“It’s fear of the political-correctness brigade that has stopped my colleagues going public — quite sensibly, as it turns out. But I felt I owed it to the taxpayers who are funding the welfare state to publish these data.” Adam Perkins.
Tax payers who “fund the welfare state” are not a discrete class of citizens: most of them come to rely on it as a safety net to ensure they can meet their basic needs at some time in their life. Those currently claiming social security benefits, who are not all of the same people who did last year or the year before, still contribute to one of the largest sources of revenue for the Treasury – VAT and other stealth taxes, such as council tax. In fact almost all benefits are paid back as taxes. The biggest beneficiaries of welfare are those employed to administrate it, especially the growing number of private sector “providers”.
Adam Perkins wrote a book that attempts to link neurobiology with psychiatry, personality and behavioural epigenetics, Lamarkian evolution, economics, politics and social policy. Having made an impulsive inferential leap across a number of chasmic logical gaps from neurobiology and evolution into the realms of social policy and political science, seemingly unfazed by disciplinary tensions between the natural and social sciences, particularly the considerable scope for paradigmatic incommensurability, he then made a highly politicised complaint that people are criticising his work on the grounds of his highly biased libertarian paternalist framework, his highly partisan New Right social Conservatism and neoliberal antiwelfarist discourse.
The problem of discrete disciplinary discursive practices and idiomatic semantics, each presenting the problem of complex internal rules of interpretation, was seemingly sidestepped by Perkins, who transported himself with apparent ease simply on leaps of semantic faith to doggedly pursue and reach his neoliberal destination. He is certainly very fluent in the language of New Right Conservatism, it has to be said. I’m certain he must be very good friends with Charles Murray, of the Bell Curve fame during the Thatcher and Reagan era..
Many from across the political spectrum have objected to Perkins’s book because of the strong whiff of eugenics and social Darwinism that has hit the fan, along with the stench of the long-rotten corpse of Nazism. The atrocities associated with essentialising social groups – attributing “natural”, essential characteristics to members of specific culturally defined groups (based on gender, age, ethnic, “racial”, socioeconomic status, for example) – were thought to be long buried under the brutal and horrifying lessons of history, and quite properly considered taboo.
When societies essentialise others, it is assumed that individual differences can be explained by “inherent”, biological, “natural” characteristics shared by members of a group. Essentialising results in thinking, speaking and acting in ways that promote stereotypical and inaccurate interpretations of individual differences. It invariably involves political discourse that decontextualises structural inequality, using narrative that “relocates” it, coercing the responsibility, internalisation and containment of social problems within some individuals and groups. This always involves processes of projection, stigmatising, outgrouping and scapegoating.
Essentialist thinking is anchored in binary conceptual schema – simplistic and dualistic (two-categories: either this – or that) modes of thought. Both classic and contemporary social theorists have identified and challenged essentialist and dualistic ways of thinking about the social world. Essentialising as a process targets and stigmatises minority groups who historically do not have equal access to power in the cultural production and validation of “knowledge”.
In Perkins’s previous co-authored work – Personality and occupational markers of ‘solid citizenship’ are associated with having fewer children, which is a study of associations between personality and reproductive fitness, he claims that such associations may reveal the adaptive significance of human behavioural traits. He says: “What we dub ‘solid-citizenship’ personality characteristics such as self-control, diligence and responsibility may repay study from an evolutionary perspective as they protect against negative life-outcomes.”
“Perkins et al. tend to regard risk as a synonym of probability and so equate evolutionary fitness with moral hazard.” Hubert Huzzah.
Low conscientiousness, criminality, low educational attainment, low occupational status, extraversion, neuroticism, catholicism, a lack of diligence, responsibility, self control and other assigned personality characteristics are then linked with contraception use, and conflated with low socioeconomic status and negative life-outcomes that are curiously isolated from a wider socioeconomic context.
Again, the very idea that citizenship is defined by certain perceived personal qualities associated with conformity and Conservative values indicates Perkins’s tendency to politicise concepts of human “nature”, and conflate them with New Right narratives, reflected in his interests, choice of research topics and demonstrated in the framing of his conclusions. This reflects a wider current tendency towards the political medicalisation of social problems, which shifts public attention from the sociopolitical and economic context of inequality, poverty and social injustice to politically inculpated, marginalised outgroups.
I have written a lengthy critique of Adam Perkin’s controversial book called “The Welfare Trait.” Whilst I have criticised the work because of its quite blatant partisan ideological, political and economic inception and framing, I have also raised other important issues regarding problematic underpinning assumptions, which include commiting a fallacy of inventing fictitious proximal causes for behaviour, such as “perverse incentives,” problems with constructs of personality and difficulties measuring behaviour traits.
Much of the current understanding of personality from a neurobiological perspective places an emphasis on the biochemistry of the behavioural systems of reward, motivation, and punishment. But those are largely extrinsic factors, located, for example, in political and socioeconomic environments, external to the individual, who responds to their context. This theoretical stance is therefore both limited in terms of depth and explanatory coherence and limiting in terms of generating understanding – the study lacks comprehensiveness and methodological rigour – there is very little consideration of confounding variables, for example, which hinders further potential investigation and discovery. It also reflects in part a re-platforming of an over-simplistic Pavlovian behaviourism. Definition and theory of the biological basis of personality is not universally accepted. There are many conflicting theories of personality in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, philosophy, and neuroscience.
Perkins implies that welfare somehow creates personality disorders and “undesirable” traits. However, such pathologies are defined by experiences and behaviours that differ from societal norms and expectations.
Personality disorder (and mental illness) categories are culturally and historically relative. Diagnostic criteria and categories are always open to sociopolitical and economic definition, highly subjective judgments, and are particularly prone to political abuse.
As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, personality traits are notoriously difficult to measure reliably, and it is often far easier to agree on the behaviours that typify a disorder than on the reasons why they occur. As it is, there is debate as to whether or not personality disorders are an objective disorder, a clinical disease, or simply expressions of human distress and ways of coping. At the very least, there are implications regarding diagnoses that raise important questions about context, which include political and social issues such as inequality, poverty, class struggle, oppression, abuse, stigma, scapegoating and other structural impositions.
An over-reliance on a fixed set of behavioural indicators, some have argued, undermines validity, leaving personality disorder categories prone to “construct drift,” as the diagnostic criteria simply don’t provide adequate coverage of the construct they were designed to measure. There are no physical tests that can be carried out to diagnose someone with a personality disorder – there is no single, reliable diagnostic tool such as a blood test, brain scan or genetic test. Diagnosis depends on subjective judgment rather than objective measurement.
Perkins also conflates descriptive statements with prescriptive ones. Moral conclusions can’t be drawn from non-moral premises. In other words, just because someone claims to have knowledge of how the world is or how groups of people are (descriptive statements), this doesn’t automatically prove or demonstrate that he or she knows how the world ought to be (prescriptive statements).
There is a considerable logical gap between the claim that welfare is somehow “creating” some new kind of personality disorder, called “the employment-resistant personality”, and advocating the withdrawal of support calculated to meet only the basic physiological needs of individuals – social security benefits only cover the costs of food, fuel and shelter.
Perkins does nothing to consider, isolate and explore confounding variables regarding the behaviours and responses of people needing social security support. He claims our current level of support is too high. However empirical evidence clearly indicates it is set far too low to meet people’s physiological needs fully.
Poverty affects people’s mental health as well as their physical health. There is a weight of empirical evidence confirming that food deprivation and income insecurity are profoundly psychologically harmful as well as physiologically damaging. (See the Minnesota semistarvation experiment, for example.) Describing people’s anger, despondency and distress at their circumstances as “antisocial” is profoundly oppressive. The draconian policies that contribute to creating those circumstances are antisocial, not the people impacted by those policies.
Climbing Allport’s Ladder of Prejudice
Since writing my own response to The Welfare Trait I have encountered a surprisingly high number of people in the UK who believe that anyone who can’t work should be left with no money at all to meet their basic survival needs. To clarify, that means they think that not everyone should have a fundamental right to life. My work was labelled “hysterical dogma” by one commentator on the Adam Smith Institute website. I have been very struck by how normalised social Darwinism and related perspectives have become over the last few years, again. And how people that disagree with those views are defined, increasingly as the other. Along with the growing number of other politically defined others. It’s a symptom of an increasingly authoritarian climate.
I was called a “politically correct bleeding heart leftard” by a eugenics advocate on the Telegraph comments section, and was truly baffled that someone could see social conscience, a sense of justice, basic, ordinary qualities of caring, empathy and compassion as somehow pathological qualities. It’s also remarkable that a group of people who claim that sanctions, which entail the removal of people’s means of meeting basic survival needs is “helping” or “supporting” people into work, somehow “fair” and about “making work pay” feel they can lecture anyone else on appropriate language choices, techniques of neutralisation, modes of linguistic behaviourism and censorship.
I have always felt strongly that we have a democratic duty to protect marginalised groups and look out for the cultural underdog – it’s the oppressed that are denied a voice, their rights, autonomy and identity, not the oppressors. Underdogs are generally seen as casualties of injustice or persecution. They are also most often predicted to be losers in a struggle.
Of course not all underdogs remain underdogs. J.K. Rowling, a lone mother claiming social security, who wrote seven of the best-selling books of all time, created a vulnerable, lovable underdog character, Harry Potter – an oppressed but passionate orphan with character, modesty, integrity and all the best of human qualities. He grew up in a cupboard, wearing oversized hand-me-down clothes and doing accidental bursts of magic to get by. He came to face and fight the forces of evil that had oppressed and terrorised two generations of wizards and witches, and non-magical folk alike.
Jo Rowling had a very difficult seven-year period that left her coping with the death of her mother, who had multiple sclerosis, severe depression, the birth of her first child, divorce from her first husband and relative poverty until she finished the first novel in the series.
What is remarkable about Rowling isn’t her “rags to riches” success, though that is undoubtedly a commendable achievement: it’s the social, moral, and political inspiration she has given to so many, young and old alike, that really stands out, and her considerable philanthropy.
Rowling said: “I wanted Harry to leave our world and find exactly the same problems in the wizarding world. So you have the intent to impose a hierarchy, you have bigotry, and this notion of purity, which is this great fallacy, but it crops up all over the world. People like to think themselves superior and that if they can pride themselves in nothing else they can pride themselves on perceived purity.“
Defining a group’s superiority and purity always means defining others as “inferior.”
But is it not normal to care about such issues? Surely that is how we relate to others, our inclination to bond originating from relationships within our families and with significant others, extending to wider communities, and to society as a whole? Yet this way of seeing the world is being pathologised by a growing number of people who see the world only in terms of hierarchies of status and human worth: a raw, “red in tooth and claw” competitive individualism, and always, it seems, for what they can get, how much they can profit and how much they can take from others, rather than what they can give to society.
The general public over the past 5 years have been generally treated by a government of elitist, antidemocratic, cognitive and class supremicists as a political means to an end. Meanwhile people raising genuine concerns about corruption, greed, the stigmatisation of minorities and the growing human rights abuses of marginalised social groups, authoritarianism and so on are ostracised, treated with scorn, ridicule and contempt, and turned into the growing number of Conservative folk devil constructs.
Names such as “extremists”, “raving trot” “loony leftie” “leftard” are bandied around so much now that those using the labels have lost sight of the fact that these are offensive and rude. The really worrying thing is my views are hardly extreme or remotely radical – I’m no “commie.” Most people on the political Left are just regular people wanting regular fairness, social justice, equal rights for all, an end to cruel and unnecessary cuts which target only the poorest, and an end to such crass socioeconomic policies that result in massive inequality and poverty. How did being so normal become so non-mainstreamed?
How can it possibly be that to care for the wellbeing of others in our society, and the kind of world our children will inherit from us is somehow wrong, that values of cooperation, mutual aid and compassion are not the norm, that taking a clear ethical position is something to be ashamed of or a reason to be mocked?
The Conservatives have a moralising, rather than a moral political position, and have you noticed that Tory moralising only ever applies to the poorest people and invariably generates public prejudice, discriminatory policies and fosters social divisions?
It’s a sure sign that the Right have no arguments and critical reasoning to support their fundamental ideological position, that whenever their partisan narratives are challenged by our own narrative, then we are met with blatant attempts to close down debate by a barrage of nasty, resentful, immature name-calling and outrage that is thrown at anyone and everyone that challenges the cultural, epistemological and right-wing ontological status quo and neoliberal doxa.
Some people use the “freedom of speech” plea to justify their prejudice. They say they have a right to express their thoughts. However, speech is an intentional ACT. Hate speech is intended to do harm – it’s used purposefully to intimidate and exclude marginalised, disempowered and vulnerable groups. Hate speech does not “democratise” speech, it tends to monopolise it. Nor is it based on reason, critical thinking or open to debate. Bigotry is a crass parody of opinion and free speech. Furthermore, bigots are conformists – they tend not to have independent thought. Prejudice thrives on Groupthink.
Being inequitable, petty, resentful, vindictive and prejudiced isn’t “being truthful” or “telling it like it is” – a claim which is an increasingly common tactic for the Right – it’s just being inequitable, petty, resentful and prejudiced. And some things are not worth saying. We do have an equal right to express an opinion, but not all opinions are of equal worth. Free speech carries with it some responsibilities.
And the right-wing do frequently dally with hate speech. Hate speech generally is any speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of their race, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. In law, hate speech is any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group. Critics have argued that the term “hate speech” is a contemporary example of Newspeak, used to silence critics of social policies that have been poorly implemented in order to appear politically correct.
However, “political correctness” was adopted by US New Right Conservatives as a pejorative term for all manner of attempts to promote civil rights, multiculturalism and identity politics, particularly, attempts to introduce new terms that sought to leave behind discriminatory baggage attached to older ones, and conversely, to try to make older ones taboo.
Importantly, political correctness arose originally from attempts at making language more culturally inclusive. Critics of political correctness show a curious blindness when it comes to examples of “Conservative correctness.” Most often, the case is entirely ignored, or censorship of the Left is justified as a positive virtue. Perhaps the key argument supporting this form of linguistic and conceptual inclusion is that we still need it, unfortunately. We have a right-wing Logocracy, creating pseudo-reality by prejudicial and discimatory narrative and words. We are witnessing that narrative being embedded in extremely oppressive policies and in their justification.
The negative impacts of hate speech cannot be mitigated by the responses of third-party observers, as hate speech aims at two goals. Firstly, it is an attempt to tell bigots that they are not alone. It validates and reinforces prejudice.
The second purpose of hate speech is to intimidate a targeted minority, leading them to question whether their dignity and social status is secure. In many cases, such intimidation is successful. Furthermore, hate speech is a gateway to harassment and violence. (See Allport’s scale of prejudice, which shows clearly how the Nazis used “freedom of speech” to incite hatred and then to incite genocide.) As Allport’s scale indicates, hate speech and incitement to genocide start from often subtle expressions of prejudice, which advance culturally by almost inscrutable degrees.
The dignity, worth and equality of every individual is the axiom of international human rights. International law condemns statements which deny the equality of all human beings. Article 20(2) of the ICCPR requires states to prohibit hate speech. Hate speech is prohibited by international and national laws, not because it is offensive, but rather, because it amounts to the intentional degradation and repression of groups that have been historically oppressed.
The most effective way to diffuse prejudice is an early preventative approach via dialogue: positive parenting, education and debate. Our schools, media and public figures have a vital part to play in positive role-modelling, like parents, in challenging bigotry, encouraging social solidarity, respect for diversity and in helping to promote understanding and empathy with others.
Hate speech categories are NOT about “disagreement” or “offence.” Hate speech doesn’t invite debate. It’s about using speech to intentionally oppress others. It escalates when permitted, into harassment and violence. We learned this from history, and formulated human rights as a consequence. In this context, political correctness is about inclusive free speech, with rationality, critical thinking, democratic civility and a degree of mutual respect chucked in.
I’m proud to be a part of an ethical, rational, reasonable, decent and civilised Left-wing.
And politically correct?
Damn right I am.
Freedom of speech isn’t about shouting the loudest, trying to intimidate, silence and disempower others or having the last word.
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