly open about largely relying on the vote of the plentifully employed, the extensively be-housed, and the business-possessing – in short, the rich, and those who would like to be like that some day. Everyone knows this. It may be fairly pointed out that in wooing the allegedly middle class and the corporate machines they are not all that different from Labour. Selling themselves to the rich and influential is basically what political parties do, and the Tories have done it for so long that it barely counts against them any more.

Their attitude to more personal concerns, though, is much less to the fore, and right now this is what I want to talk about.

The Conservative party aren’t just fiscal conservatives. Their views on the social side of things range from sort-of-okay through indifferent through to social conservative through to outright frightening; you need only look at the collection of far-right parties with whom they’ve coalitioned in the European Parliament, several of which are avowedly and institutionally anti-Semitic and homophobic. Or at shadow cabinet member (so prospective minister in the event of a Tory win) Chris Grayling, who went on record saying that B&Bs should be able to refuse gay couples – never mind the law stating that a business open to the public isn’t allowed to do that. Or David Cameron’s voting record: in favour of restricting abortion access, against IVF for single women and lesbians, against removing Section 28 (the infamous clause banning the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, ‘promotion’ widely interpreted to mean ‘anything other than outright condemnation’.) And Cameron’s fairly middle-of-the-road as far as his party go.

It seems to me that all this should be as much general knowledge as the Conservatives’ attitude to money, but they don’t talk about it. Perhaps they have clocked that the general legislative progression in this country is towards equality in the matters of gender, sexuality and family structure, and realise that being publicly against it would be bad PR. But the underlying attitudes that inform Cameron’s votes and Grayling’s slip-up and their European choice of coalition are still there, and on Thursday they started to seep out a bit, round the edges, concealed behind “doing the right thing”.

This time, rather than something a hypothetical Tory government would do, it was cast as something for their prospective electorate to do. I kept a sort of mini-liveblog of the debate elsewhere, and I’m a fast typist – I got Cameron’s quote down here just about verbatim, and from my point of view it’s pretty damn conclusive.

“We’re meeting young people who want to get it together before they get married, before they have children … They feel that people who aren’t doing the right thing are getting ahead of them.”

I think that gives us a pretty unambiguous definition for “doing the right thing”: get it together – financial stability, maybe buy a house; get married; have children. And then resent it when people who aren’t doing all these things come off (materially/emotionally?) better than you did. The Conservative vision of “doing the right thing” is a very narrow, very particular one, and as with the flyers I mentioned above is more notable for who it doesn’t speak to than who it does.

I’m sure that young couples feeling disenfranchised by those not-financially-stable/not-married/not-child-having people ‘getting ahead’ of them felt a flare of righteous anger at Cameron’s pronouncement. But I’m equally sure that people who maybe never settled down, who don’t want to or can’t get married – 10% or so of Britons still can’t have that word – or who don’t want to or can’t have children heard Cameron’s statement and knew it was really about them.

Cameron has to reassure his voters, the people who are wondering whether they shouldn’t have bought that house, or gotten married, or had children, but who did all those things because they were done, that they’re right, and it’s those damn people doing the wrong thing that’re pushing them down. Like the examples from the flyers above, it’s dressed up as helping one set of people, but is guaranteed to come in the form of penalising someone else.

The Tories’ poisonous and contradictory attitude to marriage is something I’ve written about before. If it’s so solemn a commitment, why do they expect anyone to get into it for £3 a week? And why are they only going to give that £3 a week to couples with one partner not working, when by definition any couple who can afford to live on only one income probably don’t need it? Either they’re quite amazingly stupid, or it’s intended as no more than a statement, a big government stamp on married, one-supports-the-other couples to say ‘This is the kind of relationship we approve of.’ And I have to suspect it’s the latter. With the country’s budget this tight, £550 million – the total estimated cost of this ‘marriage tax break’ – is a lot of money that could be profitably used in a lot of places. If it weren’t deemed a worthwhile investment, someone would have vetoed it by now; don’t want to give the other parties ammunition about your budgetary black holes. I can only conclude that they’re making a point.

You can’t force people to get married for an extra hamburger’s worth a week, but you can isolate and shame those who won’t. You can make it clear that you’re looking down your nose at the single, the divorced, the cohabiting, the polyamorous, the childless, the itinerant, and the poor.

And you can hide it all under the misty aegis of Doing The Right Thing.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Skinner permalink
    April 25, 2010 12:08 am

    He was always going to come out better this time. It was a Sky produced program. Need I say more.
    The background was a subtle “Broken Britain” effect for goodness sake, plus that numpty presenting it coming out with the “well you were on the front page of the Telegraph this week”.

    I admit I slightly struggle to agree about the penalisation of others who don’t fit in to this model.
    It’s not penalising. Penalising would require them to have lost, rather than not received in the first place. But that’s just semantics.

    Incidentally, what’s your view on polygamy?
    I’ve wondered why there hasn’t been a fuss kicked up over that still being illegal. It seems to trifle in comparison to the fuss kicked up about same-sex partnerships yet it’s still outlawed.

  2. wickedday permalink
    April 25, 2010 3:20 pm

    Particularly under the current system, where being married doesn’t actually change your rights all that much (unlike the Tory proposals) it seems like multiple marriages would be more a question of paperwork than anything else. The difficulty would arise, I think – as it does with marriage anyway – in the event of divorce and children. Who pays who?

    We had a house discussion about this a while back, and concluded that what should really happen is the fragmentation of the marriage licence into multiple documents. You’d have your “one unit for tax purposes” form, your “one unit for child-raising purposes” form, and your “official recognition of a romantic relationship” form, and you’d be allowed one of the first and as many of the second and third kinds as you wanted. Currently marriage as a legal institution does very little but is treated as if it affects many more things.

    So in short, I’m in favour of legal recognition for polyamorous/polygamous relationships, but I don’t think it’ll happen without substantial reform of the laws surrounding marriage.

  3. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    April 25, 2010 11:38 pm

    The part about this whole issue I find the most frustrating is the misguided belief that being in a traditional nuclear family is better for kids than anything else, regardless of the circumstances. I highly doubt the only way to raise kids properly is in a hetero nuclear family, but that isn’t even the worst offence – the blanket assumption that being raised by both your parents is better than only one is clearly ridiculous to anyone who has actually experienced this situation. Having been raised in a household first with both parents in an unhappy relationship, then with only one, I can assure you the latter was the better of the two.

    It seems to come from mistaking single-parent households as the cause of kids with problems, when in fact both are side effects of a breakdown of a relationship involving kids. Sometimes relationships don’t work out, and there’s often very little we can do to predict this, but thinking you can solve the problem by just staying together and ignoring it is only going to cause more harm in the long run when children are involved. The same goes for assuming you can fix the country by coercing couples to stay together for their kids – ironically, you’re going to end up with more screwed-up teenagers this way. “Staying together for the kids.” This phrase always makes me cringe, because I know they think they’re doing what’s best for their kids, and they’re wrong.

    If I meet David Cameron, I’d like to ask him what exactly it is about single-parent families that causes all of this chaos in ‘Broken Britain’, and why having to listen to your parents fighting in the next room will solve it…

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  1. What the Tory marriage tax break really means « This Wicked Day

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