Societies may help to enable or hinder disabled people through policies and attitudes. We have moved such a long way from the Labour era of “celebrating diversity and equality” and from a time of simply celebrating the achievements of disabled people. Now we can’t walk or ride in our wheelchairs with our head up in public for fear of attack, or someone in parliament or the media attempting to invalidate our life experiences, rewriting them, implying we are faking our disability in some way, or that somehow, we made a “wrong life choice” that resulted in our illness and disability, turning us into a “burden on the state” that most of us have contributed to.
We have somehow been labelled the “undeserving poor.” This government have lied and lied to try and justify their punitive policies, claiming that their austerity cuts, which are aimed disproportionately at sick and disabled people and the system of punishing sanctions are “fair.” Our lives have become the moral property of the moralising government, a wilfully ignorant public and egocentric celebrities who like to offer is their “lifestyle tips”. We are no longer free to just be.
How did this level of democratic exclusion, malicious outgrouping and stigmatisation happen in a so-called civilised liberal democracy?
Our own government have deliberately manufactured and perpetuated misconceptions about disabled people via their rhetoric, intentional, strategic lies and manipulated statistics.
The Tories have unforgivably cultivated and manipulated the very worst of the public’s prejudices. They have created prejudiced cultural scripts that justify their policies, which also serve to alienate and scapegoat us, we have become marginalised, outgrouped, defined as the Other.
Language and narrative play a key role in the process of outgrouping and scapegoating. Consider, for example, that some of the most draconian policies are referred to as “reforms.” But we know that the changes, rather than improving people’s lives as implied, the word “reform” has been used by the Conservatives as a euphemism for cuts to essential public services, support and social safety nets. Social security cuts and sanctions that entail the withdrawal of lifeline income to meet basic survival needs (benefits were calculated to meet only the the cost of food, fuel and shelter) are claimed to “help” people to look for work, and to “make work pay.” Cuts to disability income are claimed to “support” disabled people into work.
The idea of techniques of neutralisation was first proposed by David Matza and Gresham Sykes during their work on Edwin Sutherland’s Differential Association in the 1950s. Matza and Sykes were working on juvenile delinquency, they theorised that the same techniques could be found throughout society and published their ideas in Delinquency and Drift, 1964.
They identified the following propaganda methods by which, they believed, delinquents justified their illegitimate actions, and Alexander Alverez identified these methods used at a socio-political level in Nazi Germany to “justify” the Holocaust:
1. Denial of responsibility. The offender(s) will propose that they were victims of circumstance or were forced into situations beyond their control.
For example, this technique was used by the Nazis and usually took the form that the perpetrator was “only carrying out orders from above.”
2. Denial of injury. The offender insists that their actions did not cause any harm or damage.
For example, under the Nazi regime this took the form of special language which hid or disguised what was actually being done, euphemisms in which killing became “special treatment,” “cleansing”and many other similar examples.
3. Denial of the victim. The offender believes that the victim deserved whatever action the offender committed.
For example, The Nazis ensured it was widely believed that Jews were involved in a conspiracy to enslave the whole world, so that killing them was self-defence. Although a fabrication, many Germans, appeared to have believed it to be true.
4. Condemnation of the condemners. The offenders maintain that those who condemn their offence are doing so purely out of spite, or are shifting the blame from themselves unfairly.
For example, claims made by the German government and the media that the other countries that were condemning the Nazis were historically guilty of worse crimes, such as the treatment of blacks and Native Americans in the United States and the treatment of native peoples in the French, British and Spanish colonies.
5. Appeal to higher loyalties. The offender suggests that his or her offence was for the greater good, with long term consequences that would justify their actions, such as protection of a friend/social group/nation.
For example, German perpetrators of genocide thought of themselves as patriots, nobly carrying out their duty.
6. Disengagement and Denial of Humanity is a category that Alverez
added to those techniques formulated by Sykes and Matza because of its special relevance to the Holocaust. Nazi propaganda portrayed Jews and other non-Aryans as subhuman. Dehumanisation was explicitly orchestrated by the government. This also very clearly parallels Gordon Allport’s work on explaining how prejudice arises.
Any one of these six techniques can serve to encourage violence by neutralising the norms against prejudice, aggression and murder, to the extent that they are all implemented together, as they apparently were under the Nazi regime, a whole society can seemingly forget its normative rules, moral values and laws , in order to engage in wholesale prejudice, hatred and genocide.
We really must challenge our own government’s attempts to normalise prejudice. One voice can make a difference amongst many. Social norms are the unwritten rules that govern social behaviour. These are customary standards for behaviour that are widely shared by members of a culture. We know that it is possible for an articulate and vocal minority to stem the normative influence of a larger majority. It’s up to each of us to have a responsible role in meta-scripting those norms.
Wittgenstein once said “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”
Words are powerful. As well as describing, signifying, explaining, persuading, interpreting, deceiving and so on, they may also issue commands and instructions.
Language is impactful and speech is an intentional act. We “spell” words. Spelling may also be described as “words or a formula purported to have magickal powers.” Narratives may create change or support existing orders. With words, both spoken and unspoken, we can shape and re-shape the universe. We can create. We can also destroy. Einstein changed the meaning of the word “mass” and transformed Newton’s universe of structures to his own universe of events. He created a different universe, such is the power of conceptualisation and communication.
We can oppress or liberate with a few intentional words. We can both speak and be the change we want to see. The choice and challenge is collectively ours.
Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone