Every so often, the issue of poverty elbows its way into the national conscience. For a few hours, at least. Yesterday, Annunziata Rees-Mogg popped up to tell everyone that, really, food poverty is a myth because you can buy a bag of potatoes for 59p. Jack Monroe laid waste to that train of thought in a savagely beautiful piece that reeked of lived reality in a way that, for me, really brought home some truths that I hadn’t really considered before. I enjoy cooking frugally (recently pleased as punch with myself for finding a ‘medium’ chicken in Aldi that was actually bigger than a ‘large’ chicken, but 50p less, and then turned it into about 5 meals – a Sunday dinner, a stir fry, bubble and squeak, a salad, and some soup) but it’s an option for me: an enjoyable exercise to see how much mileage I can get from a £2.49 chicken. Despite losing my £47,000 a year job 18 months ago and starting my own precarious business, my household income (thanks, Mrs C!) is still just in the top third of the income distribution chart, I’m halfway towards owning my house outright, there are two cars on the driveway and I’m writing this in my conservatory, looking out over my garden – which is messy, but indisputably a nice place to sit in the sun.
But it made me think of another type of poverty. It is a type of poverty endured by Ms. Rees-Mogg. poverty of the mind.
Mostly, we humans are empathetic in person. It isn’t enough to say that Rees-Mogg is ‘unfeeling’ or ‘callous’. That is just to dehumanise her. In reality, I’m sure she is kind to her friends and family and loves her kids and cats as deeply as anyone else might. If she was to see someone drowning in her moat, I doubt very much that she’d just shrug it off and would do everything in her power to save them. She is probably passionate about various causes and charities. These things are the connective tissues that bind almost all of us; natural human empathy.
In fact, the exceptions are so extreme that we have categories for them: psychopaths and sociopaths. Humans born without any of the natural traits of empathy are the ones who casually commit murder or societal devastation without feeling the slightest pang of remorse for their victims or their loved ones. Their universe is exceptionally small: a single circle made up of their own needs and experiences, set discretely apart from all other existences so that those existences mean no more to them than an Austin Allegro means to a goose.
But, most of the discourse from Nice People On Twitter is this: Rees-Mogg is essentially a psychopath because She Doesn’t Understand Other People’s Lives. I get it – it’s a neat bow in which to tie up the package of your world view. Tories are Evil (with a capital E!) so there is no need to engage with them or their ideas – simply dismiss them. Never kiss a Tory. Unfriend your dad on Facebook because he reposted a Tory thinkpiece. And this is without even going down the rabbit hole of Brexit.
Except this is a pathology of its own, and it lead down that very rabbit hole. You might want to strap in.
Poverty of the mind is the inability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s writ large in Rees-Mogg’s thing about the potatoes. “I simply do not understand,” she muses, “how one cannot afford 53p for potatoes.” Without thinking, she has displayed a poverty of the mind. It is a trait that cannot imagine a world in which someone doesn’t have a cooker. Or has a cooker but has been cut off from their electricity or gas because they couldn’t afford the bills. Or that someone might not have time or inclination to stand around a hob for twenty minutes because they do not finish work until 8 at night having started at 8 in the morning. Or might have disabilities that turn a simple task like picking up a pan, filling it with water, carrying it to the hob, peeling the potatoes etc into the work of hours (or simply render it impossible).
And even allowing for all of this, it still begs the question: are boiled potatoes my tea forever then now?
For a poverty of the mind doesn’t allow that people would like other things than just boiled potatoes. They might aspire to chips (cooking oil, a separate pan), or roasties (an oven, oil, even more time). Or even something else to go with them: chicken, mince, cheese. All things that add complexity to our lives, yet enrich them in their simple pleasure. Does Rees-Mogg dine on cheap boiled potatoes every night? No. She does not.
So we can agree on this, right? It isn’t that Rees-Mogg is inherently evil – just that she lacks the mental tools (or the experience) to understand that all lives are not like hers. It could be that she is borderline psychopathic, but it’s more likely that she simply hasn’t the imagination to think about what life might be like for someone not born in her place.
Good. We’re probably on the same page about now, right?
So, how do you think it feels for a single mum in those kind of circumstances – struggling day to day to survive – when you tell her that voting for Brexit was stupid means she’s losing the right to live and work in 27 other countries?
Think about that for a second. A woman who can barely feed herself and her kids, who probably lives day to day on a minimum wage job, topped up (if she’s lucky!) by some kind of suspicious, labyrinthine benefits that are laden with booby traps, hidden in a miasma of paperwork. And she is told, day after day, that she is losing the right to… what? To find work in Italy as a web designer? To a second home in the Dordogne?
