Category Archives: class

In Brief: Tulisa

A celebrity sex-tape turning up online isn’t generally an unusual or surprising event these days.

The case of Tulisa Contostavlos, singer with N-Dubz and one of the judges on The X Factor, differs from the norm in two ways.

One is the level of class hatred that followed the revelation:

The word “chav” would not go away. This derogatory term of abuse, loaded with class prejudice, was ubiquitous in tweets on the subject. Certainly, tweeters were using it as a self contained insult: “Tulisa makes my blood boil. Fucking chav”. In fact, the words “slut” and “chav” were used pretty much interchangeably.

Tweet after tweet focused obsessively on Tulisa’s working class background: her “chavvery”. Many expressed a lack of surprise at the tape, because they “always knew she was a chav, was just a matter of time really before she made one”. One, fairly representative, tweet read “Oh Tulisa, living up to the chav image we all expected of you”. The implications here are fairly unsettling: sexuality and class are seemingly still being conflated in a way that would be more at home in Victorian or Edwardian times. The concept of a dangerously immoral and highly sexed lower class is apparently still relevant.

The fact that the Tweeters had to comfort themselves by believing that Tulisa had been pretending to be something she’s not is extremely odd and betrays the fact that vast sections of our society literally still can’t imagine a woman who no only doesn’t aspire to be perceived as middle class and sexually pure, but who is successful and popular at the same time. Where this sickening vitriol comes from, I have no idea. But it seems we still have a long way to go before sexual license and social mobility are no longer dirty words.

The other is the level of humanity, dignity, and level-headedness in her response to all the fuss.

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Government Social Programs

I don’t think these are new results, but this post about government social programs gave me a slightly new perspective on them.

The research shows that people who are receiving financial help from the government will, in significant proportions, report that they “have not used a government social program”. A quarter of people on food stamps or welfare, over a third of Medicare users, and fully half of those with student loans will deny that they’ve had any monetary support from the state.

Putting aside for a moment the problems of the underlying inequality behind the need for these programs, I think this study tells us something interesting beyond the extent of people’s ignorance as to the details of how these programs are run.

Many people have an idea in their head of what state hand-outs look like, and the kind of people who take them. It’s free money that the government gives to lazy moochers like them, having taken it right out the pockets of hard-working, decent citizens like us.

It might only be a minority who see things with quite so little nuance, but a similar attitude seems to be disappointingly prevalent. When thinking of government hand-outs, it’s apparently hard to see the recipients as being as fully human as ourselves, and as potentially deserving of help as we feel that we are, particularly when there’s a risk of our own financial benefits being taken away.

Nobody wants to see themselves as a moocher, but if you’re going to be consistent, it’s important to remember that other people have their own difficult circumstances to deal with as well. If you’re morally justified in accepting these benefits, then maybe the other people who receive help from these programs are human too.

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Follow-up: Drug testing

A quick follow-up to yesterday’s post:

As has been recently highlighted by The Daily Show, the proportion of people in Florida failing drugs tests as part of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) screening process is, in fact, significantly lower than the estimated proportion of drug users in the population of Florida as a whole. The stereotypes being perpetuated by lawmakers, depicting welfare users as drug addicts or otherwise unworthy of help, is abjectly failing to show any correspondence to reality.

And it’s clear that a negative stereotype of the poor is exactly what this program both depends on and exacerbates. As the ACLU point out, no such requirement is made of other demographics who also rely on taxpayer funds for support – such as politicians.

It should be noted that the number mentioned in this article, for how much the program is costing the state, is rather lower than the number I quoted yesterday. But it’s still clear that this targeting of poor people is of negative value in every respect.

Edit: A commenter from the drugsandotherthings blog mentions some other important points that didn’t occur to me while originally writing this up: the TANF program fails to take into account the effects of tobacco and alcohol on a person’s lifestyle, and their subsequent suitability for government aid, and simply looks at illegal drug use alone as the sole indicator of worthiness; it’s liable to end up closing down future prospects for people struggling with drug problems even further by removing a potential lifeline; oh, and it may well be an illegal violation of the Fourth Amendment, since these personal searches are being conducted without any probable cause.

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Disability and poverty

Having discussed the way people claiming benefits are not, in fact, an undeserving and contemptible drain on our resources, it’s worth noting that attitudes toward the poor or the disabled show little sign of improving.

When a family member or close friend is struck with some illness or other major life inconvenience, most of us would probably drop everything to help them as much as we were needed. We’d do our best to see that the people we care about got the required care from others, and that professionals in fields like health services did their jobs well to look after our loved ones.

But upsettingly often, we don’t seem inclined to treat strangers with the same compassion, or even with basic decency.

