I want to ask you to do something. It’ll only take a few moments but it might change you – you’ve been warned.
I want you to read this:
Words are incredibly powerful. They can wound or they can heal. They can silence people or they can give them a voice. They can be used to threaten a woman with rape if she sticks her neck out, or appears on TV without conforming to our conventional standards of fashion and taste – even if she’s a Cambridge professor. They can be used to kick people when they’re already down and fighting for breath. Fat slag. Shirker. Asking for it. The kind of woman who has tattoos on her arms and tiles we don’t like on her kitchen walls. That’s what words can do.
Or they can tell the truth. They can break our hearts. They can challenge us to look beyond our nice, cosy little world and realise what a shit life many people have to lead. Who knows what errors of judgement got them there? In the end, it doesn’t matter. We all make errors of judgement sometimes. Some of us have more wiggle room then others, that’s all. Doesn’t make us better people. It makes us luckier people.
Even if every parent on welfare was a complete and utter shirker – and they’re not, of course – that’s not the point. What would matter is that their kids are going to bed hungry, and trying to concentrate in school hungry, and doing without the birthday parties and school trips and a hundred other little things most children grow up thinking everyone has. And it wouldn’t be their fault. And that ought to matter to any civilized society.
But what makes me angrier still is that Jack is not a shirker. Read her blog over the last couple of years and you’ll be amazed how much she’s done for her local community. And, worst of all, her financial situation, already precarious in the extreme, was made infinitely worse when she make the effort to get a job. That’s when her debts spiralled out of control.
The truth is staring us in the face. We live in a country where, even if there are any jobs, people can’t afford to go out to work. They can’t afford to give their kids the example of a working parent earning enough to give them a decent standard of living. And it’s a bloody disgrace.
Rising food prices, the deregulation of our labour market, insanely high private rents coupled with a critical lack of social housing and an economy bumping along close to rock bottom has created a perfect storm making life almost intolerable for millions of decent, ordinary people in this country. And what do the rest of us do about it? We say unemployment is falling, and they could get jobs if they really wanted to, conveniently ignoring the inconvenient truth that they would be minimum wage, zero-hour contract jobs that would be 100% focussed on getting the best possible deal for the employers and the bare minimum for the people like Jack, sitting at home running out of food and praying for the phone to ring, so they could get some work, any work, and stop feeling ashamed to go out.
You try phoning Housing Benefit and telling them you only got two hours work last week, and you might not even get that next week – you just don’t know – and meanwhile they’ve stopped paying your rent for the next six weeks and probably lost your bloody file. And then ask yourself why people on benefits are reluctant to go out to work.
When I was an evangelical Christian, we heard a lot about people giving their testimony. It’s a powerful thing. And that’s why we need people like Jack to tell their stories, and make the rest of us listen. This week, women in Britain have heard a lot about the harm that the Internet can do. But it’s because of the Internet that people like her have been given a voice. (And that brings me on to another issue, about how much we need public libraries and other places where people in severe poverty can use the Internet, but I’ll save that rant for another time).
In the end, what matters is what Jack’s words in all their pain and honesty inspire us to change – in our own lives, our own spending priorities, the way we vote, the way we spend our time. Food is the great uniting force, the thing that everybody needs and has an opinion on, and it’s great to see this woman taking on the celebrity-obsessed decadence of TV and media food porn and talking about the choices real people have to make. But that’s only the beginning. She’s flavour of the month right now, and that won’t last forever. But in a year’s time, when we’ve all forgotten about Nigella’s husband hitting her in public, there’ll still be women suffering from domestic violence. And there’ll still be women and children in poverty, going to bed hungry, when people have forgotten Jack.
I am just a humble blogger. Few people even read my stuff, let alone retweet it. But Jack Monroe must have thought that once. The point is that she did what she could. And she’s gone right on doing what she can do, right through all the times when most people would have said they’d enough to think about just getting through the day, until somebody noticed and it built up into something much bigger and more influential then anyone would have dreamed possible.
So I’ll start where I am. A well-off, fortunate, hopefully not too smug, balsamic oil-loving, middle class, middle aged woman in a nice Manchester suburb, with a job at a nice little church school. I’ll stop hating on myself and do some hard thinking about what I could change. Here and now. Maybe I could start going to church again, even if I’m not sure what I believe in these days, and get them to start a food bank. Or at least help out the one a few miles away. It’s a start.
And I’d like to make a proposal. Can someone, somewhere, tell me how to get a few armbands made, with HUNGER HURTS written on them? (Assuming that slogan hasn’t already been taken by some less appropriate movement – I don’t claim to be right on top of all these things.)
And how about making 30 July the day when, every year, we remember all the girls, and boys, like Jack?