Tag Archives: metaphor

Red Tape

It does appear right now that the only thing that is happening in the entire world is that the UK is having a referendum about its EU membership. I’m pretty sure this is not the case (that nothing else is happening, because we are having a referendum!), but it still feels remiss not to contribute to the debate. The topic is extensive and the EU deals with a massive range of issues, so I’ll stick to what I know and talk about woMrMessyrds.

The words I particularly want to talk about are ‘red’ and ‘tape’. How we love to sigh about bureaucracy and regulation and how everything is tied up with red tape. I always end up picturing that moment when you pull off too much sellotape and it ends up sticking to itself, and then getting worse when you try to pull it apart so you end up with a sticky useless ball of tape. And then my imagine runs on a bit until I see someone entirely wrapped in tape looking somewhat like Mr Messy.

gift-box-with-red-bowBut there are better images for red tape. My mum always used to get special sticky tape for wrapping Christmas presents, usually red with pictures of holly, to make our Christmas wrapping that bit more special. Or what about a big red bow on top of an exquisite box of chocolates or other expensive gift. Red tape doesn’t seem so bad now.

So what is all this terrible red tape from Europe that we are so desperate to free ourselves from? Perhaps we would like to rid ourselves of safety at work regulations which mean we can all have the ridiculous luxury of going to work in the morning confident that we will also come home safely and not be dead. Or perhaps we would like to abandon legislation about working hours, rests, breaks and holidays. Because we’d all like to spend more time at the office without getting properly remunerated, and we’re all keen to be treated by health professionals who haven’t slept properly, and we’d love to be driven long distances by or share the road with drivers who haven’t taken a break for hours. Maybe we’d like to reduce the safety standards attached to our food products, because it’s not that important to be confident that what we’re eating and drinking isn’t bad for us. Or perhaps it’s the environmental protections and safety standards that we’d like to dilute, because we don’t really care about having clean rivers or safe air to breath. Or finally, perhaps it’s those pesky human rights that we’re so fed up of, interfering with our right to live our life the way we want to.

First, a word about human rights. The stay/remain choice about the EU has nothing to do with human rights. The European Court of Human Rights is a wider organisation than the EU, and includes countries which are not members of the EU. We have signed up to ECHR independently of our membership of the EU. Whether we vote to stay or remain in the EU, we will still come under the ECHR. We have signed up to the highest standard of protection for our civil liberties and those of our fellow humans around us, and we will remain signed up to this whatever happens on June 23rd. So this is not red tape but a red herring.

But back to the other red tape. Or, as I prefer to see it, the red silk ribbon round the gifts of protection at work, protection of the environment, quality standards, safety standards and peace of mind. Whether we are in Europe of out of Europe, I am sure most of us would prefer to keep this kind of security, high standards for what we consume, and protection of our environment and wellbeing. And if we want to leave Europe but still trade with Europe, then everything we make to sell (both goods and services) will still have to conform to these kinds of standards, or they won’t be allowed on the European market. But instead of playing our part in setting these standards, they will, instead, be imposed on us with no say. Shall I tell you who would really like to see a watering down of the rigorous quality and safety imposed by Europe? The Americans. They’d love to be able to get at our market without having to meet our high standards. That’s what TTIP is all about – the Transatlantic Trade Partnership which the Americans are trying to negotiate with Europe, so they can impose themselves on our markets without having to comply to our standards.

So, personally, I’d rather keep my gift wrapped regulations than decide which part of our society’s health, wellbeing and safety I’m prepared to give away.

Reframing the Debate

Labour should stop talking about the deficit and talk about investment instead.

Labour has lost the argument about how to run the economy – people chose the Tory way. I think this is because essentially it sounded as though they were saying the same thing – Labour was using the Tory language. It doesn’t matter that it was saying different things, because it was using the same words. George Lakoff talks about the frames and metaphors that shape the way we see and understand the world. If what we hear doesn’t match the frame, the facts bounce off. If you refute the metaphor, you just repeat and reinforce the metaphor. When Labour says it will cut more fairly, people just hear “cut”. And who is the natural party of cuts? The Tories, of course.

Labour should use this to its advantage – reinforce that the Tory party is the party of cuts. Labour should be the party of the people. Not “working people”, or, God forbid, “hard working people”, but just people. All people are intrinsically valuable – see previous posts on this blog.

