Many people's first impression of Laurie Penny's piece on short hair has been to marvel at the ability of some feminists to see issues where none exist. But I suspect this habit is much more widespread. Many of what are widely thought to be important issues are really no such thing. For example:
- Immigration. This is probably slightly good for the economy on average, albeit with slight costs at the bottom end of the labour market. And the social effects of it, whilst moot, could be good as well as bad.
- Benefit fraud. Even if you concede that a large number of claimants are lazy and could find work, the aggregate sums involved are teeny - especially compared to the output lost as a result of the banking crisis.
For me, these are non-issues; you have to be a fact-free fanatic to claim with confidence that any of them will do massive damage. There are two reasons for this. One is that the economy and society are big and looseish networks and therefore in many ways resilient. It takes a hell of a lot to make a big difference to them. (And a lot of big changes in society arise from things which aren't much appreciated at the time.) The other is that well-being adapts to many shocks; it's stationary over the long-run. If society improves or degrades a little, we'll get used to it.
Equally, it's easy to see why people might over-inflate the importance of such issues. To take three possible reasons of (I suspect) many:
- Selection effects. People enter the political class - not just professional politicians but journalists and activists too - because they think that policy matters. The most vocal commentators are therefore selected to be biased towards over-estimating the importance of issues. This is reinforced by politicians exaggerating the differences between parties, and by the media trying to sell stories: "crisis" and "disaster" sell better than "cuts both ways" and "not much in it".
- Statistical illiteracy. The Great British Public doesn't have a scooby-doo about statistics. This means they can't even ask the most important question of any number: is that a lot or a little? This breeds a sense of disproportion.
- Ego and tribalism. The three issues I've picked (I think I could have added more) have something in common: they are bound up in questions of identity. Immigrants, "scroungers" and the rich are others.And others are threats to what Richard Sennett called our "purified identities."
Now, I don't say this to mean that all issues are unimportant. Given their strong correlations will low well-being, unemployment and poor mental health are big issues, as is global poverty. I'd add that concentrations of power are also an issue - not least because, as we saw with the banking crisis, they represent tight networks (pdf) which are potentially fragile. However, a lot of mainstream politics is just narcissistic navel-gazing. So a lot of those throwing stones at Ms Penny are doing so from glass houses.