Speakers for the opposition defeated the motion at our Oxford Union debate on Tuesday, as a 380-strong audience voted against the suggestion that “there is nothing wrong with spending more on looking good than doing good”.
Close to 400 local philanthropists, strategic partners and friends attended Oxfordshire Community Foundation’s debate on Tuesday 10th November, which was held in the historic Oxford Union debating chamber. They were treated to a feast of ideas as six high-profile speakers debated how much time and money we should spend on our appearance versus charitable activity. The event was generously sponsored by charity investment managers CCLA.
The debate, which was overseen by the current Oxford Union President Charles Vaughan, began with James Bevan, Chief Investment Officer at CCLA, making the case for the motion. He opened the debate by commenting: “Can we not do things that both look good and which do good? Should we be judgmental about whether one is inherently better than the other?”.
Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography and provocative author, countered. He insisted: “I do worry about the amount of money that people are now spending on their appearance to try to make themselves feel better about themselves. I think it has escalated to a point where we need to control it again, and we need to think about how we could use that money in better ways […] A quarter of the children in this city are living in poverty. In a city which also has incredible wealth and affluence in it, there are school teachers who bring in food to their schools to give out to the children who are hungry in this city, at the same time as we have food that isn’t being eaten on the tables of many of the colleges in this town. There are many terrible things that you can worry about, and there are many groups who are advocating about this and if you want to spend a little less on some item or other, that money could be used for that good.”
Taking the floor on the proposition side, plastic surgeon Nigel Mercer then argued that: “we are biologically programmed to like attractiveness – we are animals! So I’m afraid to say that attractiveness is what allows us to pass on our gene pool to the next generation.” He later suggested a way for society to combine looking good and doing good: “If you think about the tax benefits – if VAT was put onto Botox and fillers, we could fund the gap in the health service. That is not a joke – we could bring in £2 billion in revenue a year if that tax was brought in – that is how much is spent.”
Face equality campaigner James Partridge made an emotive plea for the opposition, saying: “50,000 people in Britain choose to spend half a billion pounds on cosmetic surgery every year, and across the beauty and fashion industries, something like £70 billion a year is spent on ‘looking good’. Over £1,000 a person. Now compare that with how much is spent on doing good: even on very generous assumptions about how much volunteering is worth (something like 25% of the population do volunteer, and about 44% of the population give) – when you add the whole lot up, it comes to about £35 billion a year. Half of what is spent on looking good.
“Research from Girlguiding found that one in five girls aged nine to 10 said the way they look makes them feel most upset, and 39% of girls say they experience demeaning comments about the way they look every week. These are unacceptable social consequences of this ‘look good’ economy. We should be very careful about the culture that promotes ultra-thin models and eats lots too. We need to get a grip with this retail therapy world. So there is really something ‘wrong’ with spending so much on ‘looking good’, it seems to me.”
Following interventions from the floor, the arguments for each side were concluded by Guardian Beauty Editor Sali Hughes for the motion, and philanthropy campaigner John Nickson against it.
Sali Hughes argued: “As we’ve heard, we have an innate instinct to groom, and that’s correct, but I know that beauty lifts up confidence, happiness and can be extremely creative and empowering for men and women – not everyone, you don’t have to join in, but for many people. Anyone who dismisses beauty as an irrelevance or a frippery for the shallow knows nothing of humanity, and certainly knows nothing about women.
“Spending on our appearance assumes a kind of superficial, narcissistic person by nature; the kind of person who spends their money on their appearance is unintelligent and sensitive, has little regard for others, those with an interest in surface are perceived to have no depth – this happens to me daily. This is why below-the-line commenters frequently wonder aloud how my readers and I can possibly justify spending £30 of our own hard-earned cash on moisturiser instead of inoculating the children of Darfur. They’re amazed to hear than women are actually capable of having multiple interests while maintaining perspective.”
John Nickson focused on the role of private philanthropy in the context of the government cuts and the retreat of the State. “The beauty industry is estimated to be worth £70 billion a year, but I must tell you that actually personal giving as done by individual is estimated to be just over £10 billion, so I regret to say that we really ARE spending less on doing good than looking good.
“What happens to civil society when the state is in retreat? How is it possible for the voluntary or social sector to compensate if charitable giving has not grown in real terms for 30 years and only a minority of the wealthy is philanthropic? Are we sure that we will bequeath the civil society we enjoy to future generations who will live in an increasingly unequal world where liberal democracy might not prevail? We need to renew our commitment to the Common Good if our civil society is to survive and that requires that we give money and time to others in addition to paying our taxes.
“Those who give will tell you that giving inspires a feeling of wellbeing that is like no other. I know from personal experience that is true. I must also tell you that 30 years of professional fundraising have taught me that the great majority of those who give are, however plain or ugly, more attractive and more loveable and have more fun than those who do not. So those of you who are missing out, get in touch with the Oxfordshire Community Foundation, start giving now and enjoy doing good, and vote against the motion!”
Voting was done by acclamation – where the audience were invited to shout “AYE” or “NOE” as loud as possible in order to support or refute the motion, leading one guest to describe the event as “literally a roaring success”. The motion was defeated by a clear majority.
Opening the debate, OCF CEO Jayne Woodley had remarked: “I know for many of you this will be a unique experience in this amazing chamber. But more importantly, I hope that it will also be a shared opportunity for all of us to open up our hearts and minds and to consider how we choose to spend our time and money. Community foundations are all about the Common Good and I am reminded every day that but the one thing society needs more than anything right now is for more and more people to become champions of the Common Good. To consider what it means to be human and to care more about what happens to other people in our communities not just themselves. My ambition for OCF is to claim the space that I feel is so needed for the Common Good to take hold throughout our communities – but this is not something we can do alone.”
You can download a copy of the event programme here and see a selection of photos here.