After three appearances, I’ve decided The Big Questions is harmful and exploitative

After three appearances, I’ve decided The Big Questions is harmful and exploitative March 30, 2015

I was on the telly yesterday. It was my third appearance on BBC1’s The Big Questions, which means that Twitter has finally tired of making jokes about my hair. As usual, my Twitter timeline after the show was full of appreciative Tweets and new followers, and I’m sure the same was true for my debating opponents. That’s the way the show works: people tune in to listen the people they agree with, shout at the people they don’t, and have their prejudices confirmed. And that’s why I’m not sure if I’d do the show again. Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 23.57.36 I like Nicky Campbell. We sort of know each other now, so we ended up chatting about interesting stuff before the show more than preparing for my contribution. He told me something interesting:

“People come up to me and ask, ‘Why do you have these extreme Christians on your show all the time? Where do you find them?’ You know where we find them? Everywhere. There are a lot of them in this country.”

Since public opinion in this country is so widely against Born Again Christianity, the show’s format suits me. I let the God squad embarrass themselves for a while, stick in a fairly obvious objection, and Humanists on Twitter cheer for me. The audience is mostly on my side because if they were Born Again Christians they’d be in church at 10:00 on a Sunday.

The same format that works for me makes The Big Questions an appalling forum for political debate, though. By appearing on the show I am tacitly endorsing its validity, and I suspect the show does more harm than good. I’ve been on three times, and every time there have been people present with ludicrous views. The first time, there were women who didn’t want sex education for primary school children because (they said) this would result in six-year-olds being shown pornography.

Yesterday, there were nothing but extremists on the other side of the panel. The first question was “Have benefit sanctions worked?”  and we heard from people willing to defend cutting off people’s benefits for being five minutes late to an interview. Next was “Are we right to impose environmental costs on future generations?” and they had no less than three people arguing that we should just let future generations suck up the consequences of climate change. Two of the panelists more than hinted at climate change denialism—getting close enough that I accused the BBC of false balance for having them on. One of the science deniers took a passive-aggressive swipe at me on Twitter for that:

Every time I’ve been on the show, the nutters have spoken first. This means they get to frame the terms of the debate, leaving the opposition on the back foot. The limited time allowed for each debate means that much of what they say goes unchallenged. It also means that, as a guest, the best way to get your message across is to go in knowing what you plan to say and wait for an opportunity to shoehorn in your point. It almost guarantees the panelists are not listening to each other.

Further, balancing the number of people does not guarantee that each side gets an equal hearing. Apart from getting the opportunity to speak first, the loud men opposite me on Sunday were not blessed with self-awareness. One of them, John Bird, was a man for whom the term ‘blowhard’ might have been invented. He can hold forth with equal unsubtlety on any subject, his voice never once suggesting he has ever even considered he could be wrong. He sat in the middle, both physically and rhetorically occupying the centre. When he shouted “We need to stop listening to the left and to the right,” both his location and his refusal to shut up finished the sentence for him, and listen to me.* I found it impossible to listen to him without thinking of Bertrand Russell’s line:

Bertrand Russell
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” —Bertrand Russell

His views, however, were not so much wrong as they were boorishly delivered. This cannot be said of the trio to his right—Ben Harris-Quinney, Tim Newark, and Andrew Montford. While privileged old men opposite me mouthed off about the undeserving poor, Dr Frances Ryan sat to my left, doing her bit to save the planet by emitting only a fraction of the carbon dioxide her male counterparts were spewing. She had both expertise and experience of the subjects at hand, but because she didn’t shout as loud, she made only a small contribution. The BBC researchers might have made sure there were equal numbers of panelists on each side of the debate, but that didn’t mean they were equally heard.