A number of disability charities and organisations have warned about increased abuse directed at disabled people. They say that much of the media and many individuals in government are perpetuating a damaging worldview, in which people with disabilities or claiming benefits are undeserving, don’t contribute to society the way “we” do, and are somehow responsible for the financial hardships that the rest of us face.

It seems like people are letting the indignation they feel at the thought of being cheated by “scroungers” overwhelm them. This fear is blocking their capacity to behave with compassion to other people in need, and they’re choosing instead to be harsh and judgmental as a first resort.

There’s little doubt that a lot of misleading media coverage is fuelling this kind of attitude. The continuous portrayal of feckless scroungers as representative of benefits claimants in general actively encourages many newspaper readers to see these people as part of a hated outgroup.

The situation is also not improved by the shockingly ignorant assertions made by some government ministers, such as Maria Miller. Frighteningly for someone in the role of the UK’s minister for disabled people in the Department for Work and Pensions, her concern for the people she’s supposed to be representing and helping doesn’t seem to stretch as far as looking at the facts; the 400,000 jobs on offer that she’s so proud of doesn’t look so impressive when compared against 2.68 million unemployed people (let alone those already in work but looking for another job). To blame the problem on a lack of “appetite” for work is ludicrous.

Across the pond in the US, the Governor of Florida has been pressing on with his own efforts to vilify the poor, by demanding drug tests from those in line to receive welfare. The project is estimated to cost $178,000,000 this year, and it currently looks like the savings will amount to less than 0.1% of that amount. They’re not turning out to be a shower of crackheads at quite the rate he predicted, and this supposedly money-saving scheme is becoming immensely wasteful.

I can’t see into Governor Rick Scott’s mind and determine why he’s been keen to spend so much of his taxpayers’ money on a scheme that serves only to demonise a demographic least able to defend themselves. There are probably political pressures weighing on him, and it’s possible he rationalised himself into thinking that it was a good idea. He’s a complex human being himself, and doesn’t deserve hatred.

But it’s clear that civilised society has a long way to go before we can stop othering the disabled and the poor, stop finding reasons to hate them and dehumanise them to assuage our guilt about their situation, and start treating everyone in a way that befits the values we claim to aspire to.

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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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The 99%

A commenter on Cubik’s Rube recently suggested a potential topic for this blog:

The Occupy movement tries to get sympathy by dividing everyone into “us” (the 99%) and “them” (the 1%)… Not saying that there aren’t huge problems with income inequality, just that pushing the 1% into an outgroup probably won’t help us think clearly about the issues.

I think he’s right. On a personal level, I have sympathies with the Occupy movement and opinions about economic inequality that lie outside the scope of this blog. A relevant question to ask here, though, is just what the supposed divide between the 99% and the 1% actually means.

The objections of the Occupy protesters who rally around the 99% banner are, broadly speaking, focused on what they see as an unjust inequality in personal wealth, between the very richest Americans and the less well-off majority. Of particular concern is the extent to which this majority are suffering higher taxes and reduced public services, on account of the reckless and financially ruinous actions of a small cadre of wealthy elites in the banking industry.

Like I say, I have a lot of sympathy with this position. But it’s important to remember that, while certain reprehensible actions may have been taken, the world’s economic problems are not the sole and complete responsibility of one solid, easily defined demographic of individuals.

In particular, the rich don’t deserve to be despised simply for being rich. The system that allows a privileged minority to rise to the top in such a way might be objectionable, and certain individuals might deserve admonishment for their actions in maintaining an unjust economic framework, and exacerbating the oppression of the poor. But earning a living that allows one to lead a life of leisure is part of the American Dream, something that many people aspire to. It can be done without being some evil fat-cat who’s cruelly exploiting the masses for his own selfish ends.

This isn’t to say that such exploitation doesn’t occur, or shouldn’t be addressed where it does. But it’s important to think carefully before placing the blame on, and subsequently nurturing an instinctive loathing for, an entire block of people you don’t know. Vilifying an outgroup is an all-too-easy way of kidding yourself that you’ve identified the root cause of a problem.

The idea of the 99% is a useful one, which originated from a pithy summation of the state of economic inequality in the USA. But that top percentile cut-off point is an arbitrary one, with no particular reason for dividing the country into two distinct camps on either side of it. It’s important to be careful of taking it too far beyond its usefulness as a gimmick, and being led into a troublesome, entirely artificial us/them stand-off.

If it sounds like I’m generally down on the Occupy movement, or don’t support their anger and the legitimate reasons for their protest, then I wish I could reassure you that this really isn’t the case. I don’t want to make it sound like I think being mean to rich people is the most egregious injustice that’s going on here. My half-baked notions about economics and politics, among other things, are discussed in more detail at Cubik’s Rube.

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