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

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Our exclusive client in St Albans Hertfords...

Tradewind Recruitment: KS2 Primary Teachers

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 Teachers needed in Hertfordshir...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ACCA/CIMA - St Albans, Hertfordshire

£55000 - £58000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A truly exciting opportunity has ari...

Ashdown Group: Credit Controller - London, Old Street

£25000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Credit Controller - Londo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million  

The Archers: how many sensational plot twists can it get away with?

Simon Kelner
 

Daily catch-up: winter crisis for the NHS – Miliband and Burnham don’t know how to fix it

John Rentoul
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness