Tom Sutcliffe: We jump to judge the rich – so why not the poor?

Social Studies: The question remains of what you do with clots who aren't interested in reciprocation or responsibility at all
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The Independent Online

The Archbishop of Canterbury used an interesting word just the other day when he was warning against the language of "'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor" in his New Statesman guest editorial. He described it as "seductive" and – if we're to judge from recent political speeches – he seems to have been right. David Cameron got stern the other day with parents who procreate before they've worked out how to pay for the resulting children, and yesterday Ed Miliband attempted to stabilise his slightly wobbly authority as Leader of the Opposition with a keynote speech identifying Labour as "a party founded by hard-working people for hard-working people". Neither of them were foolish enough to use the terms "deserving" or "undeserving", but that's essentially what they were talking about, and they were as confident as the Archbishop was – in his very different way – that a bit of sheep-and-goats tough-talking would appeal to their listeners.

What I found myself wondering was why the Archbishop thinks such judgemental language is so seductive. The implication, of course, was that we shouldn't yield to the seduction – that to do so would be a failure of charity. And I'm guessing that he worries about our human weakness for any argument that gets us off the hook of Christian duty. If they don't deserve help, then we don't have to go to the expense or trouble of giving it. But he was also – he made clear – trying to shift the terms of the debate, from a paternalist notion of the poor as "objects of kindness", having help conferred upon them from above, to how we create a "sustainable community... in which what circulates – like the flow of blood – is the mutual creation of capacity, building the ability of the other person or group to become, in turn, a giver of life and responsibility".

Which still leaves the question of what you do with clots – those stubborn types (rich and poor) who aren't interested in reciprocation or responsibility at all, and threaten the whole arrangement with sclerosis. And the odd thing is that while we have no difficulty whatsoever in accepting that rich people should be subject to moral judgement of their behaviour, we flinch from applying the same standards to the poor. Is this kindness itself, though, or a truly paternalistic kind of condescension? Doesn't it exclude the poor from precisely the "sustainable community" that the Archbishop of Canterbury wants to create? Because if you can't be held accountable for your failures of social responsibility then its hard to see how you can take any credit for your successes.

Ed Miliband recognises more clearly than the Archbishop of Canterbury, I think, that poor people are acutely aware of distinctions in behaviour – and that part of the "seductiveness" of those opposed terms lies not in the worst parts of our character, but in our best. People have a deep hunger for fairness and justice. It's one of the reasons for the church's historic success, because it promised that, one day, the superiority of the "deserving poor" to the "undeserving rich" would be recognised. The Archbishop of Canterbury, and politicians, should be less nervous of judgemental distinctions, because I doubt those misgivings are shared by the poor. They know they don't have less moral capacity than the rest of us, just less money.

The strange case of the fake blogger

There seems to have been an informal competition between Tom MacMaster and his wife Britta Froelicher – the couple at the centre of the row over a faked blog by a Syrian lesbian called Amina – to see which of them could issue the stupidest reaction to the fury the deception had generated. "I do not believe that I have harmed anyone," said MacMaster grandly. Froelicher, by contrast, took a more self-pitying line, reportedly telling a journalist: "We are on vacation in Turkey and just really want to have a nice time and not deal with all this craziness at the moment." The craziness, that is, which stemmed from her husband's false suggestion that Amina had been arrested by the Syrian authorities.

MacMaster insisted that he has been trying "to illuminate" events in Syria whereas the truth is that he's effectively smeared mud over the only decent searchlights we have – since blogs by other activists will now be regarded with a wary suspicion, just in case someone is at it again. He's also given the Syrian government a propaganda gift. You'll be relieved to know, though, that it hasn't been all bad for him: "I have been deeply touched by the reactions of readers," he wrote in his statement. He's pleased, in other words, that the people whose trust he betrayed were worried for all the right reasons.

On the evidence before us, he's a moral cretin. But it would be wrong to point to this case as proof of the essential unreliability of the internet. Yes, there's nothing to stop rogues from going online and telling whoppers. And yes, it's important to question the authenticity of online sources. But what's really significant in this case – as in the recent two-day wonder over the "rigging" of Britain's Got Talent – is how swiftly and efficiently the internet repairs its own mistakes. I'd bet that the unveiling of "Amina" will have been seen by many more people than were ever taken in by the original blog. How often can you say the same of a print or broadcast correction?