How come the less something is a problem, the more people talk about it?

The less something is a problem, the more people talk about it

27 June 2020

9:00 AM

27 June 2020

9:00 AM

It might seem puzzling that we have seen such a furore about racism and racial discrimination at this particular time in our history when all possible measures of racism indicate that there is less of it in Britain than at any time in the past 70 years.

A decade ago, 41 per cent of us ‘-strongly agreed’ that we would be content for our children to marry someone of a different race. That has now risen to 70 per cent. In 2006, 55 per cent ‘strongly disagreed’ that you had to be white to be ‘truly British’. That has risen to 84 per cent.

It may surprise many that blacks are more likely to go to university than whites by 41 per cent to 31 per cent, although it is true that only 9 per cent go to Russell Group universities compared with 12 per cent of whites.

White boys wear football shirts with the names of their black heroes on their back: Marcus Rashford or, at the club I follow, Wilfred Zaha. Boos and monkey noises once heard from the crowd have — with a few exceptions — been replaced by cheers.

What is the explanation for the outburst of agitation about racism now when there is so much less of it? The trigger for the demonstrations was, of course, the horrible killing of George Floyd. But beneath the surface, something else is going on. It is a repeated phenomenon in human behaviour: the less something is a problem, the more people talk about it, demonstrate about it and show their concern for it.

I first noticed this phenomenon with regard to poverty. I was researching the long-term history of poverty and welfare provision in Britain. In the Middle Ages, dozens of famines took place. In 1235, for example, some 20,000 Londoners starved to death. Many resorted to eating tree bark in their attempts to survive. The Canterbury Tales, the most famous piece of literature of the Middle Ages, was written at around this time. I looked up how many times the word ‘poverty’ appeared in it: a mere 25 times.

By the 17th century, standards of living in Britain had improved but famines still took place, and peasants, who were the majority of the population, lived in unheated hovels with no running water. So how often did Shakespeare refer to ‘poverty’ in his plays? Only 24 times.

Our standard of living has improved enormously since then. The inflation–adjusted average salary has risen from £3,000 in 1855 to £25,000. Fewer than 1 per cent of households are without a television because they can’t afford one. Holidays abroad, mobile phones and obesity are all commonplace. Of course, there are still people struggling to get by, but poverty — as understood 100 years and more ago — is drastically reduced. You might think that this would result in the use of the word ‘poverty’ fading away in modern times. On the contrary, in a single year, it was mentioned in 1,307 speeches in the House of Commons, often multiple times. As poverty has diminished, ostensible concern about it has increased enormously.

It is the same with the oppression of women. In the Victorian era, women did not have the right to sue or to vote. When they married, they became virtually the property of their husbands. Marital rape was legal. The woman’s property became that of the man. For middle- and upper-class women, a career was all but impossible.

The subservient position of women then was, to modern eyes, a scandal and yet the relatively few people who spoke out against it were regarded as cranks kicking against the right and proper working of society. Eventually, the women’s suffrage movement built up and belatedly women got the vote and the right to own property and so on. Since the 19th century, discrimination against women has been enormously reduced. We have had two women prime ministers. Women are prominent on our televisions and newspapers. There are more women solicitors than men. It is true that they are less prominent in business, but boards scurry around, desperate to find some to appoint. Compared with the 19th century, the position of women has improved beyond recognition.

Despite this, no day passes without BBC Radio 4 referring in one way or another to discrimination against women. If no such example readily comes to hand in modern Britain, it will refer to discrimination in the past or in other countries. There is a kind of determination to talk about it more.

And so we have this phenomenon. You could call it the ‘controversy paradox’ or, immodestly, Bartholomew’s Law. But why does it happen?

My theory is that initially such injustices are part of the fabric of society. They have developed for historic reasons that might or might not be identifiable. Then times have changed and the original reasons have faded. A few voices are heard objecting to the status quo but they are regarded as mad or bad. Gradually more people come to the same viewpoint and, amid controversy, adjustments are made. In the next stage, the vast majority agree with the change. People feel they must show that they are in tune with the modern, enlightened approach. It is a mixture of virtue–signalling and conforming. Finally a dictatorial stage may be reached when it is demanded that everyone must submit to the new creed. Every Premier League footballer has been required to wear ‘Black Lives Matter’ on his shirt and ‘take the knee’. It would be immensely brave to refuse. It is as compulsory as going to church once was in parts of Europe.

Instead of expending so much energy on problems that are far smaller than they once were, we should move on to issues which are still treated as eccentric but which deserve more attention. My personal choice would be the plight of the Uighurs in China who are effectively being kept in concentration camps. The Premier League footballer I would really admire would be one who wore a shirt with the words ‘Uighur Lives Matter’.

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