In the first debate, “Have benefit sanctions worked?” the sneering men had a double advantage, because they were echoing a view peddled by the majority of Britain’s newspapers, that of people on benefits as lazy scroungers. This gave their arguments the benefit of familiarity, which made them seem more plausible. Their arguments contained many assumptions that went entirely unchallenged. The speakers delivered them without argument, as though they were self-evident facts. And since they went unchallenged, the possibility that there might be other valid opinions was simply absent from the debate. Here are some notions that came up, implicitly if not explicitly, with little or no suggestion there could be another way of seeing the world:

(1) Nobody has the right to get something for nothing

There is only one class of people we say this about—the poor. Some people in this country inherit vast wealth (in some cases, money has been in the family for generations and isn’t even the result of their parents’ work). They have got something for nothing, yet this does not make them the object of derision. Some business owners have no hand whatsoever in the day-to-day running of their company, and simply take the profits at the end of the month. They are literally getting something for nothing, and few question the rightness of this. Yet if the poor receive benefits for not working, this apparently makes them contemptible. Why?

(2) Being on benefits is a trap. Many people perfectly capable of normal employment stay on benefits for life, and sometimes this crosses generations so that entire families are ‘stuck on benefits’.

In another world, this might be seen as an argument for increasing benefits. After all, few people would see it as a trap if being on benefits gave you an income on which to live. (This, of course, would be much worse because then people would be getting a lot for nothing). Anyway, where are these people? We hear this narrative constantly, but where’s the evidence that this is a widespread phenomenon? Those paid to know such things tell us they represent a tiny proportion of benefits claimants. Ben Harris-Quinney (one of the sneering privileged white men) did concede that sometimes benefits are cut off wrongly, mentioning the person who had missed an interview because of a heart attack and also admitting that some people had died as a result of similar decisions. But, he insisted, you cannot make policy based on these exceptional cases. No one addressed the blinding hypocrisy of this position. He wants us to make policy based on the few exceptional cases of lifelong benefits claimants, but ignore the few exceptional cases where people have actually died.

(3) To be a valuable member of society, you have to be in paid employment

If someone is on benefits, it is assumed they are not doing anything worthwhile, that they are not  contributing to society. Why? You could be on benefits and making art or volunteering for charity. You could be raising children. You might be writing a novel or playing a musical instrument. You could be doing extensive home study and learning all about the world. These are not usually things you can make a living from, but someone doing those things could most certainly be making our society a happier and better place. They have value. Meanwhile, many old working class jobs no longer exist, either because Britain no longer needs those jobs or because they are now done by machines. As a result, many of the jobs that do exist as alternatives to claiming benefits are pointless non-jobs created because of our dogma that people must be ‘contributing to the economy’, and apparently data entry is a better way to do that than, say, caring for elderly relatives.

On the face of it, my last two points may seem to contradict each other. In (2), I am arguing that there are not many people who are on benefits for life. In (3), I am arguing that some people might be better off on benefits for life rather than working. But even if (3) is true, (2) could still factually be the case. It’s especially likely to be the case in a society that stigmatises benefit claimants.

(4) The economy is the most important thing in politics

Which scumbag invented this view and why did we accept it? The economy is a human invention. It exists to serve us. Surely the only reason to try to increase the wealth of a country is to improve life for its citizens. If the pursuit of wealth makes many people’s lives worse, it is not doing its job.

This assumption came to the fore in the second debate, “Are we right to impose environmental costs on future generations?”. The answer, according to those who said that we should not waste our money on green energy policies, was that it was more important to pass on wealth to the next generation than to attempt to prevent climate change. The use of ‘wealth’ in opposition to the environment is interesting here—it implies that a flourishing environment does not count as wealth. It was argued that it’s more important to pass on a thriving economy than sustainable energy policy. What this entirely failed to acknowledge is that money has no inherent value. It is an arbitrary system of tokens that we all agree to use to purchase goods. These goods are only available because we have a suitable environment. Without a flourishing environment, there is no such thing as wealth.