Ed Miliband missed a trick when that chap on Question Time said Labour had overspent. If I get to the weekend, he said, and I don’t have enough money for a pint, I don’t have a pint. What Ed should have asked him is what he would do if he got to the weekend and his boiler broke and he didn’t have enough money to fix it? Or his car broke down and he couldn’t work without it? Or his daughter phoned in a terrible state needing to borrow money? If he didn’t have enough money, what would he do then? Sometimes we’re doing ok and then we have to deal with unforeseen circumstances. Like the potential collapse of the banking sector.

Among many disservices from Mrs T I would place her metaphor of the country’s finance as a household budget. This is far from the truth. Running a country is more like running a business, constantly investing in its future. Virtually all countries borrow money to invest in their future. Does the UK borrow a lot? As a proportion of total income, no. But Labour borrowed less most years during its time in government than most years Mrs T was in charge. And right now, interest rates are low, borrowing is cheap. Perhaps now we should be borrowing more to invest in our future, so that we need to borrow less later when interest rates rise? Remember, our lovely Mr Osborne owes more now than at the start of his term of office.

Labour should change the framing of the discourse and talk more about investing in people. Investing in people at the start of their lives – that’s what Sure Start was all about – all but disappeared now. It should talk about investing in workers, and about asking businesses to partner with them in terms of investing in workers by paying a Living Wage. It should talk about investing in our students, abolish fees and loans, restore grants, and students could repay that investment with a graduate tax. Investing in apprenticeships. Spending on healthcare and eduations is an investment. Spending on renewable energy and energy efficiency is an investment to protect our future. Being part of the EU is an investment in our ongoing relationship with our trading partners, and our allies who help us make the world a better place. (Well, the EU has the potential to do this, for example the vote last week to stop the trade in conflict minerals.) You get the idea. Investments bring returns, and these don’t necessarily have to be material.

Labour also needs to encourage those with the means to contribute more to this investment in our country. Businesses enjoy the benefits of healthy, educated workers, peaceful society, transport and technology. Those who can, have the privilege of contributing to all this through their taxes. And Labour can level the playing field for smaller UK companies by ensuring that multi-national companies don’t hide UK profits overseas and shirk their responsibility to contribute. Clamping down on tax dodging should also help poor countries invest in their own infrastructure while we continue to suppor them while they need it by investing in overseas aid. The Tories become the party of cuts and pain. Labour becomes the party that believes in people and invests in their future.

Everything can be framed in this way – challenging the effective monopoly of energy companies, getting them to invest in renewables, public ownershop of the railways – investment. Raising revenue – enabling others to partner or share in investing in our country, supporting where it is needed. We don’t need wealth creators if they keep of of the wealth to themselves.

It’s a rather transactional metaphor. But it can be added to, framing it like the “investors in people” creditation. Labour wouldn’t just invest money, but also time. It would develop skills. It would value people, believe in them. We will see returns because people live better lives. There will be material returns too – if we believe in people they have confidence to re-enter the workplace. But we will also see returns like improved health – physical and mental, a happier more cohesive society, less crime. We need to measure more the GDP and invest in the wellbeing of our nation.

This is my offering as regards the post-election post-mortem about why Labour lost. There may be lots of other reasons, and I’m not entirely sure I’ve got alternative frame right, but I’m absolutely sure that what is really missing is a coherent alternative narrative or metaphor to pull Labour’s values and policies together. I’d love to hear your suggestions!

More thoughts on It’s not Fair

I blogged about inequality for Blog Action Day, wondering if people really thought inequality wasn’t fair, or whether people thought the poor deserve their predicament. Probably a bit of both.

This means we have got to the situation where it is possible to see inequality and think that it is fair. This bothers me. I think we need a new metaphor, so here is my offering.


Imagine a family, living in a nice house. Dad has a well-paid job and earns lots of money. He pays the mortgage and the bills and has plenty left over for gadgets and games, expensive clothes, costly sports club membership and plenty meals out with work colleagues.

Mum has a small part-time job and looks after the house. Her wages have to cover food, school uniform and expenses, and her own personal spending.

Two children earn nothing and get nothing. They are fed and clean, but their rooms are bare. They’re not allowed to play on Dad’s gadgets and have none of their own. No treats, no school trips, no clothes other than for school, a bed and that’s it.

