Dear Wilhemina

Prospect's agony aunt answers readers' questions
November 17, 2010

Dear Wilhemina

I am a public sector worker in a department undergoing severe cuts, but I’m one of a fortunate few who can avoid redundancy if I wish. The problem is that over the last few years I’ve become lazy, unproductive, and overpaid for what I do. One of my friends recently resigned a similar post as he could not live with the guilt of sponging off the taxpayer. Now I wonder whether I can go on like this too, especially given the state of public finances. Should I hang on to my comfortable, if slightly fraudulent, career? Or should I take a payoff and do something more honourable?

Complacent and Confused

Dear Complacent and Confused

There are two ways of looking at this. First, let’s get Kantian and push you a little, because I think you’re being very soft on yourself. If you truly have been sponging off the taxpayer to the extent you suggest, then taking a small payoff and doing something more honourable (in order to make yourself feel better), is nowhere near punishment enough. You’ll need to fully expiate your sins. How about being forever chained to a desk in a badly-lit, open-plan environment, processing expense claims for MPs’ garden gnomes and picnic napkins? Only such misery could possibly offset the universal imbalance you’ve caused.

On the other hand, I am not convinced that you are the perpetrator or abuser here. Haven’t you been the hapless plaything of a large and overbearing administration? Have you not felt your sense of self ebb away as you fill in form after useless form? Have you not been vilified by tabloids and Tory politicians alike, storing up vast guilt about your pay, when in fact you earn not much more than the average private sector PA, and far, far less than a bunch of trumped up, cocaine-addled geeks in the City? Your job has notorious, often serious, side effects: low self-esteem, the gradual diminishing of your critical faculties and, eventually, a Soviet-like auto-critique and confession. Don’t let the system win: you need rehab, not punishment. Get your GP to prescribe a spot of relaxation on the taxpayers’ dime. They owe you.



Dear Wilhemina

I share a house with two other postgraduate students. We all have our own computers and share a Wi-Fi connection, but lately one of my flatmates has become paranoid about internet privacy. He’s asked us to buy more and more security, questioned our internet service provider and become convinced that identity theft and spying are rife. Initially we were dismissive, then we became concerned—about what he was saying, and about him. He has now decided that search engines are not safe and that we are in permanent danger from viruses and spyware. Are we too laid back, or is he losing the plot? What are the real dangers?


Dear Ewan

People tend to be either completely oblivious to this issue or to over-react to it. The best advice I’ve heard is to handle personal information as you would cash: don’t give it to just anyone, keep track of who you’ve given it to, and don’t leave it lying around. The same common sense goes for protecting your computer: open only trusted links or attachments, and have good anti-virus software. Beyond this, it’s ultimately about a trade-off between convenience and security or privacy. How much information are you willing to give up for ease of payment, delivery or booking?

To be honest, I would be more worried about your friend, who sounds like he’s in the grip of a dark fantasy. Our information society—undergoing what the sociologist Reinald Döbel calls “a revolution from above”—can lead people to feel lost or, worse, persecuted. Technology can be the screen onto which we project our worries about control, autonomy and adequacy. For your flatmate, is this an outlet for something else? It may be nothing as worrying as paranoia, but I’d suggest talking to him about what else might be going on in his life—or perhaps why so little is?



Dear Wilhemina

I’m 38 years old, not inordinately bizarre in my tastes, and yet I seem to suffer from a cultural blindspot when it comes to television. I am forever trying to get into the programmes everyone is watching, such as Mad Men, 30 Rock or The X Factor, but I find them deeply boring. I don’t think it’s snobbery, I just don’t get any of it. Why am I supposed to care about any of these people?

Frustrated, bored and excluded

Dear Frustrated, bored and excluded

Isn’t there a tiny bit of snobbery in your reaction? Your dismissiveness suggests that you do regard “caring about any of these people” as a total waste of time. So those who do care are what, exactly? Too easily pleased? Not demanding enough?

Also, you’re expecting far too much from television—like pop music, it isn’t revealing the meaning of life. You don’t have to care—that’s the point. Trying so hard to take it seriously, as if you were going to sit an exam at the next water-cooler conversation, will kill any joy. Even quality programmes are often just about entertainment. Take a leaf from the French philosopher, Pascal, and be grateful that people can immerse themselves in things that distract them from the darker aspects of the human condition. And give in to just being entertained. That’s all it is.