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To be honest, I’d be a lot better if everyone stopped saying they were good

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

I’ve written before in this magazine about those hideous, collective earworms – the nonce-phrases that clutter up our mouths then fall unbidden from our lips – and I make no apology for writing about them again; if you like – and if it makes it any more tolerable – think of this as a sort of nonce column, quite inadvertently repeated, with no more awareness being exhibited on my part as I type, than you have when you utter the words “to be honest”.


Yes, “to be honest”, it is without doubt the meme de nos jours – and as such, must represent a cul-de-sac in cultural evolution on a par with loon trousers or fondue parties. And everyone is saying it – oh, yes they are; you cannot turn on a radio or a television, get on a bus or a train, roll over into the sweet morning afflatus of your beloved, or walk your dog in the local park without hearing it. “To be honest” squawks forth from politicians and broadcasters, mutters sullenly from the woman and the man in the street, murmurs enticingly in your frowsty ear, calls to you across the muddy pockmarks and smudged white lines of the football pitch: to be honest, to be honest, to be honest, to be honest!

And what does it mean? Clearly, it has nothing to do with the truth; indeed, it is almost always appended to statements of either incontrovertible fact, or opinions of such an anodyne form that only Descartes’s malicious demon would dream of fabricating them. In our fair land, on any given day, you can hear your fellow citizens say things of the form: “To be honest, I had a pork pie for lunch,” or, “To be honest, I think Michael Heseltine’s a little pompous,” or, “To be honest, I never really liked Take That’s music.” (I introduced these statements as hypotheticals, but, to be honest, they’re all ones I’ve actually heard in the past 24 hours.)

Back in the days when the prime minister wore loons and his chin was permanently glazed with melted emmental, the reflex of fidelity was far simpler. “I think Ted Heath’s dishy,” people would say, and then after a suitable pause, “honest”. Or, to ring the changes on this, they might prefix their remark with the adverbial form: “Honestly, I don’t know what he’s doing sailing his yacht while the country’s going to the dogs.” The single word forms were both less jarring – and the opinions they bracketed were often a little more contentious. But nowadays, there seems to be nothing at all that cannot be dulled down by the addition of the hateful tic.

In the past I’ve advanced the view that these banalerisms seep up from the water table of the collective unconscious as telling evidence of the true state of things – in this respect they are, formally at least, entirely honest. In a society riven by bad faith – corrupt politicians, bent coppers, finagling hacks, kiddie-fiddling philanthropists, peccancy, in short, of every conceivable form – the quite blameless ordinary citizen nonetheless feels an inner compulsion continuously to profess her super-glued adhesion to the truth. But if things go on in this way I predict that you’ll find yourself in automated checkout queues grown exponentially longer due to the swearing in ceremonies shoppers feel they must undergo; Bible raised in one hand they will intone, “I swear by Almighty God to remove all unexpected items from the bagging area.”

Fight them on the beaches

We erroneously believe we can save ourselves from being crushed by our own lack of faith in the most ordinary speech acts, and that there’s a personal nonce-phrase saviour – I refer, of course, to “I’m good”. In the past when you asked people how they were they might reply, “I’m quite well, thank you,” or even give you a thumbnail sketch of their health. But now there’s only the wet-blanket coverall: “I’m good”. Why does everyone say they’re “good”? It is because really we feel ourselves to be bad; bad because we lie about our pork-pie consumption and Michael Heseltine’s character; bad because we secretly sleep with a Gary Barlow blow-up doll; bad because we can no longer trust the evidence of our senses.

“I’m good” is a useless prophylactic, yet we must not flag – we must fight the “to be honests” on the beaches and in the bar rooms, in the classrooms and on the shop floor. I call upon you all to resist “to be honest” with all your might and main. How? It’s simple really: every time I hear someone say “To be honest, it’s been a rainy day,” I snap back: “No! Don’t be honest, lie about it – say it’s been a sunny day, spice things up a little!” To begin with they look at me suspiciously, but then a comprehension dawns on them and, to be honest, it’s a lovely sight.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.