On the one hand, your calculation is correct: she’s definitely losing that right. But on the other, you might as well be telling her she’s lost her right to have her own swimming pool through her own stupidity. Are you being any less understanding than Rees-Mogg?
Another, more contentious example: immigration. We all know that on some instinctive level that abundance equals cheapness. Aldi sell millions of loaves of white bread for 35p because they have huge machines to do the labour, an automated supply chain, and the power of bulk buying to command good prices on wheat. On the other hand, you can buy a handmade sourdough bread for £3.95 in Waitrose because, well, it’s handmade – with none of those advantages. Nissans are cheap because they churn them out by the million. But Ferraris are expensive because they make only a few thousand a year. There are a couple of hundred people who are skilled enough to play football in the Premiership, but almost anyone can work in a Greggs – so a footballer earns millions, while you have to settle for a 15% staff discount.
Now apply the same logic to people. Again, put yourself in the place of that single mum struggling with a minimum wage job and benefits. How do you tell her that additional 200-300,000 people a year coming into the country will improve her wage or her benefits, when from her perspective all those people provide extra competition for a limited number of jobs and decreasing pot of benefits? Tell her she’s a racist for worrying about that? Point to GDP?
Now, it could be that you fully understand macroeconomics, or that she is actually a total racist, but could it be that you have a poverty of the mind when it comes to her?
You can argue fully and comprehensively that the Government and society has drifted down the wrong path for a long time but in the end it is people like her at the sharp end. A big red button was placed in front of them marked “this will change everything, please don’t press it.” And it should have surprised nobody that, by the million, people pressed the button.
Too pointed an example? Here’s a more subtle and timely one: tell her that the government should keep the schools, pubs and shops closed for longer because of Covid-19. People should work from home because a lot of jobs can be these days.
Now let’s say that our imaginary single mum (and be sure she isn’t imaginary at all) has a job cleaning one of those offices that suddenly aren’t needed. You’re right! A web designer or an accountant can easily work from their sofa. Maybe the company could probably save a packet by closing half the office down and putting their core staff on flexible working. It’s the only thing to do while waiting for a vaccine right? So a natural offshoot of that is that she’s either not needed at all, or is suddenly on half hours.
Is your own imagination up to the idea of telling her that this just the new normal? That she should suck it up. Or that the government is “putting the economy before lives” by trying to encourage people to return to some kind of normality? Because that’s what a lot of people seem to thoughtlessly do, every day on Twitter. Tell her she’ll be OK if she buys one of your handmade £8 facemasks on Etsy. Go ahead.
Do you, in your heart of hearts, really believe that the Government can put the whole country on sick leave indefinitely? Is it that simple?
Now tell her that the ten year old diesel car she uses to get to work is an environmental hazard. She’s choking the streets with her emissions. She’s damaging the planet. She’s thoughtlessly making the world dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians, and contributing to the terrible traffic that plagues the city. It’s making her fat because she’s not getting any exercise! Her own kids are breathing in toxic chemicals and getting lazy when she does the school run. She should cycle the 11 miles to her cleaning job on a morning.
Every few weeks she scrapes together enough money to go the pub with her friend for a couple of pints. Tell her the pub should be closed. Tell her that Wetherspoons is bad because its cheap prices are predicated on labour exploitation. Tell her the boss doesn’t care about his workers. Tell her that alcohol is bad for her anyway. Tell her what a scumbag she is for risking other people’s lives by going to the pub while People Are Still Dying.
Now. Tell her that she has a poverty of the mind. She doesn’t understand the hardships faced by transgender folk. Or gay people. Or the elderly. Or the young. She should educate herself to think differently. That she should read about black history. That she is privileged because of her race.
Now. I’m saying that any of this is or isn’t true. The world is a complex, chaotic place, and we are ruled far more by our hearts than our heads. What I do think though, is that social media is increasing the poverty of our minds. Instead of reflecting at length on our own shortcomings, we spend a lot of time thinking about other people’s shortcomings. It’s easy to find a hate figure in the likes of Annunziata Rees-Mogg, or one of the many incoherent Twitter folk with their football team biography, flags and the rest. It’s much harder to imagine why they are in this place, or how we might view the world if we were in their shoes. It’s much much easier to quote tweet them and invite our clever mates round to enjoy a good public shaming.
Unfortunately, this is a place that too many of us who consider ourselves to be compassionate and probably of the left (and on the ‘right side of history’), have found ourselves.
But, perhaps, it’s time to ask: do we too suffer from poverty of the mind?