I had a slight online altercation with Johann Hari on Twitter earlier this week. Altercation is probably too strong a word, more like I insinuated that his stance was slightly foolish, he attempted to justify it and then he ignored me. Quite right too. I have to confess to a shred of disappointment that I didn’t join that elite band of Tweeps who he has blocked – “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”…
Mr Hari had, in his infinite wisdom, exhorted his followers to join a Facebook group entitled, “I would happily sacrifice my married couples’ tax allowance to save the EMA”.
The logic behind it being that EMA currently costs the treasury £500 million per annum with the proposed married couples’ tax allowance estimated at £550 million per annum. I don’t feel particularly inclined to discuss the EMA issue, other than to note that it seemed like a charming piece of naivety to assume that the coalition who are ideologically opposed to EMA, faced with an electorate who were declining a potential tax benefit, would say, “you know what, not many of our voters are that interested in receiving their £150 per annum, so let’s just keep the EMA after all”. They’d still cut EMA regardless.
The other point that this group failed to grasp was that the £150 a year, which they quantify in terms of buying married couples a Big Mac a week between them, compared to the resources needed to attend FE, is not about providing a financial incentive to marriage. What David Cameron appears to be wishing to do, is to provide married couples with a reward, for society to grant some recognition, no matter how small, to the contribution that marriage makes to society. Whether or not this is some sort of misguided sop to attempt to appease his core voters as well as an attempt to give a nod to the religious communities who all strongly advocate marriage, particularly in terms of being the most stable environment in which to bring up children, is a matter of conjecture. Whether or not it is a worthwhile use of resources is an entirely different matter and one on which people may draw their own conclusions.
The opposition would do well to avoid claims that it’s an attempt to bribe people to get married or stay in abusive relationships; £150 will probably buy you a wedding cake and marriage licence, but that’s about it, certainly not enough to make couples commit to marriage in their droves. Equally no woman suffering from domestic abuse is likely to be swayed to stay in that relationship by the offer of £150. Many women in those situations (and I am loath to employ generalisations on this topic) are not likely to be in control of their finances and thus £150 will make no odds. I should imagine that when fleeing one’s home to a refuge with your children, taking the bare essentials, that lost £150 or Big Mac per week is going to be the last thing on one’s mind. What many detractors to the Married Couples’ Tax Allowance are against, is the idea that society might reward or recognise marriage as being the ideal, which conflicts with their personal ideology and situation and allegedly “judges” those who are not married. If the Opposition are going to fight this, they need to make a serious economic case, instead of anti-marriage rhetoric and talk of forcing women to stay in dangerous relationships. There needs to be dialogue about whether or not this would amount to unfair penalisation of single mothers and whether or not the government should legislate for private morality; not reduce the argument to a banal statement about whether or not married couples need an extra burger a week, side-stepping the entire issue.
The group itself is disingenuous in its objectives, and Johann Hari short-sighted in promoting it. When I probed him on it, he unsurprisingly patronised me by informing me that it was in the Tory party manifesto and that I needed to do some research on it. Rightyho then Johann, let’s just assume that most folk on Twitter expressing some sort of political opinion didn’t bother to acquaint themselves with party manifestos. Given that there currently is no Married Couples’ Tax Allowance for the under 75s, it is simply being discussed as a possibility in the next budget, it seems rather daft to be renouncing something that you don’t actually have. Makes you look, dare I suggest, a touch stupid.
My other niggle was that given Johann Hari is neither married or in a civil partnership, I take umbrage at him strongly suggesting that people should volunteer to relinquish a tax benefit that he himself would not be party to. “I want you to give up your extra £150 for students in FE, but I’m not going to because I don’t get it anyway”. Although, if I’m honest, I’d probably bristle at any well-paid commentator for a national newspaper telling me to give up money, given that I’m in less of a position to be able to afford it. The statement lacked integrity. His response to this was “but my taxes are going to be used to pay the new subsidy”. Sorry to let you in on a teensy wee secret Johann but death and taxes are a fact of life and there will always be disagreement as to how taxes will be spent. I’m also a taxpayer and there are plenty of things that I cannot abide my taxes going on. A democracy elects a government whom they hope will best represent their wishes on how to spend taxes and manage the economy, amongst other things.
The aspect that riled me the most however, was the attempt to rally political activism by means of a Facebook group. Don’t get me wrong, the internet and social media are extraordinarily useful tools in building online communities, gathering together support and fellowship and hopefully building coherent groups, but they are only a part of the story, only part of the armory in achieving real social and political change, no matter what one’s cause or ideology. To rely too heavily on the internet, be it blogs, social media, or both in combination is to waste opportunity. Though I find Twitter immensely useful in terms of keeping abreast of developments and in forming useful relationships and finding Catholic fellowship; one major drawback, is that too much time reading a liturgical blog can, if one is not careful, detract one from reading the source material itself. One picks up bite size chunks of this and that, without ever reading the text in its entirety, meaning that one is unable to form critical judgements, only gleaning from the opinions of others.
Reliance solely upon social media, risks, as the Pope said this week in his message for the 45th World Communications Day, enclosing ourselves in a parallel universe, and must not replace authentic human encounters. In terms of political or social activism, it can encourage laziness. In terms of spirituality it must not replace prayer or meditation, instead providing aids, such as the Universalis application, for example.
If we examine how social change has come about throughout history, it has been through cogent protest, demonstration and activism. What has had more impact, the student demonstrations and occupations, or an online protest group with say 1,000 members? It’s one thing to spout polemic on the internet, another thing to actually get up and do something, whether that be to protest, or to practically help those in need, instead of simply talking about them. Same applies for Christian spirituality. It’s not enough to go to Church every week, you need to actually live your faith by word and deed, proclaim and live the Gospel, not just tick the weekly Mass obligation box.
It is not enough to simply click “like” or “join” on a social media group and feel like you’ve done your job, if change is what you desire. The internet is not “the means of human emancipation”.
Which is why, Johann Hari, I found your exhortations more than a little lame.