Monday, 13 June 2022

Manipulating Common Sense

House hunting is a thankless task. Checking out would-be homes on the internet, cooing over the lovely interiors and the space, and cursing because the price is just outside the budget or the next door neighbour is the sewage works. But the biggest issue is money, or the lack thereof. According to research seized upon by The Times, about half of Britons think lifestyle choices are the reason why younger people can't save money. It's easy come, easy go as those surveyed blamed streaming services, phones, holidays, and the kebab shop. So I've done some sums. We've had Netflix for about six years. Assuming a year's worth of membership has been constant at £80/annum, that's £480 paid over during this period. Just think of the houses we could have bought with that money! Or if, for the last 10 years, we had had no takeaways, ate out nowhere, nor gone to the pub, I might have saved about £5,000. Were we not indisciplined oiks, a veritable Palace of Versailles would be within reach.

To the credit of the research's author, Kent's Bobby Duffy, he thinks this conclusion is a nonsense. He writes,
The suggestion that the huge challenges young people face in buying their own home can be solved by skipping fancy coffees and Netflix entirely misses the point, but it’s still believed by half the public. It also reflects our general tendency to think bad of today’s young people. Throughout history people always think the current youth are the worst ever.
The Times decided to go with the headline 'Baby boomers say struggling young should cut Netflix'. Mischievous and misleading, because on this occasion the attitudes of older people aren't that much different from the rest of the population. According to the report, 52% of Boomers identified Netflix-and-thrill spending as a key reason why young people couldn't save and get on the housing ladder. For Gen X'ers, it was 46%, Millennials 48%, and Gen Z 43%. In other words a large part of the population have got mugged, ideologically speaking. While some might shake their heads and sign half of everyone off, there was a more interesting finding. Asked 'the key reasons that young adults today cannot afford to buy their own home are things like the increase in house prices, stricter lending rules and low wage growth', 72% of Boomers agreed or strongly agreed. For Gen X it was 79%, Millennials 78%, and Zoomers 73%. Interesting.

What to make of this? People are conflicted and contradictory - very few are systematically coherent on absolutely everything. And in this sense, perhaps only in this sense, certain politicians are closer to the public they chase than their radical critics might think. But opinion polls don't measure reasoning or understanding. They measure opinions, funnily enough. At anyone time, polls usually find between a fifth and a quarter don't have a view on an issue that hasn't had wall-to-wall coverage and isn't immediately emotive, like the death penalty or retaining the monarchy. But others are happy to venture an opinion, whether they know about the topic or not. This is where common sense comes in, the everyday discourse that takes the given as given. It fills in the gaps when someone encounters an unfamiliar situation, and it's reinforced through interaction, chats, and popular culture. Because it values the immediate and the empirical, it can be easy to manipulate by elites if they have a large media platform and can render their talking points in its terms.

I hate to keep on talking about Margaret Thatcher, but as a politician she was very gifted at this sort of thing. For example, comparing it to and pushing the line that state financing was the same as household budgets was a stroke of genius. It took a highly abstract and complex process and reduced it to something almost everyone could grasp. It didn't matter that it was wrong and distorted the perception of British political economy, it enabled her and the Tories to capitalise on it politically. The continued resonance of 'the taxpayer' is because of the commonsensical, cynically empiricist spin all parties and newspapers have out on this since Thatcher set the terms of definition. It also becomes powerful move when a scapegoating gambit can be associated with familiar patterns of behaviour. Attacking the unemployed or single mums as lazy, feckless, or as spongers works because a lot of people think some known personally to them approximate these categories. It can be especially toxic when it connects with senses of sacrifice and grievance. But again, these ruses can prove potent because they chime with the everyday.

It's at a lower level to be sure, but are the takeaways and holidays findings that much of a surprise. The images fed back from television of young people are usually superficial and highly consumerist. Stick on YouTube or watch the TikToks, the portrayal fed to their audiences are mostly carefree and frivolous. Nowhere do we find the realities of single mums caught by rising prices, responsibility to their kids, and the need to work to make ends meet. Or of the young lad treated as a dogsbody by his bosses, who expect him to come at short notice whenever there's a gap in the schedule. Out of sight, out of mind. Plus everyone knows someone who always has a take out coffee in hand, or look to get away at every available opportunity. Asked the question about the unseriousness of young people, it's these familiar relationships that immediately jump to mind when someone ticks the yes box. Including among young people themselves.

But there are limits. Manipulating common sense can work, but it's never total. Because common sense is rooted in the empirical, manipulation only works if it goes with grain of its logics. Hence why we have the seemingly contradictory findings about low wages, prices, and property values. They're not contradictory at all because these crises impinge on daily life. The comfortable boomers, hitherto shielded from the consequences of Tory economics, are meeting rising prices and energy bills with fixed incomes. The experiences of their grand children, millions of whom are stuck in renting and have no visible path to home ownership, can't be ignored either. In other words, what the survey demonstrates is, what we might crudely characterise as the discursive, can't put food on the table. Manipulation is successful if it helps deliver the goods. If it doesn't there might be problems.

And this, obviously, is an issue for the Conservatives right now. Faced with multiple crises, we see a return to the carrot and the stick. The carrot with regard to energy price assistance and a cheap homes wheeze. And the stick here is not a rod to beat the electorate with, but one to be thrown in the hope the more excitable will chase it. The disgusting Rwanda scheme, attacks on striking workers, moaning about the woke, threats over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and blaming young people for their predicaments all play a part as weapons of mass distraction. But many of these don't run with the commonsensical grain, and as the crisis deepens, which it will, the more difficult it becomes for the Tories and their press allies to manipulate as they have previously.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Blame the young,blame the poor, blame the blacks.

Rinse, repeat (not always in the same order).

It all seems to work very well.