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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In Brief: Dred Scott

In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford, by a margin of 7 to 2, that Black people, whether free or enslaved, were “beings of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations.” Indeed, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney famously insisted that Blacks are “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

While most now regard the Dred Scott Decision as an embarrassing taint on the Court’s jurisprudence, it remains a frightening reminder of the depth of hatred and irrationality that once ruled the day. But Dred Scott and the legacy of slavery in this country, as well as the tremendous strides we have taken over the last 150 years, also point to what I believe to be a larger truth: it is much harder to hate and oppress a people when you recognize their humanity… And not only does this recognition make hate more difficult to sustain, it also makes the denial of fairness, justice and common human decency that much harder to justify.

(via the ACLU’s Blog of Rights)

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Lock ’em up and throw away their rights

Yet more plans are being suggested by the British government which will actively widen the gap between the privileged and the unfortunate.

These latest proposals suggest stripping those in prison of even more of whatever rights and human decency remain to them. Convicted criminals may be banned from “claiming compensation for injuries sustained in attacks, in prison or after release”, as well as being denied the right to vote while serving time.

As The Justice Gap points out, the language used by politicians around these issues often serves to place “criminals” in some external category, as being separate from the rest of us and wholly defined by the fact of their having been convicted of some crime. The fact that these are still people we’re talking about is easily forgotten, making the idea of denying them compensation if they’re physically assaulted easier to swallow.

This othering and dehumanisation is even worn as a badge of pride by the people who run the country. The Prime Minister was quoted last year as saying:

It makes me physically ill even to contemplate having to give the vote to anyone who is in prison.

Now, that’s a very unusual thing to have your stomach literally turned by. It seems far more likely that David Cameron is merely strongly against the idea, and used this common idiom to emphasise his point. But the fact that he was so keen to exaggerate his feelings makes it clear that he expects to be praised and admired for taking such a strong, no-nonsense attitude. He finds it a courageous and powerful aspect of his character, to be so sickened by this entire demographic of the citizens whose interests he’s supposed to be serving.

Rights are called rights for a reason. They’re things we’re all supposed to be entitled to, not things we are only granted by the magnanimity of the state.

Clearly there are some individual instances in which restraining some of those rights is currently the best we can make of a bad situation – I’m not arguing that every violent offender should be allowed the unmitigated right to walk the streets.

But to sweepingly deny basic individual liberties to an entire swathe of the population, generalising about every one of them, regardless of personal circumstances, and marginalising this out-group even further for the good of the “society” you’re trying to pretend they’re not a part of? That’s some fine othering, right there.

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Nazis

In 1961, in the wake of the recent horrors and atrocities of the Second World War, a researcher at Yale University proposed a scientific experiment.

He wanted to investigate how the appalling and inhumane actions performed and ordered by Adolf Hitler and members of the Third Reich could have been possible, in anyone not severely impaired by some kind of sociopathic personality disorder.

He ended up demonstrating that, under certain circumstances, ordinary people can be persuaded into acts of barbaric cruelty. Specifically, he created a situation in which two-thirds of participants administered what they believed to be a massive, potentially fatal electric shock to an innocent person, simply because they were instructed to do so by an authority figure.

This has become known, after the psychologist who conducted it, as the Milgram experiment. Today, it’s considered a landmark in its field, and provided genuinely shocking and revolutionary insight into mankind’s capacity to perform unconscionable acts.

It’s not hard to understand why people might have sought some kind of explanation based in errant psychology as to how something as evil as the Holocaust could take place. Six million Jews were killed, as part of a systematic genocide that included many other “inferior” minority groups.

The regime of the Third Reich was filled with dehumanising tactics, not least in propaganda films such as The Eternal Jew, commissioned by Joseph Goebbels. The cartoonish depictions of Jewish people that the Nazis attempted to popularise all served to place these millions of people in the category of an “other”, of a comical stereotype, of someone not really the same as a proper human, of someone who the rest of us might be better off without, and whose suffering certainly needn’t concern us.

By the time Jews were having their property confiscated as a matter of official policy, they had been successfully othered in the minds of enough Europeans that the Nazis could proceed with their “Final Solution” without any significant uproar.

It was this sort of euphemistic jargon, coupled with all the dehumanising psychological techniques brilliantly employed before and throughout the War, by which people could avoid having to directly address – or even think about – the murder of millions of individuals to which it referred.

Nobody involved in the Third Reich needs to have been an inhuman monster to achieve this. They only made clever use of a number of aspects of human behaviour, of the shameful ways in which we are naturally inclined to act if the circumstances are right.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Milgram’s research was, not the original experiment, but the variations on the same theme which followed it. For they suggested, not simply that man has an inherent tendency toward atrocities, but that certain particular facts of the situation can strongly influence our capacity or likelihood to act with either compassion or indifference. A closer physical connection to their “victim” lessened the subjects’ tendencies to act cruelly toward them. A greater distance between themselves and the authority figure urging them on had a similar effect. The presence of a stooge, ostensibly in the same role as them, and either refusing to administer the electric shocks or pressing on with it to the bitter end, also greatly influenced people’s decisions about how to behave. Seeing someone else defy their instructions gave them the courage to do the same; but they were even less likely to resist committing a terrible act if their peer had already gone through with it.

