Some years ago now, I met the anthropologist Polly Wiessner, the expert on the complex network of reciprocal obligations in the culture of !Kung bushmen.
She described her annual visits as exhausting for that reason. The community there would talk about what they did or didn’t owe each other all the time and it was a relief to escape this weight back home in her New York apartment. But she described how she would wake up 48 hours after coming home each time with an overwhelming sense of loss.
We are hard-wired for reciprocity, she said. I wrote about the implications of this in my book The Human Element.
Shortly after this conversation I was talking to a friend who worked in Boots and was trying to understand why customers got so angry so quickly and so often. I think you see this phenomenon in many large service organisations, public and private – I have wondered whether it was something to do with the reciprocity these services offer us, only to betray it constantly.
It might explain why people are crossest with politicians who rule us, or the technocrats who manage us, not when they fail, but when they lie to us.
People can deal with an offer of ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’, but they cannot abide being told that everything is fine when it is patently not.
So here is my shortlist of the ten biggest lies told by the government at the moment, and I think it explains why cynicism is so widespread these days:
10. “Our schools are receiving record funding.” It is pretty clear that this is only true in narrow ways, without taking inflation into account.
9. “Progress towards Universal Credit is on track.” Not true, because of the removal of the human element.
8. “There is no money tree.” Literally true; there is no tree. But in practice false – see the business of quantitative easing.
7. “First-past-the-post leads to stable government.” It doesn’t. QED.
6. “House-building is the only way of making house prices more affordable.” Nonsense: it is a clear example of too much money chasing goods that will always lag behind demand.
5. “The government takes house-building seriously.” Remains to be seen, but not so far.
4. “The DUP deal does not affect the government’s even-handed approach to the Ulster peace process.” Enough said.
3. “The Grenfell Tower cladding met all required building control, fire regulation and health and safety standards.” Not necessarily wrong, and not by the government either but the refurbishment contractors, yet still deeply misleading.
2. “If the train crew were to work in a normal manner … a safe and reliable rail service would be delivered in an acceptable manner.” Apparently inserted by the Department of Transport into a consultant’s report on Southern Rail franchise, and contradicted by the evidence in the report – especially if you happen to be disabled.
1. “For the first time, a nuclear station in this country will not have been built with money from the British taxpayer.” Again, not strictly untrue, but deeply misleading, as is now becoming clear.
Most of these examples are not lies at all – lies are unparliamentary and therefore impossible. They are like a death in the House of Commons; officially, they never happen. Take for example John McDonnell’s outrageous claim that the Grenfell Tower deaths were ‘murder’. It isn’t exactly a lie – and it isn’t an official one – but not true either.
These obfuscations are deeply misleading and they corrode trust in government. They require a systemic shift – which is why we are concerned with them here at Radix.
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