You might notice that I was on this show, so if I’m unhappy these views were not aired, at least part of the blame must lie with me and the panelists with similar opinions, all of whom were sat (perhaps not coincidentally) on the left of the set. At the same time, there were a number of factors militating against making these points successfully. The first problem is that the above points were not made explicitly anything like so much as they were implied. In a rapid-fire TV debate, it’s difficult to challenge implicit assumptions. You have to quote what exactly has been said and then demonstrate why it implies the assumption you wish to challenge. That kind of nuance doesn’t come across well in a show that thrives on soundbites.

The second is that the debaters took these assumptions for granted. They are apparently self-evidently true—so obviously the case that no one bothers to supply an argument for them. Any challenge to them therefore sounds absurd. Of course being on benefits is bad. Of course a thriving economy is crucial to a successful country. Of course money is important. Of course everybody has to have a job, and of course the kind of work that is usually unpaid doesn’t count. An alternative is unthinkable. It was the same in my Christian school. There would have been no point in saying, “Hey, what if there is no God?” because to everyone listening, that was just crazy on the face of it. It’s the same on The Big Questions. Yesterday at least, one set of political ideas was so dominant that suggesting they might be wrong was to invite ridicule.

I’m not saying that my brief responses to these assumptions are right or flawless. I am aware of reasonable counterarguments. I am simply saying that it is not really a debate at all if some ideas which ought to be contentious are treated as uncontroversial. When assumptions are not explicit, they are invisible. They ought to be problematic. The opposite views may not be correct either, but there is at least something to be said for them.

And then, after we’d discussed people dying from benefit sanctions and the possibility of catastrophic climate change, we got to my debate: Do you have to be Born Again to be a Christian?

What’s that doing there?

Well, I’ve worked it out now. The religion debates are tacked on to the end of the programme as a freak show. The religious fundamentalists are paraded out and poked and prodded in the hope they will say something ridiculous about hell or demons or the age of the universe, and my job is to be the stick that will goad them into making said ridiculous statement. That’s why, the first time I was on the show, Nicky spent an inordinate amount of time talking to the Muslim who believed all music made on stringed instruments was evil. This is not meant to be a debate. This is meant to be a chance for us to laugh at the extremists. In some ways, it does me a favour: my blog aims to expose the existence of Christian extremism in the UK, and nowhere does this more publicly than The Big Questions. But it also makes me uncomfortable.

Of course, the Christian extremists will always accept invitations to appear, because they believe what man intended for evil, God intends for good. I don’t know how many of them realise they are there to be mocked, but they know the audience is not on their side. They don’t care. Jesus warned them there would be persecution in this life, but they’ll still get to preach the Gospel on television. For them, if just one soul is reached, it was all worth it.

In the pre-show warm-up debate, it was all looking very promising. John Hawley from Open Air Mission told us about how he’d met real life Satanists, devil worshippers, and witches while preaching on the streets. He went on to say that the Reading Festival was an excellent place to find Satanists, and that they are sometimes identifiable by their black fingernails and makeup. It looked very much as though the monkey was going to dance just as the TV producers wanted.

Once we were on air though, Hawley dropped the talk of witchcraft, instead giving us a turgid but bog-standard rendition of the Gospel according to Modern Evangelicalism. He and his fellow guest, Ben Ofoedu, solidly refused to refer to Hell by name. Despite saying several times you couldn’t “see the Kingdom of God” unless you were Born Again, they didn’t expand on the alternative, although they didn’t deny it when I started talking about hell. It was all very bland. No one even mentioned evolution, although afterwards Ofoedu retweeted a link to Ray Comfort’s propaganda film Evolution vs God: Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 23.41.26 I left feeling that The Big Questions exploits deeply religious people the same way The X Factor exploits talentless singers with delusions of genius. It serves up politics in a way that seems doomed to cloud the waters, and it gives a platform to voices which deserve to be dismissed.


I haven’t watched the broadcast, so I can’t remember whether John said this live on air or in the pre-show rehearsal. Reflections on my last Big Questions appearance:

 

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