I have just been to a ridiculous talk and discussion on this, based around a book by two British epidemiologists. I will not name them or the venue out of respect for the latter, and because I don’t wish to be personal.
I went because I care passionately about equality, and like most in the room, are sympathetic to the book’s premise that equality is beneficial to all.
What was ridiculous about this event was the arguments used for this premise and the way it was carried out. The authors of the book were not present, leaving a relation of one of them to flog the book and – in his own words – speak at a ‘glacial speed’ over badly presented slides in a physically uncomfortable setting.
The open debate was not facilitated, with some dominating and others being excluded for long periods. Whenever the tenets of the presenters were queried, the presenters talked over the challenger.
It is fundamentally wrong to use science to prove these kinds of ideas. Had I known the discipline of the authors, I would not have attended. We need to get away from narrow foci into interdisciplinary discourses. We need to get away from being obsessed by facts as quantifiable data that can be shown in graphs.
What is shocking and ironic is that some of the stats were gained by injecting humans and animals with diseases. Even though these may not have been used by the researchers, the supposed results are heavily drawn on in their thesis. No-one at the meeting challenged this shockingly unethical methodology.
Since starting sociology at school, I could never understand how something like suicide could be measured and predictions made about likely groups who might resort to it. It wasn’t factors such as financial difficulty, loneliness, disease, unemployment, or deep and sensitive personality types: things that might reasonably have a bearing. It was social class, location and gender.
I have always hated the concept of social class and refuse to speak of people in those terms. I follow my mother’s friend: I am in a class of my own. And so are each of you. This presentation was full of class related comments assertions. The researchers admit they had to reclassify Swedish jobs to fit the British system to be able to make a comparative graph – isn’t that rather stupid? And why is class measured by occupation? Class is outdated and much more complicated that that anyway.
Nothing in these statistics – quotable facts that are easily manipulated and discredited – was backed up or explained, and questions often couldn’t be answered due to lack of the authors’ presence. The thesis was not convincing or even interesting from the start.
What I want to say is: is equality desirable? What is equality in society? I am for justice and fairness and for a good living standard for all, and for opportunities for all. I am not a socialist or communist, wanting everyone to earn and own the same. I am not for increasing taxes and taking the vast majority of the rich’s income.
There was the assertion from the floor that what we mind is perceived lack of deserts of the richer, not that some have more than us. I think we need to be better at not comparing with or resenting those differences. I agree that I mind not if someone’s richer than me, but if what they have seems disproportionate to what they actually do. If I love the arts, I don’t mind that those in the movie industry or successful writers earn millions, especially if they use that money and profile to wider benefit. Terry Pratchet donates some of his income to supporting orang utans and Angelina Jolie is a peace ambassador. The arts also have great value in themselves, and if used well, are more than entertainment; they can be social critiques and purveyors of spiritual values. If I enjoyed sport, I would argue that watching games gives great pleasure to millions, that spectator sport puts money into our cities and countries, and that related charitable work is done with clubs’ money – eg youth football teams in deprived areas, and it promotes exercise.
Big businesses provide jobs and bolster the economy.
Rich people can use their money well. Being wealthy and philanthropic often go together – it was very much so in Victorian times. I don’t believe in super taxes because wealthy people can choose to give their money to causes that the government may not and may be able to do so with far less red tape.
Rich people can be generous on a personal level.
What many of us mind is people like senior bankers – fat cats who are rich for riches’ sake and whose activities harm others, and do not give widespread and accessible benefit. I add lawyers to my list of those who command so much for their services and I ask – why is theirs worth so much more? To get justice, we have to go into debt. It’s an inaccessible system. And democracy is built on law which is run by people the public do not choose.
I am not against expensive things. People’s talents have a price – it just has to be a reasonable one, balancing the cost of providing it and valuing yourself with avoiding a puffed up sense of what you’re worth and what you do to your customers if you ask too much. Without these pricey things which some call trappings of excess, others would have no work and their skills would be not utilised and they would lose the satisfaction from providing it.
I accept economic differentiation and the possibility to go higher which is rewarded financially. That isn’t materialism, it’s ambition, and it is not unspiritual and unethical. Not all of us want to live in a commune.
The discussion today was often on status, which I really don’t think is so important, and such discussions perpetuate it. It spoke of feelings, but that was only in relation to status, not rich inner life.
The introduction spoke of a community where sacred and secular are not distinct; but sacred is not the same as spiritual; in today’s talk, values and ideas focussed on the material.
It used teenage pregnancies as an indicator of inequality and bad things in society. This is another topic itself – but I want to question that negative value against differing cultures, sexual morality, the legal notion of adulthood. I want to query whether the much toted idea of education (which is often another word for being told about birth control) is really such an important factor in improved lives.
Education is sadly not the system of enquiry and exploration it ought to be, but one of conformity and limitation. Education is another form of status, and I felt it implicit in the book that people presenting and writing have attained academic qualifications, believing that they are better equipped to argue than those without at least three degrees. They also let on that the research is long and expensive. So this methodologically and philosophically dubious dry argument is costing money but not offering any solutions – they said they hadn’t money for that.
What I wanted to know was: how do we improve our clearly unbalanced world?
That will be a subject for another time.