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

Share
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

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

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: When is a baroness not a baroness? Titles still cause confusion

Guy Keleny
 

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?