Gay cures, welfare reform and Christianity: Mental illness isn’t just a pejorative term for things you don’t like

When the principles behind the Welfare Reform Bill are so openly based on Iain Duncan-Smith’s Christian sense of morality, how can we be confident that progress made on mental health sits in safe hands?

The recent controversy over ‘gay cure’ posters on London buses, and the placement of interns in Parliament from the organisation Care which promotes these so-called gay ‘cures’, are two of the latest examples of extreme religious groups trying to legitimise the opinion that homosexuality is a mental disorder. They are also excellent examples of how certain strands of the Christian faith dramatically misunderstand not just abstract concepts like love and morality, but also medicine, science, and mental illness.

When an obscure American Christian preacher was found to be handing out booklets informing pupils that homosexuality is a psychiatric disorder, Michael Gove refused to take action against him on the grounds that equality laws do not cover teachings which are not part of the curriculum, suggesting that this was an equalities issue; a matter of discrimination vs free speech, not one of medical misinformation.

It’s damaging enough to have these views handed out to children in schools, without being told that they’re not coming from an authoritative source. But while the government’s policies on issues like gay rights are obviously much less regressive than the Christian extremists, the line they take on illness and welfare is rather unnerving. Those Christian values driving Iain Duncan-Smith’s welfare reform plans have, in the past, led to catastrophic horrors for mental health sufferers.

Needless to say, many Christians and Christian charities have a brilliant record on all kinds of sickness, including mental health. But it’s pointless to pretend that the religion doesn’t have an awful lot to answer for, as well. Much of the ignorance and fear that exists even today about mental illness has roots in the old ‘Christian’ notion of mental illness as a sort of devilish possession, or a punishment from God. In societies like Victorian Britain, the mentally ill were, quite literally, demonised – and tortured as a “cure” for their illness. Suffering, it was thought, would heal these diabolical inflictions.

Most modern Brits are horrified when we read about, say, dunking a patient in water repeatedly to cure auditory hallucinations, or gagging and binding a person when they experience a traumatic flashback. We are extremely unlikely to go back to stocks and chains. And yet, when an extreme Christian teaches children that homosexuality is a psychiatric disorder, watch how politicians like Gove – himself a strong Christian – treat this as a moral issue, not a medical one. It may seem like a minor semantic distinction, but it is not. What does this tell us about their understanding of what actually constitutes a psychiatric disorder?

It may be news to some, but ‘mentally ill’ is not a pejorative term to be thrown around to denigrate things you don’t like. It doesn’t mean immoral, or sinful. And it doesn’t mean stupid, or dangerous. It means just what it says: illness.

There are over 300 psychiatric disorders in the DSM (Diagnostics and Statistics Manual) IV and every single one of them has a more-or-less agreed definition, with very specific combinations of symptoms resulting in a diagnosis.

Needless to say, the DSM is far from perfect. Being compiled by the American Psychiatric Association, for example, it’s fair to be wary of its tendency to be a little too drug-led and/or insurance-led, created with one eye on the profit-motive. And of course, sometimes the medical knowledge changes, or – as is the case currently with gender dysmorphia, for example – the diagnoses can be disputed by the patients themselves. But even so, they are based on expert medical study, not personal judgments about behaviour. Homosexuality has not been included on the DSM since 1974. In fact, ever since psychiatry established itself as credible a medical field, mental health professionals have disputed the classification of it as such, with some historians even arguing that doctors never wanted it to be classed as a psychiatric disorder in the first place. Pioneers like Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis declared it to be a natural state. Arguably, it was only ever included in the DSM at all because religious voices dominated all discussions about medicine, with particular control over the area of mental health, because it was, and still is, far too often, considered physical health’s poor relative.

This is all history of course, but it’s easy to forget how recent some of it was. After all, according to the BBC, organisations like Mercy Ministries still perform ‘exorcisms’ for illnesses like eating disorders, and churches like Towy Community Church in Wales seem perfectly comfortable declaring themselves ‘in partnership’ with Mercy Ministries. And as David Cameron recently declared at his Easter reception, Christian values are “what this country needs.” Christianity serves as a driving force behind much of government policy – and perhaps nowhere quite so poignantly as in the Welfare Reform Bill.

It’s difficult to draw comparisons without being hideously alarmist, but it’s an historical fact that the ideology which has preached extreme inhumane suffering as a cure for the mentally ill is ultimately the same ideology providing the mentality that says depression can now somehow be cured by the Protestant work ethic.

When the principles behind the Welfare Reform Bill are so openly based on Iain Duncan-Smith’s Christian interpretation of what morality means, how comfortable can we be that the slow but sure progress made on mental health in this country is in safe hands?

Just look at Paul Farmer from charity MIND, who resigned as charity representative on the DWP panel scrutinising the Atos Work Capability Assessments, because, according to Third Sector, “the assessments were damaging the people Mind helps and ministers had failed to address his concerns.”

And Paul Jenkins from Rethink stated in a letter to Chris Grayling that while their direct dealings with the minister left them confident that it wasn’t the government’s intention to force sick people to work, the charity was “concerned however that government communications about these reforms are already causing harm to these very people. On Newsnight last night, in an interview, you repeatedly stated that people on benefits would be expected to work.”

Perhaps most worryingly, Sonia Poulton reported in the Daily Mail – hardly a militantly pro-welfare paper of the biased left – that in an interview on Radio 5 Live, Grayling used anecdotes of individuals with a mental illness who had found being in work helped them as evidence that people with mental illnesses should be expected to work.

These concerns were voiced by Rethink Mental Illness themselves, in their analysis of the Welfare Reform Bill. The charity said there was a likelihood that time-limiting ESA for anyone in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) meant that people with long-term illnesses like schizophrenia could end up forced into utterly unsuitable work – and with the workfare schemes being extended to ESA recipients, they could, in theory, be not only forced to work, but forced to work for no wage.

The severity of an illness and the longevity of an illness are not the same. Sometimes there isn’t even a correlation. Just because someone is functional enough to be placed in the WRAG group by Atos – whose assessments are controversial at best in any case – it doesn’t mean they are going to be better within a year. The government’s aim, then, cannot be to support people until they are better; there would be no time-limit if this was the case. And the aim cannot be just to save money either; the £300m spent on a three-year contract for Atos to carry on performing these assessments, and the money being poured into seeing through the reforms, makes even pure, brutal cost-cutting insufficiently convincing as a motive for the reforms. It really does seem that the ultimate aim is to place people with poorly understood illnesses into work even when the patient and the doctor both say it won’t help. It really does seem as if Iain Duncan-Smith believes in the old-fashioned Christian fantasy that work itself, by its very nature, can cure people.

Not every Atos assessor is a medical expert, and Iain Duncan-Smith and Chris Grayling definitely aren’t. They are bad enough, judging by what disability activists like Kaliya Franklin say, at recognising and respecting physical conditions. What hope do those who struggle with mental illnesses, often invisible, often impossible to explain; illnesses afforded so little respect as medical conditions that people who’ve never so much as suffered a night of insomnia will comfortably pontificate at the tops of their voices on why people hear voices, or whether depression is a real illness or not. And when the main driver for the government’s policies is faith in the Protestant work ethic as a cure for all sin and sickness, keeping our eyes open to the slippery slope it could lead down may sound alarmist, but that’s because it really is alarming.

Blind faith, whether in God or the free market, can’t be used as criteria for a medical diagnosis, and neither can it be used as a cure. Mental illness is still shaky in its medical status; we must be quick to dispel any myths, arguments, or policies that risk worsening the understanding of it still further.

We hear a lot about the coalition’s policies sending women’s rights and workers’ rights back to the 1950s. It’s an equally terrifying prospect to imagine that the government’s approach to welfare could take sufferers of mental illness back, not just to the earlier part of this century, but, if we’re not careful, to sadomasochistic cruelty of the previous one.

Belittling depression: Barbara Ellen is the Jan Moir that Twitter doesn’t seem to notice (Guest blog by Mic Wright)

Barbara Ellen is the Jan Moir that Twitter doesn’t seem to notice

The media has a duty to act responsibly. Excuse me while I break off from writing this column to laugh so much that I rupture my spleen. Newspapers in particular, whatever their stripe, deep down feel only one responsibility: the responsibility to get attention at all costs.

