British Social Attitudes
You may think I'm being patronising or elitist when I sometimes write here that many people are very stupid and very ignorant.
"Ignorant" is probably a better term in most cases because large numbers of people are living their lives in a bubble of misinformation. The kind of things I have mentioned are the belief that 50% or more of the British population are black or the belief that hundreds of children are abducted and murdered by strangers each year. (The true fact that a child is murdered by its parents every ten days is possibly more shocking).
I return to the topic because the annual British Social Attitudes Survey (for 2006) has just been published. One of the things it reveals is that 50% of people still believe that "common law marriage" exists.
Just think about that for a moment. Common law marriage was abolished in the 18th century. In the 21st century, half the population think it still exists. This isn't some religious belief with no practical implications. More than 250 years later, people are still living together in the erroneous belief that common law marriage confers some legal rights.
How do we explain this? We've not only had mass education for a very long time but we live in a society that bombards us with information through a wide range of media 24 hours a day.
Perhaps one clue is in another survey revelation: only 20% of graduates read a quality newspaper today. Twenty years ago the figure was 50%.
Certainly the education system and the media must take some of the blame. But I think it goes deeper. People believe what they want to believe, regardless of the facts. How often in argument have you confronted someone with an irrefutable fact, only for them to say "I don't agree with that" or "I don't believe that"?
There's also an unattractive form of individualism around today - perhaps better described as a type of solipsism - that refuses to acknowledge any objective rules or standards.
I once told a girl that "docter" was an incorrect spelling. "That's how I spell it!" she said, and she wasn't joking. It's a trivial example and, as an individualist myself, this isn't an argument for extreme pedantry or dress codes or, God forbid, strict moral codes. But there's a difference, for example, between "I don't like Shakespeare" (perfectly reasonable) or "I don't understand Shakespeare" (perfectly reasonable) and "Shakespeare sucks" or "Shakespeare's shit".
An example I always quote comes from that great corrupter of values, Rupert Murdoch. When he bought The Times long ago, he said there was no difference in quality between The Times and The Sun. They were simply catering for different markets.
Ah, markets! There you have, in a nutshell, the corrupting nature of modern consumerism.
And when you survey the output of BBC television today, it's clear that you'd be hard pressed to find anyone in the corporation who dissented from Murdoch's view.
Consider this: the acclaimed film maker Tony Palmer made a major documentary last year about Vaughan Williams. The BBC declined to screen it. Mr Palmer claims to have had a letter from the BBC which said: 'having looked at our own activity via the lens of find, play & share', it had been decided the film did not fit with 'the new vision for [BBC] Vision', and concluded: 'but good luck with the project, and do let me know if Mr. V. Williams has an important premiere in the future as this findability might allow us to reconsider.' Vaughan Williams died in 1958.
I find it hard to believe that wasn't a spoof but Mr Palmer insists the letter was genuine. The programme was eventually screened by Five, albeit at nine in the morning. Yet the BBC has acres of space to fill on its so-called cultural channel BBC4, which this week is full of programmes on pop music, many of them repeats.
Markets, you see. Not to mention demographics. Oh, and let's not forget that lens of find, play and share.
Oh dear, I've digressed into my dinner time. More on the Social Attitudes Survey next time.