The Nazis who committed the worst atrocities of the war provided themselves with circumstances which allowed them to justify their actions, and let them avoid any negative mental repercussions. Their propaganda discouraged any thought in others which saw their enemies as fully realised humans. Their goals required the deliberate clouding of rational thought and the silencing of compassion.

Here’s a lesson to be learnt: Let’s try not to have goals like that.

That the Nazis acted with appalling cruelty is no revelation. What matters is what we can learn about how not to behave like that. We don’t just need to do anything easy like not hate a particular racial or religious demographic. We have to learn how “the enemy” has often been stereotyped as a uniformly antagonistic mass of “others”, and be able to recognise any hint of such thinking in our own interactions with the world. Such tribalism is, without exception, destructive and harmful.

Not even the Nazis were less than human. There are no “others”.

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Jessica Ahlquist

The atheist and skeptical blogosphere (which is kinda my thing) has been abuzz these past couple of weeks with the case of Jessica Ahlquist, a young atheist activist who recently won a legal battle in the US to have a religious prayer removed from her school.

My rather irate write-up of this is here, and some of the reaction she’s been getting involves the most startling and disheartening cases of othering and dehumanisation I’ve seen.

Regardless of the validity of her case, numerous religious people have so vilified this 16-year-old girl in their minds that they’ve somehow managed to justify extreme verbal abuse, including threats of physical assault, rape, and murder.

The comments include laughter and mockery at the concern she’s expressed over her family being attacked (after her home address was made public). She’s been called stupid, evil, psycho, garbage, a disgrace, a bitch, a scumbag, a worthless cunt. Even the label “atheist” is used as a term of abuse by many Christians, as a sufficiently effective dehumanising tactic that they no longer need to think of her as a person once they’ve successfully pegged her as part of such a hated out-group.

These people clearly have no understanding of Jessica’s mindset, and I am equally baffled as to theirs.

But I’m under no delusion that their decisions to abuse and bully a young girl are the result of anything other than distinctly human thought processes. The state of mind they’ve arrived at is so alien to me that I don’t know how to speak to it in a way that would establish any meaningful connection. Maybe they’ve each grown up learning to be scared of having their rights taken away, and Jessica’s case has pushed those fear buttons. Perhaps casually joking (as it probably seems to them) about abusing or killing outsiders acts as a useful way to solidify their group, and make them feel safer in their own social stratum. This is vague, pop-culture psychology, but these kinds of processes wouldn’t be unprecedented in explaining how people or groups end up doing terrible things.

And given that their decisions, however unconscionable, were arrived at by thought processes driven by human psychology, rooted in a bunch of drives and fears which have been moulded by millions of years of evolution in competitive environments, I can’t dehumanise them in turn. Nobody in this story is any sort of inhuman monster. There are no “others”. They’re all just people.

But that doesn’t mean their actions can’t be spoken out against. Treating another human being with so little dignity or respect is abhorrent, and is made worse by the facts of their target’s youth and the total lack of significant provocation on her part. I completely reject this behaviour as an iniquity unworthy of a sentient species.

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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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Rick Santorum and abortion

Republican politician and Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum is not a popular man among the American left.

He’s outspokenly a social conservative, and is strongly opposed to the liberal positions on a number of political issues that mean a lot to people, such as abortion, immigration, and gay rights. Dan Savage’s NSFW campaign to redefine “santorum” exemplifies the disrespect widely held for him.

Recently, there’s been a resurgence of interest in Santorum’s position on abortion, particularly with regard to an incident in his own family some fifteen years ago, for which he has been widely criticised online.

While his wife was pregnant, she was told that a fatal defect in the fetus meant that it had no chance of surviving. They decided to opt for a “long-shot intrauterine surgery”, which unfortunately led to complications. Karen Santorum had an infection that needed some sort of intervention if it wasn’t going to kill her.

The medical recommendation was that the fetus be removed, or at the very least that antibiotics be administered, in order to save her life. Even in the latter case, though, this would likely induce labour, which would effectively kill the fetus, unviable though it was in any case. The Santorums agreed to the antibiotics.

The doctors wanted to do more to accelerate her labour and get her out of danger faster, but she refused. In the end, the child was delivered without any further intervention. As predicted, it was too undeveloped to have a chance of surviving, and died after a couple of hours.

Whether or not this set of events can be summarised by saying “Rick Santorum’s wife had an abortion” is a semantic matter. What seems clear is that these two people went through a difficult experience, where their concerns for personal safety butted up against the values they considered deeply important in an emotionally fraught context.