While Twitter revs itself up into a foamy mess whenever The Daily Mail yanks the left wing’s tail with some ill-conceived splash of bile and spite, The Guardian and The Observer employ just as many troll columnists. What’s worse is that they come from a position of even greater self-righteousness. At King’s Place, there’s a general feeling of doing ‘God’s work’, only in place of God put the simpering face of Our Lord and Saviour Alan Rusbridger.

Barbara Ellen is a serial offender. Her Observer column is frequently the locus of illogical, bitter, hateful shit. It’s made worse because she can actually string together a really good sentence when she can see clearly out of the cloud of utter bullshit that she seems to walk around in, blissfully tanked up on a good mixture of misplaced righteousness and ragingly disproportionate self-esteem.

Why do I want to shoot Barbarella Ellen into deep space today? Because her latest column went even further than I have ever seen her go before. Depression is a tricky subject, one that requires nuance, empathy and understanding. Those are all things that Barbara “Bateman” Ellen struggles to manage being so convinced of her universal rightness.

I have a dog in this fight. Not because I am a depressed father (the subject of Ellen’s nasty little rant) but because I have suffered from depression and may do again. Last year, for about 6 months, I was crippled by it and unable to write. Most of the time, I was incapable of doing anything. It was not a choice. I did not want to be a burden on my family and my girlfriend. I wasn’t well. I got better. It was hard.

Now with that declaration of self-interest out of the way, let’s talk Barbara Ellen again. I’m sorry but it needs to be done. The crux of her column was the issue of “postnatal depression in fathers”. Like the worst kind of debate wanker, Ellen focuses not on the meat of the issue but on picking at the scab of language. The entire column is an exercise in semantic dickery by a woman who has made a career of being a total arse.

Witness: “One notices more talk of postnatal depression in fathers. I use the word ‘talk’ advisedly, scientific proof being in short supply.” Ellen has read two studies she disagreed with and needed something to fill her column, so, hey, why not belittle depression and write off a whole gender because, fuck, men are all bastards and shit, aren’t they?

“…the 21st-century vogue for PND in men is another steaming bucket of terry nappies.” Dr Barbara Ellen, PhD in Nasty Shite Studies, has spoken. Only I’m not sure there’s a “vogue”. If you stop getting hung up on whether PND is the right term – which I don’t think it is – and instead consider the number of young men who kill themselves without ever asking for help, the idea that there is in any way a fashion for depression is vile.

The paragraph which should have got this column spiked and which The Observer should issue an unreserved apology for is this one: “I would have been more concerned that the mothers in question were having to put up with such exhausting narcissists as partners – men incapable of hiding their sulky self-absorption, even while being watched for researchers for a period of, wait for it, three minutes. Even serial killer Ted Bundy managed to look ‘normal’ for longer than that.”

Babs picks Ted as an example because they have a certain affinity, what with them both being psychopaths with the empathy of a shark gnawing on a surfer’s leg. Depression is not a choice. It is crippling and debilitating. It’s not the affectation of a narcissist, like a pocket square added to a suit in the hope of looking a little bit more Don Draper. That “sulky self-absorption” is more like a pall of unstoppable gloom that threatens to consume you and faking a smile for even three minutes can feel as impossible as mastering flight or developing X-ray vision.

Barbara Ellen sees relationships as a battle between two enemies forced to fuck to continue humanity. Women and men are from different countries, meeting at a safe house to screw before returning to their encampments to rage. “One hesitates to use the term womb-envy…” says Babs. ‘One’ hesitates? ‘One’?! Who made Barbara Ellen queen of the entitled, horrific doucebag column wankers? Oh yes, Babs herself in a little ceremony in front of her mirror.

I am sad and angry that The Observer saw fit to publish this vile little outburst from a woman so incapable of making an empathetic leap. Sure her column made an impact but in a very real sense it helps contribute to the further stigmatisation of people with depression, regardless of gender. Depression is a killer and those who suffer from it must not and should not see their condition trivialised by people seeking to make cheap points in the desperate hope that they’ll sell newspapers/get them a telly deal.

