At a time the contribution business can make to help the UK economy recover is in the spotlight, Francis Stuart talks about the language of social justice and environmental sustainability, and how it can mask competing agendas.
I’ve attended a couple of events looking at the future of Scotland recently. Set in the context of Scotland’s referendum debate, these events have sought to engage public, private and third sector participants – whatever side of the fence they are on – in conversations about what kind of Scotland they’d like to live in.
One event was dominated by business leaders. In fairness, the men and women in the room were, by and large, forward-thinking and progressive. They recognised the need for greater socio-economic equality and environmental sustainability. They spoke of a ‘failed economic model’. We had positive conversations.
Who bears more risk, the businessman… or the workers?That dialogue should be encouraged. More often than not conversations with people who hold different perspectives, are positive and help broaden our horizons. Yet as the event wore on, there was something gnawing at the back of my mind. It wasn’t just who was not in the room – of course most group formats are self-selecting and unrepresentative, but it was painfully obvious that this event was dominated by white middle-aged men in suits. It was the language being used.
While social justice and environmental sustainability were spoken about, so too was the need to reward ‘risk’, encourage ‘aspiration’ and support ‘wealth creators’.
What image springs to mind when you think of a risk-taking, aspirational, wealth-creator? I suspect, generally, we think of business people.
Yet who bears more ‘risk’? Is it the businessman who gets a loan to set up a company or the workers made redundant when that firm goes bust? Is it the hedge fund manager trading on the stock market or people on low incomes who are hit hardest by austerity measures when a Government bails out the banks?
And who is the real ‘wealth creator’? Is it the tax avoiding company employing people on low pay and zero-hour contracts or the mother of two bringing up her children, volunteering with a local community group, and caring for her sick mother?
Let’s have the courage to challenge each other when the language we use is misleading…
And who is the real wealth extractor? Is it the individual receiving Â£53 a week in disability benefit or the company that buys up a business, strips it of its assets and sells it at a huge profit? Or is it the owner of an opencast coal mine who walks away from their environmental obligations to the local community in order to pay creditors?
And who suffers from a ‘poverty of aspiration’? Is it the man who gives up hope of getting a job because he realises there are 40 people applying for every job in his local area or the society that fails to invest in job-creation in post-industrial communities? Or is it the company that refuses to pay a living wage because their competitors don’t?
This is not neutral language and, deliberately or not, using it can add blame or virtue, perpetuating the discourse that we so often see coming from politicians and the media. So yes, let’s keep having conversations and moving out of our comfort zones. But let’s have the courage to challenge each other when the language we use is misleading and can mask competing agendas and power dynamics. Otherwise we will fail to address the most fundamental challenges of poverty and inequality facing our societies today.
Photo credit: Dave Straven/Flickr
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Author: Francis Stuart
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.