And both partners, judging by the report, seemed to understand at least some of the issues that people with difficulties in pregnancy face when making these kinds of decisions. Rick Santorum is quoted as saying:

Obviously, if it was a choice of whether both Karen and the child are going to die or just the child is going to die, I mean it’s a pretty easy call.

His wife Karen said:

If the physician came to me and said if we don’t deliver your baby in one hour you will be dead, yeah, I would have to do it.

These statements, and their actions, seem to contradict Santorum’s stated position on abortion – namely, that doctors who perform abortions should be charged with murder, with no exceptions. Even though it’s something he’s been through himself, and he’s had a chance to experience the complexities that can arise, and the fuzziness of the boundaries, he’s still apparently unwilling to allow that other people might face the same difficulties he and his wife did. That the conflicting emotions he must have felt when his wife’s life was in serious danger, the difficult and nuanced decisions, the extenuating circumstances, are all things which might apply to millions of other people. Those other people out there who aren’t Rick Santorum or his wife.

It’s a shame that such a prominent politician, even with personal experience of this ordeal, is still such a rigid thinker as to group together every other abortion out there as straight-forward unambiguous murders. And yet, the fact that he and his wife went through something difficult themselves seems to have led to him being hated even more by some commentators, which I don’t think is constructive.

Rick Santorum’s position on abortion appears to be ideological, and is not one I agree with. But he was trying his best to act morally on that day in October 1996, and the result wasn’t close to being one of his great moral failings. He’s made statements since then which are unthinkingly inhumane, and bafflingly lacking in sympathy. There’s plenty of room for them to be criticised without employing his own tactics, of demonising his decision-making at a time when an abortion might have saved his wife’s life.

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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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Gay Pride compared to KKK

Today’s post on Cubik’s Rube was about the recent comments by Cardinal Francis George, the Archbishop of Chicago, in which he expressed concern that the Gay Pride Parade in that city might “morph into something like the Ku Klux Klan”.

There’ll be a more prominent article on this site about gay rights in due course. More pertinent at the moment is this quote, part of a statement in support of the cardinal that was offered by the Illinois Family Institute:

The salient question for conservatives is, “Does the analogy work?” … Whether it offends the sensibilities of those who choose to make their unchosen homosexual attractions central to their identity is irrelevant.

The explicit declaration of this organisation is that whether what they say offends or hurts gay people, or adds to the general atmosphere of their oppression, doesn’t matter in the slightest when they choose their words. They’ve neatly blinkered themselves to the feelings of this bloc of fellow human beings, so that they get to denounce anyone who commits “indecent, degrading, undignified” acts, without having to feel a shred of empathy toward the people they’re demeaning.

Even leaving aside the question of the morals of homosexual behaviour, this method of treating people is unkind, and not conducive to achieving any humane goals. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is a phrase commonly heard from some Christians, but if it’s a homily the Illinois Family Institute are trying to abide by, they don’t seem to be having much success with the first part.

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Israeli extremists harass children

Here’s a saddening example to start us off: An eight-year-old girl is among those being mocked and assaulted by religious extremists in Israel.

She is being treated as less than human, and undeserving of decency and dignity, and this is wrong.

Naama herself is Jewish, and goes to a religious school, but she is not part of the ultra-Orthodox community. These Haredi Jews hold to the strictest, most conservative interpretation of Jewish law, and object to Naama’s “immodest” form of dress – which includes “long sleeves and a skirt”.

Regardless of the nature of their objection to what seems (to me) entirely reasonable behaviour and unremarkable attire, these extremists’ methods of expressing themselves include calling an eight-year-old child a whore, spitting on her, and throwing rocks at journalists who come to report on the case.

The othering techniques being used by the religious extremists in this case are clear. The children attending this school are probably not even making their own decisions about how to dress; expecting them to already adhere to your own set of principles is unreasonable, and abusing them for this difference is unconscionably cruel. But they’re part of an out-group, and so these zealots have conveniently labelled them all in their minds as undeserving of decent, humane treatment. Because they’re of a different religion, it’s easy to dismiss their autonomy, and rationalise any suffering laid upon them as merited.

Unsurprisingly, this rationalisation is easily extended to anyone connected to these young people, regardless of their motivations or diversity of views. Children, parents, journalists: they’re all the enemy, a big homogeneous mass of other.

Looking in the other direction, I disagree with the Israeli cabinet minister who described the religious extremists in question as “psychopaths“. I suspect (from an admittedly uninformed standpoint) that it’s unlikely that most of them possess that particular personality disorder. They’re human beings too, who’ve arrived at what seems to us a bizarre set of priorities, and who have successfully dehumanised these children in their minds to an extent that enables them to commit extreme cruelty, while distancing themselves from any feelings of guilt. This, sadly, is all too natural a set of human behaviours, and by no means requires any abnormal mental health condition.

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

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