Ellen concludes: “It was a long, hard road for womankind, getting postnatal depression recognised as a condition…it seems to me that saying men can also get it is just cheapening this achievement.” Oh, we are so sorry Barbara, would you like a fucking merit badge?


Mic Wright
Freelance journalist and writer

W: www.micwright.co.uk
B: brokenbottleboy.tumblr.com
T: twitter.com/brokenbottleboy

If racism becomes a forbidden word, the debate about it will never move into the 21st century (Guest blog by Janine Griffiths)

Racism has become almost like a dirty word in our society. But not for the right reasons.

Nowadays far too many accusations of racism invite angry responses of being too “politically correct” or “oversensitive”. Such responses can be expected even if such accusations are later proven false. The counter-accusation of “being too pc” or “pandering to minorities” have been levied against those who have fought against racism since the height of segregation in America and the apartheid era. And perhaps it is a mark of progress in our society when even the racists themselves go to great lengths to deny they are racists, or that their actions may have been influenced by racial discrimination. Take George Zimmerman for example, who over recent weeks became infamous over the shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin after following him against police orders because he looked ‘suspicious’. It is one of the latest in a long line of racially charged cases that has so successfully split the public both over here and in the states right down the middle.

Some say George Zimmerman is innocent and acted in self-defence. Others say he is a racist gun nut who shot dead the black teenager in cold blood. The media has had its two pounds of flesh too. Some media outlets have condemned the killing and declared George Zimmerman guilty as charged. Others have instead opted to condemn Trayvon Martin after dragging up details of his alleged marijuana suspension from high school, and questioning the way he has purportedly presented himself on social media.

Then to top it all off extremists from both sides of the fence have joined in the feeding frenzy. The New Black Panther party – who have not only gained unpopularity with the majority of law-abiding American’s but have also been widely condemned by the surviving members of the original Black Panther Party – have offered up a $10,000 bounty to anyone who can catch Zimmerman dead or alive. Neo-Nazi groups in the US have also put in their two pence worth by patrolling the streets of Sanford, America in nice shiny black boots to “make sure” that the white residents of the area feel safe.

Conservative blogs and websites surrounding key figures like Glenn Beck and Dick Cheney began calling for the country to ‘wait for the facts’ on Twitter. But they did this by implying – without much evidence – that Martin was a criminal.

The hashtag #teamdueprocess was then forced into an embarrassing admission that a photo of a young black man sticking two fingers up to the camera and wearing his pants down was not in fact Trayvon Martin and therefore had no relevance to the case. But it was left up anyway to make a point.

And in a startling prophecy that would put mystic meg to shame, the Conservative Review has also branded the teen ‘a criminal thug on his way to a life in prison’. How they could possibly predict that is a mystery to me.

Beck’s website, The Blaze, had further tried to muddy the waters by speculating again without much evidence that Martin could have been suspended from school for possessing drugs, sexually harassing women or arson. As if any of that had an influence on the fact that he got shot after buying a dangerous bag of skittles and iced tea, which may have been used in terrorist activity.

At the end of last month a white supremacist hacktivist who has proudly named himself ‘Klanklannon’ took up the work of Cheney’s Caller and leaked private messages he claimed belonged to Martin. The hacker invited people to log into Martin’s gmail account and see for themselves, having kindly changed the password to ‘niggerniggernigger’.

Then, in the middle of it all you have those who simply say that the failure to arrest George Zimmerman and investigate it thoroughly to the satisfaction of all parties is the real story here. And I have to agree. Perhaps we don’t have the full story here. Maybe there is more to all of this than meets the eye. And of course, as the above examples have shown that the mainstream media, by and large has been neither helpful nor neutral. But when you hear whispers among supposedly well-meaning and impartial people, including the Attorney General in the US who claimed that there shouldn’t even have been an arrest or investigation into the case, then that old dirty word rears its head up again. When you have online bloggers and sofa warriors stating that George Zimmerman’s claims that he acted in self-defence should have just been taken at face value and the fact that somebody died as a result doesn’t count, well then it is easy to see why so many young black men are “paranoid”. The cause of Zimmerman’s paranoia however, has yet to be determined.