Dad works hard and deserves to keep his hard-earned cash – the kids aren’t contributing, why should they benefit from his multi-channel TV and numerous games consoles. Mum has a bit left over from basic shopping and spends it on a few nice things for herself. She deserves her hard earned cash too, little as it is.

Unfortunately there’s been a bit of disruption to Dad’s comfortable existence. There’s a leak in the roof, the boiler only works intermittently, and the washing machine has died. Dad doesn’t see why his hard earned money should pay for things which everyone will benefit from. Mum’s wages don’t stretch that far, however fed up of the launderette she might be.

This ridiculous scenario is plainly unfair. Even though I haven’t suggested the children are mistreated, we don’t expect families to behave like this. In a family, we are in a relationship with each other. Children are not valued as economic units, but in their own right as humans and family members. Parents have responsibilities for their children and everyone has rights and responsibilities towards one another. We expect families to care and share, and not to behave selfishly.

It isn’t a big leap to apply this metaphor to our country or even to the world. Clearly, it’s a metaphor and not a policy statement. But if we thought about ourselves as part of a big family, some of our behaviour would look very differently. Ideas about how much money people deserve and how it should be distributed would change, ideas about what it means to contribute, what makes people valuable [basically, just being people]. Thinking about others as part of our family makes us responsible in some way for their wellbeing, makes us interested in their wellbeing. And failure to invest in shared infrastructure or for the common good is revealed as selfish and ultimately self-defeating.

I’m sure there are many more ways we can apply this metaphor to society – I’m just wondering what happens to children who have nothing to do all day! And ways in which the metaphor falls short or doesn’t work. But we need to tell a different story about our fellow citizens as we inhabit this world together, a story that encourages to value each other, care for each other and work together for all our wellbeing.

Archbishop Blanch Memorial Lecture

Last night I went to the Archbishop Blanch Memorial Lecture at Liverpool Hope, given by Rev Dr Sam Wells, from St Martins-in-the-Fields. It was profound, challenging and moving. I have tried to write up my notes below, though inevitably it will be subject to my own bias and interpretation and miss lots of stuff out!

We started with metaphors of poverty, which dragged me right in as I’ve done a lot of thinking about how metaphors shape the way we see the world and consequently our behaviour. Wells divided his suggested metaphors into two – deficit and dislocation. The first deficit metaphor identifies poverty as desert, were the problem is seen as one of lack of resources, and the solution is to provide more resources. The second metaphor is poverty as defeat. The understanding is that some win and some lose, the losers having been dealt a poor hand or not having made the most of their opportunities. In this metaphor, tax and welfare make things worse by reducing motivation and effort to win. The third metaphor sees poverty as a dragnet, a trap like a cat flap, which you can fall into but then can’t get out.

Wells then turned to dislocation metaphors for poverty. Firstly poverty as dungeon or prison. Here, poverty is almost seen as sin and people are held in by those with power around them, or like a prison that people put themselves in through laziness or recklessness. His second dislocation metaphor was poverty as disease, where poverty is seen as not having a human cause, but does have a human remedy. It can be ‘picked up’ from those around us and the problem lies in relationships and society, and can even afflict the rich. (This reminded me of the thesis of “The Spirit Level”, that inequality detrimentally affects all parts of society, not just the poor.) The final suggested metaphor was poverty as desolation, which seems to focus more on symptoms than causes. It suggests a state of having not trusting relationships, where people are vulnerable to exploitation from those around them.

In summary, deficit metaphors focus on lack of resources, while dislocation metaphors focus on a breakdown of relationships. Each suggests different solutions are appropriate to the problem.

Wells then moved onto an analysis of what is fundamentally wrong with the human condition – what is the fundamental problem of human existence? Wells’s thesis is that our culture believes our fundamental problem to be mortality, or more widely, to be limitation. Our culture celebrates anyone who can overcome limitation, from athletes to scientists, in medicine and in technology. This is described as seeking our freedom and is packaged and commodified as creating choice. The deficit metaphors work with this view of mortality as the fundamental problem and see poverty as a constraint on freedom (like Amartya Sen?).

