Benefits scroungers

I wrote recently on Cubik’s Rube about the ongoing discussion in the UK over the issue of benefits, and the campaign against benefits fraud in particular.

A great deal of resentment is often expressed in public discourse in this country, by no means limited to tabloid journalism, at those who receive a regular entitlement income from the government which it’s widely agreed they don’t deserve.

There are a number of forms of financial welfare potentially available to people without means to support themselves and their families, and these provide a much needed lifeline to many people who are unable to find work, or unable to perform work due to illness or disability. It’s not a controversial idea that at least some such programmes should be in place, to give people something to fall back on if they’re suddenly made redundant or fall seriously ill. The most trenchant opposition to such a system that I’ve heard comes from libertarians, who only object to the state’s involvement and think that private organisations and charities would be a better way to achieve the same effect.

And yet, whenever they’re publicly talked about, these benefits seem to be a subject of stereotyping and derogation. Few politicians seem as keen to claim the credit for providing a valuable service to people who cannot currently provide for themselves, as they are to cut costs and eliminate any wasted money spent, while denouncing the “scroungers” who are claiming these benefits inappropriately.

The political argument here is beyond the scope of this blog, and I’m not suggesting that strategies focusing on getting people back to work, rather than allowing them to become complacent and dependent on state hand-outs, are entirely without merit. What’s relevant here is the way benefits claimants are often stereotyped and generalised about, so that other groups can more easily distance themselves from them.

There’s a standard picture that will tend to spring to mind when you picture someone on benefits, and it’s not entirely fictitious. There do exist people who appear on the Jeremy Kyle Show wearing tracksuits and hoodies, with a certain type of haircut and accent and tone of voice and abusive manner, who will seem immediately recognisable to many Brits who’ve seen this “type” before. Even if they’ve not met many “chavs”, they’ll have seen them appearing as comedy characters, in both male and female varieties.

If you’re a better person than I am, you might be able to avoid feeling even a twinge of contempt, even the slightest disgusted curl of your lip, when you encounter someone who fits in this category. There is often an unattractiveness to many of these traits. It’s not incomprehensible where the disdain comes from.

But when you experience a powerful natural inclination to despise another person, that’s something it’s really important to examine.

No doubt many people will claim to be motivated my pragmatic reasons in their condemnation of these people: they’re a drain on the economy, after all. But as I’ve discussed in the post linked above, the contempt often levelled at all benefits claimants is disproportionate to the relative harm done by benefits fraud, and the conventional stereotype simply doesn’t apply to most people who need help to get by while they’re out of work through no fault of their own. But more to the point, dehumanising tactics are inappropriate even in those cases when criticism may be appropriate.

The way the “scroungers” outgroup is often defined in our minds – ascribing to people a particular accent, style of clothes, and work-shy attitude – neatly helps us avoid having to think of them as individuals, and helps us rationalise that initial gut reaction of despisal. If we can convince ourselves that it’s their own fault, that they’re a lesser class who don’t deserve the decency with which we usually treat our fellow people, then we don’t have to consider at all the uncomfortable possibility that they were screwed over by a political or economic system that we’ve benefited from.

This isn’t intended to be a stern lecture at anyone who doesn’t spend their every free moment feeding the homeless or helping those less well-off. It’s not that we should all be feeling like awful people for not adequately fixing the world’s problems for everyone else. But we should be prepared to reconsider who we hold responsible for those problems. Contempt is convenient, in some cases. And in others, an instinctive response of experiencing guilt is just as natural as the tendency to cover it up with othering and deindividuation.

It’s not necessary to exempt every member of a group from any wrong-doing, in order to recognise the importance of continuing to treat everyone as humans, and to respect their individuality and dignity accordingly.

Nobody in this story is “scum”. There are no “others”. They’re all just people.

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