I would only add that the conflicting police reports at the time are a cause for concern. As is the fact that the decision not to arrest George Zimmerman at the time was taken after Zimmerman’s father “made a few calls” which resulted in the state prosecutor coming to the police station to persuade the lead detective not to arrest Zimmerman.
There are many who say that there needs to be a “conversation” about race in America. They claim that ethnic minorities have had it their own way for too long, and that it is about time they stopped stomping their feet and complaining about and dare I say it….racism. There are many in the UK who emulate such sentiments and call for similar “debates” about multiculturalism – another dirty word.

When a case comes up in the news which exposes institutional racism against minorities, as the Stephen Lawrence case in England did over the last decade, usually the “conversation” is diverted to an example or statistic of a crime involving a black person. The truth is we as a society have been having these one-sided conversations for a very long time. These conversations, which are often influenced by the media have lead to anger, bitterness, and horrific “revenge” and hate crimes perpetrated against both black and white people in the US and UK. It has also led to Guantanamo-style prisons, the loss of liberty and tin-pot dictatorships all over the world.

Whenever we come to accept the childish “us against them” “black-white” or “they started it” mantra opportunistically embraced by biased reporting, self-interest groups and political pundits then we must also accept the consequences. Perhaps those consequences inevitably involve the passive acceptance of laws and violence against our perceived enemies and then eventually against us. What a dangerous conversation indeed.

I say it is time to move the conversation to the 21st century. Rather than denying the existence of racism or other prejudices that continue to embarrass our civilisation, perhaps there should be a renewed focus on solutions that identify cause and effect. By solutions, I am not talking about ones which will benefit or blame the black race. Or the white race. Or the Latinos or [insert favourite racial group here.]

What I refer to is something that is not immediately ‘clear’ or simple or downright lazy such as “deport them” “take away guns” “kill them” “secure our borders” “bring out more laws…”.

Sure, let’s have that conversation about racism, but without the political shamans, ‘thinktanks’, skinheads, or panthers. But a conversation with proposed solutions that would be apparent even if the skin tone or racial identity of the people it affected were neither known nor suspected.

Perhaps if Zimmerman had initiated such a conversation Trayvon would still be alive today. And maybe he was acting in self-defence. Maybe Trayvon was. Nobody really knows what went on yet except the two young men involved. But the day we start saying that it’s ok to kill an unarmed person in “self-defence” without being arrested or questioned in any way is a very dark day indeed. And when we condemn or exonerate such a person based on the information filtered through a ridiculously partisan media, we ourselves open ourselves up to the possibility of living up to the ideals of that old dirty word – racism. This then leads on to other dirty words like violence, war, conflict or shooting somebody because they look different.

FEEDING THE TROLLS: The put-upon privileged who resist progress need to take responsibility for their actions

Rod Liddle, bless him, has somehow become a big-government, pro-statist left-winger. No, really. Here he is, in the Spectator, calling for regulations on businesses to protect employment rights for workers, even when the employee in question screws up so monumentally that your entire business’s credibility hangs by the skin of your gums.

You see, Rod Liddle thinks it was unfair of Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, to make a commercial decision about John Derbyshire’s future employment with him following his ‘controverisal’ (read: racist) article in a different, online publication. Derbyshire’s article The Talk includes titbits of wisdom like explaining to white kids that black people are usually less intelligent than white people, and that they should avoid, mistrust, and fear black people whenever they see them. You don’t need to spend much time joining the rather obvious dots to see how tragedies like the killing of Trayvon Martin, or, here in England, of Mark Duggan and Charles de Menezes, are the inevitable end result of having people walk around believing such racist nonsense. If it was published in England the article would quite likely be deemed an incitement to racial hatred.

America should be proud of the respect they give to their constitutional right to free speech. But the land of freedom is also famed for being the land of personal responsibility. If you’re seriously going to expect a black man wearing a hood to ‘take responsibility’ for the fact that some people see a hood as a threatening thing (rather than being, say, a good way to keep your ears warm), or a woman to ‘take responsibility’ for how she dresses or what she drinks in case she’s assaulted, you really have to also agree that racists should be expected to take responsibility for the consequences of their racism – or even to just use their common sense in understanding, as a grown up, that when they say racist things, some people will probably call them racist.