But Wells questioned this assumption and asked us to consider the possibility that mortality is not the fundamental problem but rather isolation. Then, the solution would not lie in what do not have, but in what we do have – each other. To illustrate this, Wells asked us why Christians want people to be saved. In essence it is to save people from hell. But what is so great about heaven? It is not so much about eternal being, but about being with, otherwise we would just be alone forever, which is surely a definition of hell. There is no value in being unless it is being with. If isolation is our problem, then the solution lies in the restoration of relationships and community. The church, Wells said, calls this ‘communion’. The dislocation metaphors of poverty work with this view of the fundamental problem of humanity, and see the problem as the breakdown of relationships, the under-use and abuse of one another, rather than the problem of scarcity.

How, then, does all this inform how we engage with poverty. Wells gave us as an example an encounter with a homeless person in Trafalgar Square. He suggested that there are four models of engagement with poverty, four ways to react. One reaction would be to get the person off the street into accommodation and employment by supporting shelters, lobbying politicians and providing food and clothing. This model he called ‘working for’. The second response could be to come alongside the person, take them to a shelter, find out their needs and point them in the direction of services which could meet those needs. This he called ‘working with’. A third response would be to take the person for coffee, share conversation and be genuinely interested in that person and their views, especially their expertise in their own experience. This, he said, was ‘being with’. Finally, the response could be to get angry and go home and write a blog about the injustice and to rail against the dehumanising language used to diminish homeless people. This he called ‘being for’. I spend a lot of time being for!

Later, Wells went on to say that each model has its place and brings about good things. But at this point in his talk he discussed some of the short-comings of each model. Working for tends to be the default option, the professionals’ model. It wants to fix the problem and sees things in terms of solutions. Being for is similar to working for but tends to see the problem as being fixed by someone else – “something must be done”. The trouble with being or working for is that it is not necessary to actually interact at all with (in this example) the homeless person.  The homeless person is not engaged in finding the solution and anyway, who wants to view themselves as a problem?

Working with and being with actually involve interaction with the person who is homeless. The homeless person is at the heart of the interaction and there is a recognition that there is no transformation without agency. However, even working with is still looking at ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’. Being with doesn’t start with a problem, unless that problem is me scurrying passed the homeless person in Trafalgar Square. It starts with wonder and abundance, recognising the other person as the source of my salvation, and not with absence and what we have not. It is not about fixing but receiving, not assuming a script imposed from elsewhere, but actually talking and sharing about what is really important to the other person [and to myself, I want to add, if this is a genuine conversation].

Wells then brought us to a theological reflection and anchor for all of this, which I didn’t manage to capture all of in my notes. He started by asking what God’s view of the world might be – a problem to be solved, or a gift to enjoy – deficit or dislocation. Was the incarnation to fix our mortality or to overcome our isolation? The incarnation itself demonstrates that it is not enough for God to be for us, God’s purpose is to be with us, dwelling among us. Christ is with us even to the extent that it meant, momentarily, that he was not with God. Wells looked at Jesus as a model for us. Jesus worked with his disciples, teaching, encouraging, demonstrating. And he worked for us on the cross. But this amounts to only 10% of his life. What about the other 30 years in Nazareth, glossed over in the Gospels, which Jesus spent simply being with us. The incarnation echoes creation and anticipates heaven.

It is easy to default to working for when we want solutions, to right wrongs. Wells described being on the receiving end of ‘working for’ as diminishing and humiliating, but that at times we are happy to submit to the humiliation at the hands of the expert in order to address a crisis, giving the example of submitting to a dentist when we have toothache. But beyond the crisis, he maintained, we need to be with. Working with is closer to God’s way, increasing agency and partnership like Jesus did with his disciples. But being with releases each individual – the centre of the church’s mission is being with the stranger.

Wells described the modern world as the tussle between liberty and equality – both noble but ultimately only means to an end. Where (for want of a less masculine word) is fraternity? It is neglected but should be our goal. Sadly and ironically, initiatives which start with our deficit and assume mortality is our problem lead to solutions which increase isolation. Poverty is not the absence of money or power, but of relationship breakdown, which is what diminishes human dignity. Working for is rather like building a better world without becoming better people. We need to be with people and restore relationships. Sometimes this is hard because it is painful and costly as we face up to our own need. The example that touched me was of a parent with a child. It is easy for parents to cook dinner, tie shoelaces and pack school bags, however much we moan about it – working for. But how much harder it is to notice that there is something not right and sit with the child for half an hour while they can’t articulate what happened in the playground, and to be with the child until the words come and the problem can be brought into the open and the tears flow.