The last few days I’ve been involved in an ongoing argument over someone else’s blog; which at least makes a change, it’s usually my own stuff that gets me into trouble! It has been doing my head in more than most arguments usually would, and it has taken me ages to figure out why. Here’s a bit of the original:-
We have managed to artificially create an income discrepancy – our lab was populated by a single statum of the beekeeping class before we brought fair trade principles in, but now our lab contains one class of rich Fair-Trade-branded beekeepers whose livings are subsidised by rich people assuaging their conscience with expensive brands, and an another class of poor beekeepers untouched by the “benefits” of Fair Trade on the same income as before. So Fair Trade widens the gap between rich and poor – actually it creates one – which is a bad start. A rising tide does not float all boats.
Now comes the funny part. If we extend Fair Trade subsidies to the majority of beekeepers in our lab, then the situation is even worse. Now most people can afford to pay more money for goods and services as income is higher, inflation happens and prices go up, but a minority of people, the newly-poor beekeepers, still have the same income and can buy less food then they could previously. Bringing Fair Trade into our lab means that some of our beekeepers now have a worse life than they did before, whereas those we have helped are getting more in but are spending more to get the same life as they did before. Oops.

There then ensued a 32-comment discussion, and I think the referee would probably agree that I lost. And it’s taken me all day today to think about why I couldn’t just move on from that. It has been an interesting exercise, if somewhat navel gazing. For which I apologise a bit but I’m still going to write about it. So if you don’t want to see my navel, it is OK to stop reading now.

The first thing that didn’t do my head in was the niggly stuff. Like when I was accused of “appealing to emotion”, by the same person freely using phrases like “rich people assuaging their conscience”. That’s annoying, but it’s not the main point, and it doesn’t do my head in, things like that happen in arguments. We’re human beings.

The secondly thing that didn’t do my head in is that the theory was plain wrong. It assumes that “beekeepers” are in some little sub-society a very long way away from anyone else. Whereas in our little corner of the world here at least, the “beekeepers” work in organisations which also employ supervisors, team leaders, foremen, etc. And the whole organisation itself exists within a town community of lawyers, doctors, businessmen, the butchers the bakers and the candlestickmakers. Within that context, the beekeepers are nearly at the bottom of the pile. So introducing fair-trade, or in our own context, equivalent initiatives, doesn’t push prices up, because that’s already been done by the lawyers, the judges, the politicians and the business managers (who around these parts are mostly in bed with each other, spawning questions such as “where did the government’s money go?” and “who ate all the pies?” but that’s a whole other story). And it doesn’t make the fair-trade (local equivalent) beekeepers rich because they are still essentially primary producers and if the gap between the cost of their honey verses the honey down the road gets too big, even do-gooding bleeding heart liberal types like me will eventually stop buying it. What we see round here at least is that the outcome of co-operative ventures is to boost the member beekeepers into positions of participation and choice-making, like choosing to work eight hours rather than twelve, or choosing to enable ones off-spring to continue studying, or for the beekeepers themselves to complete their schooling at night school, or in two cases that I know of here, for the profits to be ploughed into other things; in one case community projects, and in the other case, into supporting Argentinean missionaries overseas. However, we digress… although it caused me to expend probably too much emotion that the theory was defended to the death as though it were a globally generalisable fact without ever giving one concrete example where the theory had been shown to function, that in itself isn’t what did my head in. Having wrong hypotheses, and defending them, are still basic human rights and necessary for scientific progress.

The third thing that didn’t do my head in, but probably should have done, is that it is patronising. The underlying conclusion is that it would be better to leave people in poverty than to support an initiative that might later be shown to have unequal outcomes. Why is that patronising? It is one of a raft of rather too many models which are proposed for “other” people a long way away, particularly in “developing” majority world contexts, but nobody would seriously advocate as a great idea for Liverpool or Bradford, let alone Oxford or Tunbridge Wells. However, there are already plenty of patronising theories floating around here, one more of those doesn’t do my head in.

No no, the thing that actually did my head in, I realised as I cycled back from the supermarket today, is much more selfish and close to home than that. It is the frustration of being out-articulated. That for me is an almost unknown occurrence. I lose arguments all the time (ask my husband!), I lose arguments because I am wrong, because the other person knows more, because I walk away, because the other person shouts louder, because we all degenerate into childish sillinesses and for a zillion other reasons, but never because the other person is more articulate than I am. In fact, it’s usually the other way around. It has been an interesting exercise today reflecting that winning an argument by being right is not always directly correlational to winning an argument by being articulate, and thinking about times when I too may have gained an advantage simply by being more gifted with words than my sparring partner. It’s not been a comfortable process to think through, but it’s probably been good for me to do it. So to you, who have unintentionally led me here, I say “thank you and no hard feelings”.

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