The National Review is a serious magazine, and, apart from anything else, it’s a well-run business. Lowry is perfectly entitled to decide whom he wants to employ and whom he wants to sack. Welcome to the free market.

Justice has been served by the free market itself (and it seemingly has because John Derbyshire has been sacked), so you might ask why I’m feeding the trolls with a blog post about the whining naysayers? Does it matter if people write silly things on the internet?

Well, for a start, the hateful Coffee House blog Rod Liddle wrote about the Stephen Lawrence case almost prejudiced the whole trial. It’s a horrible thing to make victims beg for justice in the first place; to risk dragging the quest for it out even further for the sake of your right to say silly things about a murder case with no consequences definitely does matter.

But this smug veneer of being lazily controversial at the expense of less privileged people than yourself is damaging to us all as a society in a much less immediately tangible way. It helps cultivate a culture of cynicism so pervasive that it serves to do exactly the opposite of what those who practice it pretend they want.

The Liddles, O’Neills, and Delingpoles are not the defenders of free speech. They are the very thing they say they detest: an oversensitive mob, shouting down dissent, and trying to ridicule people into silence.

They contribute to and facilitate a culture which is extremely saddening. It allows people to sit in their bedrooms nursing a convenient, uncharitable assumption that anyone who cares about any moral issue, ever, is only doing it because they’re following some trend, or else for some other selfish, hypocritical reason. It’s easy to miss how prevalent this world view is.

Real, serious work, such as that done by charities like Refuge, gets denigrated by Carol Sarler in the Daily Mail with no basis for the assumptions made whatsoever. Protesters get denounced because they drink coffee. In fact, activists, writers, and ordinary people taking any moral interest in anything are continually met with the most tenuous accusations of “hypocrisy” because, for example, they care about X, but not Y. And the criticisms usually come from people who feel no particular need to give a toss about X or Y. Or a A, B, C or D, for that matter.

Just look at the comments on the Guardian article by Ava Vidal about the Trayvon Martin case. Why don’t you do more about gang violence, demand page upon page of furious commentators? Why don’t you criticise black killers? Almost as if a black person’s opinion is only valid if they criticise some unrelated other black people first, which, come to think of it, is probably the inevitable logical conclusion you come to if you hold everyone of the same race responsible for each other’s actions (i.e. if you’re a racist).

And this fake concern for every other issue under the sun bar the one the person in question happens to be addressing at that particular point in time is more than just a mild irritation. It actually gives validation to whatever is being spoken out against. When Brendan O’Neill decided that the most pressing issue worthy of space on his blog was to criticise all the people who protested the execution of Troy Davis – protested it on the rather important grounds that he might have actually been innocent – he accused them of inverse racism. He may not have a racist bone in his own body, but the article spewed comments from a stream of people who had several, and who saw his sneering at anti-racism campaigners as a validation of their hate. When he criticised the language in the government’s gay marriage consultation by pretending to be offended that “us, the little people” are not welcome in the consultation process, he attracted pages of comments from people who “agree” with him that gender reassignment is nonsense, that people can’t ever truly change gender, and, weirdly, that the feminist movement should be honest and rename itself the militant lesbian movement.

It’s not just that these kinds of columns dismiss very real concerns from people who are often vulnerable and voiceless. By peacocking his own ignorance about gender reassignment and framing it as ordinary, O’Neill actually shifts the centre ground in terms of social progress. And, needless to say, he isn’t shifting it forwards. Keeping an issue like trans rights on the sidelines is the perfect way to provide yourself with endless column-fodder for years to come. While an issue is only defined a minority issue, it can be derided as irrelevant to ordinary people, and then, when awareness is successfully raised and people start to actually care about the issue in question, everyone taking an interest can just be mocked – then completely ignored – for being nothing more than fashion-following sheep.

To say nothing of the fact that declaring minority issues to be all bang on trend can be repulsively insulting to the people who know, with painful clarity, just who the most powerful “mob” really is.

