Emotional cleansing or ‘Oops, your metaphor’s slipped’

Fluff over substance

I have a confession. While I have reservations about the current policy on social housing, that’s not what this piece is about.

Fluff over substance

I have a confession. While I have reservations about the current policy on social housing, that’s not what this piece is about. Andrew Stunell has written compellingly about our policy http://www.libdemvoice.org/mythbusting-what-the-coalitions-plans-for-houses-really-mean-21707.html as has Dominic Curran http://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-council-housing-our-role-in-its-downfall-21686.html.

All I’ll say is that successive Labour and Tory governments have failed abysmally over the last thirty years to invest in affordable housing. They’ve helped exacerbate social and community division, inflate housing price bubbles and distort the economy and our attitudes to wealth. Unwittingly or not, they are the architects of the ghetto. So if you’re interested in the substance of the argument, click away now. This article is all about the fluff.

A hall of metaphorical mirrors?

The fluff in question is the metaphor of ‘sociological cleansing’ that Labour has been using to  characterise the impact of the planned changes on housing benefit. In a Hall of Metaphorical Mirrors, it’s a particularly savage distorting glass. Chris Bryant seized it and used it to thump the Coalition on Tuesday in the House of Commons. However, Nick Clegg stamped on the metaphor with genuine passion and a cool-headed, factual rebuttal, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-11627021

So that’s that over. Dust off hands. Job done.

Sticky, smeary stuff

Only not quite. Because the smear has stuck. In a war of words, the numbers lack traction. The only memorable phrase in the fight has been the “socially engineered and sociologically cleansed out of London". Take a look at http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/oct/27/government-committed-to-housing-benefit-cap?CMP=twt_gu or http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/london-will-be-as-segregated-as-paris-after-cuts-2117472.html. Depending on your allegiances, you’ll either cling to the metaphor or reject it. But it has defined the argument emotionally -- towards or away from cleansing. For those of us who feel that Chris Bryant has indulged in (skillfully) grotesque hyperbole, it’s galling to have to admit that we’re operating in the emotional landscape that Labour and he have created.

Refreshing the parts other images cannot reach

Where Bryant has been particularly skillful is in refreshing an existing idea so that it has the maximum ‘stickiness’ In the same way that ‘Education, education, education’ was brilliant, because it refreshed the over-familiar phrase, “Location, location, location”, Bryant’s “sociologically cleansed” echoes “ethnically cleansed”. Huge ‘over-simplification warning’ here, but neurological research suggests that the way we form new memories most easily is by adapting existing neural patterns. If it’s a totally new idea, it’s harder for our brains to attach it to existing synaptic patterns. Totally old and it doesn’t register (As an aside, where Bryant’s been less successful is in lumping the two adjectival phrases together - it’s not as simple and memorable as one or other would have been standing alone).

Brainwashing - the boil wash

So can we remove Labour’s distorting lens? The more rational parts of us might suggest that Nick has already done the job with his "Does he really think it's wrong for people who can't afford to live privately in those areas that the state should subsidise people to the tune of more than £21,000? I don't think so." But the more emotionally savvy parts of us know that this is not enough. We need our own metaphor, image or story that cleanses the cleansing image. This is not to substitute well-thought out policy for sound-bites; It is about redressing the media imbalance

To start the ball rolling – and these are illustrative, rather than definitive –  how about, “Affordable housing means affordable for all.”, “Housing that helps the homeless, not the landlords”, “Public housing, not private landlords”,  Now your turn. But keep it clean.

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