Smug Alert: Our misinformed population

MisinformedTHE CREATORS of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have made a significant contribution to understanding the dynamics at play in the polarising ‘benefits’ debate that is raging in Britain.

At first glance, you may be thinking “what the hell has an obscene and offensive, albeit very funny, American adult cartoon got to do with a British debate about social welfare?” For the South Park fans amongst you, I refer to “Smug Alert!”(Season 10, episode 2); and for those who haven’t had the pleasure of viewing this episode, I shall summarise.

The episode begins with Kyle’s dad Gerald, smugly driving to the local supermarket in a new Hybrid vehicle to issue fake parking tickets that read “failure to care about the environment” to less environmentally friendly vehicles. As a result of the adverse reaction of South Park’s people to his smugness, Gerald decides to move his family to San Francisco where everyone drives a Hybrid, and where everyone also seems to actively enjoy the smell of their own flatulence.

Kyle’s best friend Stan is devastated by his departure and attempts to entice Gerald into moving back to South Park by writing a song which compels everyone to go out and buy a Hybrid. Low and behold, South Park is awash with smug people driving Hybrids. Enter Ranger McFriendly, who informs Stan that “when people drive hybrid cars, they get so full of themselves that they spew tons of self-satisfied garbage into the air”, leading to “global laming” and increased levels of “smug” (similar to smog). Meanwhile in San Francisco, Kyle has started taking acid as a way of escaping the fact that his parents enjoy the smell of their own farts.

As far as I’m aware, people with Hybrids don’t like the smell of their own farts disproportionately more than those who drive conventional vehicles, but it is the metaphor which is important here, not the act itself. People generally like to feel good about themselves and one way they do this is by comparing themselves to others, which is a big factor in the success of reality TV shows such as Jeremy Kyle, Benefits Street, and The Big Benefits Row. Not only do shows like these make people feel good about themselves however, but they also reinforce negative stereotypes about a certain group of people, namely those on social welfare.

The general feeling that one gets from watching these programmes is that all people on welfare are ‘scroungers’ who put nothing into the pot while taking with both hands. One reason why this stereotype appeals to, and resonates with so many people is that they are being asked to work harder than they possibly ever have before, for very little, if any perceived benefit. It is perfectly understandable that people will feel angry when their standards of living are going down, and they are reminded of the fact that there are people in society who do nothing but take.

A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation concluded recently, that “support for the welfare system has fallen dramatically over the last two decades”. The report also cites “Political rhetoric and media reporting” as being contributing factors in the negative image of the welfare system. I take you back to April last year, when George Osborne seized an opportunity to vilify anyone who was on social welfare by drawing conclusions from the dual fact that Mick Philpott killed six of his children, and that he was on benefits. Andy Dolan and Paul Bentley of The Daily Mail were of course in complete agreement with Mr Osborne, claiming that Mr Philpott “embodies everything that is wrong with the welfare state”.

Such representation of welfare reduces its role in society to nothing more than a withered teat, able to sustain life but only at a minimum level of fulfilment. A recent study by the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London has concluded that the general British public is factually misinformed on issues such as crime, benefit fraud and immigration. For example, while the public thought that £24 in every £100 of benefits was fraudulently claimed, it was in fact only 70 pence. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, out of all public sector fraud, benefit fraud accounts for just under £1.6 billion in total (8%), while tax fraud accounts for a whopping £14 billion (69%). In fact, out of all fraud calculated by the DWP, benefit fraud is the second lowest regarding cost to the economy (identity fraud was the lowest).

Perhaps one of the most uncharitable takes on the people of ‘Benefit Street’ came from Neil Midgley of the Telegraph, who said of one of the main characters Simba, who “was stuck in a spiral of drinking and idleness, with his last 19p eaten by the electricity meter…here was a man who, to my mind, surely deserved rock bottom”.

So what sort of society do we live in, where the poorest and most vulnerable are made scapegoats and dehumanised in popular culture? People become smug when they continuously consume images of people who they feel are inferior to themselves. This clamber for the moral high-ground is really a search for social justice, but if we want social justice, then surely we should be attacking those who are really hurting the economy, not those who are the easiest targets. Maybe Ranger McFriendly’s warning in this situation would be: “when people attack those less fortunate than themselves, they get so full of themselves that they spew tons of self-satisfied garbage into the air”, or something along those lines.