Homophobes who sometimes have to – shock, horror – have their views challenged may think that being gay is “fashionable,” but a child bullied for being gay – whether they actually are gay or not – who is terrified to walk home after school, or go into the school toilets, for fear of being beaten up or worse, would probably disagree. Rod Liddle may be able to make money from writing in the Sun that disability is fashionable (before mocking and denigrating disabled people in the same article) but Fiona Pilkington and her daughter? They knew only too well that it wasn’t.

Yes, welcome to the smelly nub of the hypocrisy of these faux-libertarians. These people who side with the dominant groups in society, usually make money from doing so, and then pretend to be bravely rebelling against a fashionable trend. These people who say they agree that people are better at solving problems than governments are, but when people try to solve problems, they throw their toys out of the pram and call them names, because, as it turns out, they don’t like that very much either.

After all, when News of the World was closed down by the free market, because consumers and advertisers alike voiced their disgust in a great example of real free speech, against an organisation that actually was powerful, and had actually been engaged in illegal, harmful activities, Liddle, O’Neill and Dellingpole didn’t applaud that, or hold it up as an example of why government doesn’t need to regulate the press. No, they demonised the people speaking out about phone-hacking as biased, vindictive, and stupid.

There are some people who genuinely do value personal freedom, but we also value personal responsibility. There are others who use the very precious concept of liberty as an excuse to defend the indefensible. Make no mistake: that’s not about freedom of speech, or about freedom of anything else. It’s about resisting progress. Are these people to blame for every racist murder and every assaulted trans person? No. But every piggish snort they give out, every minute they spend finding reasons to mock the voices trying, however imperfectly, to drive social progress forwards for all of us, sets the whole fight back just a little bit further. And for that, they really should take some personal responsibility.

With a media that expects no less, no wonder our politicians are so comfortable lying to us

So it’s official: we are not actually expected to listen to the government. In fact, apparently, we set ourselves up to be mocked if we do.

Last week Francis Maude advised people to break the law. Dan Hodges, a Labour activist and blogger who constantly yaps at Ed Miliband’s heels for being out of touch with ordinary people, used the privilege of his space in the Daily Telegraph to declare: “If you filled up your car today because Francis Maude told you to, you’re an idiot.” He goes on: “Sorry to be so blunt about it, but you are. In fact, anyone who has taken any action over the past seven days on the advice of ministers in this Government needs their head examining.”

In fact, even when a woman suffered severe burns after she took Maude’s advice – albeit carrying it out in a somewhat less than practical way – the main emphasis was on her foolishness, with endless tweets even nominating her for a Darwin Award. (Although to get a Darwin Award, as the name indicates, you need to actually be dead. So perhaps some of the tweeters themselves aren’t as clever as they think.)

Francis Maude is not responsible for this horrible accident, but is this level of snide derision towards people for listening to their own government really something we’re comfortable with? Is this what we’re happy to become? Has the famous British love of sarcasm gone so far that our voices are just auto-tuned to ‘ironical sneer,’ one eyebrow permanently raised at everything, to the extent that when a government minister gives ridiculous advice our reaction is to make fun of the people who didn’t assume he was talking piffle? Surely it’s reasonable as a busy citizen of a civilised democracy to assume government ministers know, at the very least, what is legal behaviour, and what isn’t? The question of whether politicians should be mothering us and feeding us cough mixture when we sneeze in the first place with this kind of advice isn’t the point. Yes, such advice is only ever going to be geared towards their own special interests – as Francis Maude’s encouragement of panic buying undoubtedly was – but if they are going to go round giving everybody advice then we should have higher expectations of them than this. With a media that expects no less, no wonder our politicians are so comfortable lying to us.

And lie to us they do, about everything from fuel strikes to NHS reform; their true feelings on the Cornish pasty to mandatory work schemes. With the so-called ‘Snoopers’ Charter’ looming on the political horizon, the question of trust in our politicians needs to be raised – and higher standards need to be demanded. Fast.

We can’t afford to just sigh and raise an eyebrow every time a member of the political class show how little they care to gain and keep our trust. The charge that the coalition is out of touch with the public isn’t just about the chasm in personal wealth. It’s about politicians being removed from ordinary public dialogue. It’s not just the Tory party, either. Ed Miliband is one of the worst offenders for talking about the people he wants to govern – and supposedly represents – instead of talking to us. Or, God forbid, listening to us.

The out of touch charge should also not just be levied at the politicians themselves. The silly season recently came early for the media, with liveblogs, pie puns and hilarious tweets about the drolly-named ‘pastygate.’ Journalists really do seem to love nothing more than a good old laugh about how silly journalism is; about how funny it is that they’re all writing about something trivial, and then writing about how ridiculous it is that people are interested in the stuff they’ve written, as if they were all somehow forced to write about the whatever the topic was that they found so beneath them, by enormous public demand, because leading topics for the national papers are obviously all decided by a poll of everyone in the country, not by Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch, or their editors.

Yes, a hot food tax is not, in itself, a real political hot potato (sorry). So what? We get reams and reams of blogs and articles about the finer points of Britain’s electoral map broken down by region and personal demographics that could never possibly be of interest to anyone except, well, utter nerds. We get comment editorials coming out of our ears about every single poll bump or drop or flatline that ever gets printed or tweeted, only for them to fade to dust in days. We even get articles about key strategic questions like whether the Labour party should brand themselves as Red, Blue, (in the) Black, or Purple Labour. So yes, pasties might seem trivial in comparison, but the broader point – that a 20% rate of VAT is killing jobs, crushing the economy, and damaging both businesses big and small, and is now even spoiling people’s inoffensive pleasures like eating a bloody pie at the end of the evening – should not be.

For all the high-minded fuss about civil liberties and human rights, public versus private ownership, the relationship between religion and the state, pretty much every time there’s been a major revolution in history – not just here, but in America, France, and around the world – it has more or less, when it comes down to it, been instigated by a row over taxation. Unfair, unnecessary taxation that squeezes money upwards seems to make people madder than almost anything else, and it has done for centuries.

Polls have consistently shown that the most popular tax cuts the government could have made in their 2012 budget would have been to VAT and fuel. George Osborne either didn’t know this or didn’t care but either way he obviously couldn’t be bothered to listen to the majority of people in Britain on the one issue which is of most importance to us, and has instead, tailored the tax part of his budget to a very specific, small cluster of people. The only tax cuts he’s given out are to top rate earners, and corporations, and although in itself those tax cuts are not even bad ideas, they are unarguably for a minority, not the majority, of people.

No matter what type of food he eats, if George Osborne talked to the people who do eat at Greggs a little bit more, he’d have known that a lot more people are annoyed about fuel bills than we are about the 50p rate of tax. The Labour party, by the way, are also wrong to make a campaign centrepiece out of the 50p rate of tax. People care what happens in their own pocket much more than what happens in other people’s. The problem for Osborne isn’t the perception of top rate payers getting a net tax cut, it’s the perception of only top rate payers getting a net tax cut. And similarly, if Francis Maude spoke to people a bit more often, he might have known that if he told people to store fuel in their houses – when no strike had even been declared and Len McLuskey would have to give at least seven days notice if he wanted to declare one – some people might actually take him at his word, and might potentially injure themselves.

People are entitled to take advice given to them by a government minister without being mocked and called stupid by the political class just as people are entitled to care about a tax on Cornish pasties more than the colour of Labour’s new policy book if they want to. And the media can only go so far in labelling the government as out of touch if they then use their own booming voices simply to tell the electorate what they should be caring about. Cornish pasties themselves aren’t the issue; they never were. The ‘pastygate’ story in all its silly glory was not the voice of ordinary people so much as voice of the media and politicians guessing at what they think ordinary people care about. It’s nothing to do with pies per se. It’s to do with being taxed from here to next Tuesday by people who don’t have a sensible clue about how to spend our money, and don’t ask us. We are, after all, the people who actually live with the impact of whatever the government does and, from people on the very top rates of tax right through to people paying VAT on a pie or a packet of cigarettes, we bloody well pay for it all, too. That is why it matters when decisions are made by people who are so removed from us that they give us advice and are surprised when we actually take it. And until the media gives them something worse than a cool shrug of weary cynicism, we really have no reason to expect any better, either.