Sarah Churchwell: The message is clear. We are all under suspicion

If Britain is a nanny state, it needs to work on its parenting skills

Related Topics

When Alan Johnson called upon us to stop "vilifying" the obese last week, he observed almost in passing that censure doesn't make people change their behaviour. "The healthy eating message has to be delivered more intelligently," the Health Secretary commented. So does this mean that the government will stop vilifying the rest of us, too?

Since moving to Britain, I have been called licence cheat, fare-dodger, and benefit thief – and all when I was just sitting on the Tube, minding my own business. "Get one or get done!" barked a TV Licensing poster. Then the tone changed from thuggish to sinister: "Your town. Your street. Your home. It's all in our database. New technology means it's easier to pay your TV licence – and impossible to hide if you don't." Meanwhile Transport for London has launched a "hard-hitting" campaign with posters of mug shots of middle-class people as fare evaders. The message is clear: we are all under suspicion. So much for the presumption of innocence. Perhaps I need to have a word with my superego, but I cannot read such direct address without feeling accused.

Doubtless the campaigns' designers would explain that as I'm not the target audience, I can ignore the message. But the message is deliberately incriminating everyone: its use of direct address – what the philosopher Louis Althusser calls "interpellation," or hailing – means that all readers are implicated. Despite not being in the target audience, I still got targeted. Instead of snipers pinpointing miscreants, these messages use carpet-bombing. We're all victims of drive-by social marketing.

Britain is one of the leading national proponents of social marketing, advertising campaigns designed to change social behaviour. But in general the Government's message has been coercive, not educative. If Britain is a nanny state, it needs to work on its parenting skills. While launching campaigns to eradicate bullying, the Government has been bullying us all into submission.

In part, such messages indiscriminately address us all because we all are the intended recipients of the message's subtext, which is that the Government is busily chasing criminals. But such blanket accusations seem to create a self-fulfilling prophecy in the minds of those sending the message. We're not merely all potential problems in need of state intervention, we are now presumed to already be receiving it.

This must be the explanation for the letter I received from my local council, responding to my request for a council tax rebate after my tenant moved out and I began living alone. They informed me that they would need confirmation of my new living situation from "a landlord, property agent, caretaker, medical practitioner, social worker or similar person." As a property owner who is happily in good physical, mental, and social order, and hasn't required the state's assistance in the last two years, I don't have a "similar person" to a nanny, and thus will apparently be unable to prove that I am entitled to a damn refund.

Focusing so relentlessly on the segment of the population who need intervention has distorted the government's perspective: they've lost sight of the rest of us. You know, the hard-working, law-abiding, financially independent majority. The ones playing by the rules – rules increasingly designed for people who need assistance.

At this point, I start to feel rather American. America goes to the opposite extreme, assuming high-functioning citizens who rarely, if ever, require help. It is because of this assumption, for example, that intelligent well-educated Americans can argue against mandatory national health-care – a group which incidentally includes Barack Obama. America is a country predicated on the idea that we take care of ourselves. This makes us take responsibility, and means that we demand respect and basic courtesy. This is why we tell each other to have a nice day – which I have heard many a Brit describe as an unnerving, bizarre colonial custom, perhaps because their government has grown used to addressing them with a blend of condescension and contempt.

It appears from Alan Johnson's speech, and TFL's new posters of cuddly people voluntarily giving up their seats for each other, that some are finally realising that the "intelligent" way to change behaviour is encouragement, not hectoring.

Most people react badly to coercion, and punishment is a much less effective means of social conditioning than positive reinforcement. Granted, affirmation would make for some unusual social marketing: "You've worked hard, obeyed the law, done what you were supposed to: good for you! You've made us proud! Love, Her Majesty's Government." It might not be the best use of taxpayers' money, but it would make a nice change. In the meantime, I'd settle for a poster telling me to have a nice day.

The writer is a senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: .NET Developer / Web Developer

£35-45K (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a .NET Developer / Web ...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Manager - Plasma Processing

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Commercial Manager is required to join a lea...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

£18000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for your first ...

Recruitment Genius: .NET Web / Software Developer - ASP.NET

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Small and agile digital marketi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A man enjoys the  

If you really want to legalise cannabis, then why on earth would you go and get high in a park?

Peter Reynolds

No wonder 1,000 women a year are getting abortions because of extreme morning sickness. When I was suffering, my doctor said it would 'cure' me

Jo Crosby
Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders