Tag: Language

Sticks and stones: abusive labels, self concept – when words become weapons

The socio-political perspective.

My friend Harry Ottley once told me, many years ago, that I could kill a man with words. It was at a time when I was struggling to come to terms with a series of horrible events. Recovering from trauma takes time and for a while, I wasn’t myself. I didn’t want any company at the time, and Harry, who simply wanted to offer support, found me somewhat antisocial and blunt.

We can heal, though. It takes time, a lot of soul-searching, it’s often a very painful process and there are no short cuts. One of the reasons I decided to study psychology and sociology was my abiding interest in how we are immersed in each other: we exist, connect, shape and are shaped in a social context: in an inter-subjective realm, our behaviours affect each other, often profoundly.

Language, narratives, ideologies, norms and all of the mechanisms we draw on to make sense of and to navigate the universe can stifle us, damage and repress us, but may also transform and liberate us.

Harry is right. What we say to each other matters very much.

The range of what we say and think and do is limited by what we don’t notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds

Some people often use the “freedom of speech” plea to justify their prejudice. They say they have a right to express their thoughts. But speech is an intentional ACT. Hate speech is intended to do harm – it’s used purposefully to intimidate and exclude 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. Bigots are conformists – they tend not to have independent thought. Prejudice thrives on Groupthink.

Being inequitable, petty or prejudiced isn’t “telling it like it is” – a claim which is an increasingly common tactic for the right, and particularly UKIP – it’s just being inequitable, petty or prejudiced.  And some things are not worth saying. Really. We may well have an equal right to express an opinion, but not all opinions are of equal worth.

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.

This term was adopted by US conservatives as a pejorative term for all manner of attempts to promote 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.

“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 narratives 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.

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 even 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 learn this from history, and formulated human rights as a consequence.

UKIP would have us unlearn the lessons of the Holocaust so that people can say “I’m not being racist, but…” or “It’s not wrong to say immigrants should be sent home…” and so on.

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, obscuring, deceiving and so on, they may also issue commands and instructions. We “spell” words. Spelling may also be described as “words or a formula purported to have magickal powers.” Words act upon others and elicit responses.

Yes, they may profoundly impact on others. With words, both spoken and unspoken, we can shape and re-shape the universe. We shape and transform each other. We can create. Einstein changed the meaning of the word “mass” and transformed Newton’s universe of structures to his own – one of events. It’s a different universe.

We can oppress or liberate with a few intentional words. The choice is ours.

The psychological perspective

“Every relationship. . . implies a definition of self by others and other by self. . . A person’s ‘own’ identity can never be completely abstracted from his identity-for-others.” From Self and Others – R D Laing.

The human mind is social. Through a process of symbolic interactions, beginning as children, humans begin to define themselves meaningfully within the context of their socialisations.

The looking-glass self is a social psychological concept, first mentioned in Human Nature and the Social Order by Charles Cooley in 1902. It’s basis is that a person’s sense of self-hood arises from social, interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of others. We internalise those interactions. The term refers to how people shape their self-concepts based on their understanding of how others perceive them.

People tend to conform to how they think others think them to be,  especially children, since they don’t have the necessary experiences and inner resources to reject labels, and it’s difficult, or arguably impossible, to act differently from how a person thinks he or she is perpetually perceived. Individuals use language and thought as the basis of their self concept.

Cooley said: “The thing that moves us to pride or shame is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another’s mind.”

Self-fulfilling prophecy is the behavioural confirmation effect, in which behaviour, influenced by expectations, causes those expectations to come true. People react, not only to the situations they are in, but also, and often primarily, to the way they perceive the situations and to the meaning they ascribe to their perceptions.

Sociologists often use the Pygmalion effect, interchangeably with self-fulfilling prophecy, and the effect is most often cited with regard to educational under-attainment, social class, race.

“When teachers expect students to do well and show intellectual growth, they do; when teachers do not have such expectations, performance and growth are not so encouraged and may in fact be discouraged in a variety of ways. How we believe the world is and what we honestly think it can become have powerful effects on how things will turn out.”  James Rhem, executive editor for the online National Teaching and Learning Forum.

In the context of race, gender and class, negative labelling is often associated with  socio-political control mechanisms and prejudice. Stereotypes and labels estrange us from our authentic possibilities. The attributions and labels that people exchange on a symbolic level, also have the function of instruction or injunction, this function may be denied,  giving rise to one type of “mystification”, rather like hypnotic suggestion.

“Pain in this life is not avoidable, but the pain we create avoiding [our own] pain is avoidable.” Ronnie D Laing.

It’s almost impossible for individuals – especially children – to avoid experiencing changes to their psyche and  subsequent actions following repeated emotional abuse (and physical abuse, psychological violence is so very often a precursor to physical violence).

Research consistently shows that children subjected to verbal aggression, may exhibit a range of serious disorders, including chronic depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociation and anger. Words Can Be Weapons is a powerful multimedia campaign based in China that illustrates how words may be turned into weapons, to illustrate that what we say can hurt and damage others, very literally.

The number of crimes committed by juveniles has doubled in China, and the Centre For Psychological Research in Shenyang says its studies link juvenile crime to childhood emotional abuse – a taboo subject in China. The centre partnered with the Beijing office of advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather. Six teenagers were interviewed in Shenyang Detention Centre about negative, hurtful statements their parents had said to them in the past, such as “moron” and “You’re a disgrace.” The video then transforms these words, powerfully, into replications of the actual weapons these young people later went on to use to commit crimes.

Juggi Ramakrishnan, Ogilvy and Mather’s executive creative director in Beijing, said, in a press release: “Verbal abuse of children is like setting off a time bomb. It explodes only much later, long after the original perpetrator has left the scene. And it is society that pays the price, as is evident from the rising rate of juvenile crime. We really needed to tell this ‘cycle-of-violence’ story in a way that will make people sit up and take notice.”

One young person begins his interview by saying:  “I guess my world must be a dark one… My mother would yell at me every day, often telling me to go away and die.”

When he heard these words again, this time from his manager, he lost his self-control and stabbed him. The campaign took the words that had haunted him his entire life, and turned them into a knife, like the one he had used in his assault.

The campaign, in the English language version of the video was published on YouTube in April but has only recently garnered the attention it deserves. It has all the content from the project, including full interviews with the young people who are residents in the Detention Centre, at: wordscanbeweapons.co

We know from extensive research that victims of emotional and psychological abuse may also become perpetrators, particularly if no support has been available for the victim. Though many do not.

Damaged self-esteem and psychological injury destabilises us, it may lead to learned, created and distorted or false behaviours as a defence against further psychic injury. Abusers distort our sense of self, lower our self-worth, disorder our emotional responses to others, destroy our faith in our own judgements, skew our perception of others, and erode our personal boundaries.

For children and young people especially, there’s a risk of victim or victimiser roles being normalised, because the experience of alternative  interactions is limited.

In psychology and sociology, internalisation is the process that involves the integration of attitudes, values, standards and the opinions of others into one’s own identity or sense of self.

Studies suggest that young people who have internalised a view of their self as “positive and good” tend to have a developmental trajectory toward pro-social behaviour, those with damaged selves are more likely struggle with the social rules, codes and norms of conduct, empathic affects to others, and adaptive behavioural strategies.

Our selves may be either authentic or false. False selves tend to be an adaptation to false realities.(As opposed to fake selves, which are contrived to manipulate others).

We live in times when the media constructs such false realities every day, with the UK government directing a scapegoating and vilification process which targets vulnerable groups, because of Tory traditional prejudices, in order to justify their ideological inclinations to dismantle the social gains of our post-war settlement, withdraw publicly funded state support for those in need. We have a conservative social order built upon bullying, abuse and coercion from the aristocratic top down: it’s a hierarchy of control and power. And the only authentic quality David Cameron has is his inauthenticity. He’s a typical public school bully, and his atrocious role-modeling gives others permission to bully.

As a consequence, everyday untenable situations arise for those least able to cope with them, because we internalise identity, and through a process of attribution, this currently involves political pretence, dishonesty, illusion, elusion, delusion, and media collusion. This is a government that has normalised abuse on every level, and the consequences of that inflicted psychic trauma will be with us for several generations to come.

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Gaslighting
is a form of  mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception and sanity. Instances may range from simple denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, to the staging of  events and using a narrative with the intention of disorienting the victim, and “invalidating” their experience. The UK government uses gaslighting techniques, by calling critics “scaremongers”, by claiming cuts to services and provisions are “reforms”, and that coercive welfare sanctions “support” people into work, or “make work pay”, especially given the largest fall in wages ever.

Pictures courtesy of  Robert Livingstone 

 


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Techniques of neutralisation – a framework of prejudice

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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.

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

Techniques of neutralisation: Cameron says keep calm and carry on climbing Allport’s ladder

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The Conservatives have deliberately created socio-economic conditions of austerity to benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poorest. They have created cultural scripts that justify their policies, which also serve to alienate and demonise politically constructed categories of the other. Individuals in the most vulnerable social groups, as a consequence, experience feelings of being out-grouped, estrangement from their community and society, experience an outsider status and antagonism and aggression from other ingroups.

It’s recognised in social psychology that people define themselves to a large degree in terms of social groupings and generally, it seems people have a tendency to denigrate others who don’t fit into those groups, with a little prompting.

Others who share our particular qualities are identified as our “ingroup,” and those who do not are our “outgroup.” The Conservatives are basically manipulating an inclination we seem to have towards prejudice, in order to foster and extend social divisions and undermine social cohesion, by creating artificial categories of outgroups. The calculated “striver versus scrounger” rhetoric is one example of this.

Yet as humans we also possess a need to belong, and to be accepted by others. Conformity is one recognisable response of people managing feelings of rejection, of not belonging and of not being accepted. Division and isolation tends to foster obedience.

Alienation (isolation between groups also leads to engulfment within them, and some loss of identity) is the fundamental condition for inter-group conflict. The Asch conformity experiments were a series of laboratory experiments in the 1950s that demonstrated the significant degree to which an individual’s own opinions are influenced by those of a majority group.

Milgram demonstrated that conformity can take precedence over one’s own moral values and principles, and that authority figures and small-scale interactions within wider group behaviour can create significant barriers to individual autonomy.

Divide, diffuse, demoralise and divert certainly seems to be the current political strategy of governance.

However, although it is difficult to resist the majority opinion if each of us is isolated, follow-ups to the Asch experiment also showed that the number of dissenting voices among experimental subjects made a difference to the results – and that just one voice can make a difference amongst many, liberating others from the conformity and obedience tendencies.

Techniques of neutralisation are a linguistic and psychological method employed by people to develop a special set of justifications for their behaviour when such behaviour violates social norms and collective morality.

Such techniques allow people to neutralise and temporarily suspend their commitment to societal values, and to switch off their own “inner protests”, providing them with the freedom to commit deviant acts. Some people don’t have such inner protests – psychopaths, for example – but they may employ techniques of neutralisation to manipulate, and switch off the conscience protests of others.

It’s clear that this is a method frequently employed by the government and that the Tories systematically attempt to distort meanings, to minimise the impact of what they are doing.

For example, when they habitually use the word “reform” euphemistically, what they are referring to is an act that entails the removal of financial support. “Help” and “support” is Tory-speak that means to punish, to compel “behaviour change” (self-reliance without support from the state) and to remove further lifeline support from the group being threatened with Conservative “support”.  

However, when people don’t have enough money to meet their basic needs – which is what welfare was designed to cover, originally (to meet the costs of food, fuel and shelter only) – they struggle and cannot meet higher level psychosocial ones. If people are left without the means to meet the costs of fulfilling their basic needs for long, they will die.

For example, the claim that the bedroom tax is “helping” people into work” or helping child poverty” – when research  shows that 96% of those affected by the bedroom tax can NOT downsize due to a lack of available homes in their area – is a completely outrageous lie. People can’t move as there is a housing crisis, which is due to a lack of affordable homes and appropriately sized accommodation.

How can policies that further impoverish the poorest citizens ever help them to find work or alleviate child poverty, as the government claims? It’s an astonishing lie.

This means that most people have to find extra rent costs from benefits that were calculated to meet only the costs of basic survival needs such as food and fuel, and furthermore, were calculated with the assumption that people on benefits also received full housing costs via housing benefit.

At a time when the cost of living has risen so steeply, and the value of benefits has actually decreased to the point where this essential support is nowmanifestly inadequateaccording to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, it’s inconceivable to regard the bedroom tax as anything other than grossly punitive to the most the poorest, disabled people and some of the most vulnerable citizens.

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 ideas about 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 methods by which, they believed, delinquents/deviants justified their illegitimate actions, and Alexander Alverez identified these methods used at a sociopolitical level in Nazi Germany to justify” the Holocaust:

  • Denial of responsibility. The offender(s) will propose that they were victims of circumstance or were forced into situations beyond their control. For example, the frequently cited statement that the perpetrator was “only carrying out orders from above.”
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.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 Allport’s work, 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 were under the Nazi regime, to that extent a whole society can seemingly forget its moral values and laws , in order to engage in wholesale prejudice, hatred and murder.

Our own government have deliberately manufactured and perpetuated misconceptions about disabled people via their rhetoric, intentional, strategic lies and manipulated statistics.

With the support of a conformist media, the coalition have officialised prejudice, scapegoating, vilification and alienation of already marginalised social groups, hatred – and they have given their permission for people to perpetrate hate crimes by their own negative role modelling.

Disability hate crime in 2011 was at its highest level since records began. Last year, it was also found that victims of disability hate crime are being let down by the criminal justice system and attacks are not being properly recorded, according to a report by three official inspectorates.

Recently, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have been reprimanded for series of rule breaches in which official statistics were used inaccurately, inappropriately, or to “spin” stories about benefit claimants in the media.

The Commons Work and Pensions committee cites examples where the UK Statistics Authority criticised the use of DWP statistics, including by the Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith, and Party Chairman Grant Shapps.

The Committee stated that the government was warned as early as 2011 to take more care over the way it presented information on benefits statistics to the media. Ministers had replied then by saying they had a “robust” system in place to ensure no abuses took place. But this was clearly a lie.

The committee notes, in a published report into DWP performance, that problems still remained and that the UK Statistical Authority had reprimanded the department a number of times in 2013 for the way it used welfare statistics.

The Department of Work and Pensions Select Committee report also highlights how government use of statistics are not being used objectively to shed light on policy implementation, they are being used instead to prop up misconceptions and established preconceptions. Anne McGuire said:

“The DWP ministers and its press office have been found guilty yet again of trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes by its failure to be clear what exactly the statistics show.”

The DWP used its “new figures” to persuade two right-wing newspapers to run stories claiming that the rise in DLA claimants proved the need for reform.

The Sun newspaper claimed the number of DLA claimants on “handouts” was “soaring” at the rate of “one every ten minutes”, and that ministers believed the figures “proved they are right to scrap DLA from April” and replace it with the “tough” new PIP.

The Daily Mail claimed that a new DLA claimant was “signing on” every nine minutes, and that “the rush to secure the state payout is thought to be because its replacement will have tougher eligibility tests”. The article says:

“The cost to the taxpayer is now £13billion a year. An astonishing seven out of ten claimants – 71 per cent – have been offered the benefit for life without any checks to see if they still need it, according to the Department for Work and Pensions.”

Rise: A new applicant is signing on to claim DLA every nine minutes, the latest figures show

The Daily Mail trivialising disability and illness. The caption reads – “Rise: A new applicant is signing on to claim DLA every nine minutes, the latest figures show”


“From April, DLA will gradually be replaced by the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), which is being introduced in an attempt to cut the nation’s benefits bill.”

Note the divisive dichotomy: tax payers are apparently a discrete group of people, portrayed as carrying the financial burden of this social group. However, both DLA and PIP are also classed as in-work support. Many disabled people claiming these benefits do so in order to remain independent and to support them in work. Both benefits were designed to meet the additional living costs that disabled people face because of their disability, to help them remain independent, and are not means tested.

A recent British Social Attitudes survey showed that the Tory austerity cuts may well have become aligned with public opinion, as views have hardened towards perceived “benefits scroungers”. This was a politically calculated outcome, and is used as a self-perpetuating justification for the government’s punitive policies that target the most vulnerable social groups.

It was both individual and collective behaviours that contributed to the Holocaust. Allport’s studies helped us to understand that severe, targeted, personally destructive scapegoating and bullying was a major part in the incremented stages of public acceptance of the unacceptable.

There are some thematic parallels between the social processes and history leading up to the Holocaust and the bigotry, prejudice and targeted bullying we are witnessing in our own society.

What really worries me is how it’s become everyday and almost ordinary to us. And how we fail to link micro and macro level prejudices and behaviours. Ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and may participate in terrible behaviours that are seemingly unthinkable in civilised society. History has taught us that.

Perpetrators – in this case our own government – typically require assistance to manipulate the opinions of others, usually to portray their target as the miscreant. Allport’s Scale is a measure of the manifestation of prejudice in a society.

Gordon Allport is a psychologist who researched how the Holocaust happened. There are identifiable ideological parallels here. They are clear and real:

Stage 1. Antilocution. This is when speech is in terms of negative stereotypes and negative images. This is also called hate speech. It sets the stage for more severe outlets for prejudice. When a government does this, it is giving the public permission to hate others.

Stage 2. Avoidance: Members of the majority group actively avoid people in a minority group. No direct harm may be intended, but harm is done through isolation, and this may include also other forms of social exclusion.

Stage 3. Discrimination: Minority group is discriminated against by denying them opportunities and services and so putting prejudice into action. Behaviours have the specific goal of harming the minority group by preventing them from achieving goals, getting education or jobs, etc. The majority group harms the minority.

Stage 4. Physical Attack: The majority group may vandalize, burn or destroy minority group property and carry out violent attacks on individuals or groups. Physical harm is done to members of the minority group. Examples are lynchings of blacks, pogroms against Jews in Europe and British Loyalists in the 1700s. Incidents of hate crime against disabled people has risen massively since the Tories took office.

Final stage 5. Extermination: The majority group seeks extermination or removal of the minority group. They attempt to eliminate either the entire or a large fraction of a group of people (e.g., Indian Wars to remove Native Americans, lynchings of African-Americans, Final Solution to the “Jewish Question” in Nazi Germany, the Rwandan Genocide, and ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian War). When people deliberately or unthinkingly side with abusers to facilitate the destruction of a targeted victim/group, they play institutional roles very similar to the bureaucrats of the Nazi regime.

There are not just victim/target and perpetrator roles, bystanders play a key role in enabling perpetrators, too. Bystanders are not guilty of simply looking the other way. They are complicit in the abuse; often they are among the key enablers leading to the final elimination of the target. And whether that’s on the level of social groups that are being targeted, or individuals, it’s all part of the same methodology and ideology.

We know that the Asch experiment is related closely to the Stanford Prison and Milgram experiments, in that it tries to show how perfectly normal human beings can be pressured into atypical and irrational  behaviour by authority figures, or by the consensus of opinion around them. Asch’s paradigm indicates that having social support is an important tool in combating conformity. Techniques of neutralisation may serve to help people (including the government) to rationalise acts of prejudice and violence.

However, these experiments lack a degree of ecological credibility – in that they do not necessarily relate to real-life situations, though they undoubtedly reveal something of our human tendencies.

We 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 or re-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. We “spell” words. Spelling may also be described as “words or a formula purported to have magickal powers.”

With words, both spoken and unspoken, we can shape and re-shape the universe. We can create. Einstein changed the meaning of the word “mass” and transformed Newton’s universe of structures to become his own – one of events. It’s a different universe.

We can oppress, liberate or transform with a few intentional words. The choice is ours.

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The just world fallacy

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The Tories now deem anything that criticises them as “abusive”. Ordinary campaigners are labelled “extremists” and pointing out flaws, errors and consequences of Tory policy is called “scaremongering”.

Language and psychology are a powerful tool, because this kind of use “pre-programs” and sets the terms of any discussion or debate. It also informs you what you may think, or at least what you need to circumnavigate first in order to state your own account or present your case. This isn’t simply name-calling or propaganda: it’s a deplorable and tyrannical silencing technique.

The government have gathered together a Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) – it is a part of the Cabinet Office – which is comprised of both behavioural psychologists and economists, who apply positivist (pseudo) psychological techniques to social policy. The approach is not much different to the techniques of persuasion used in the shady end of the advertising industry.  They produce positive psychology courses which the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are using to ensure participants find satisfaction with their lot; the DWP are also using psychological referral with claims being reconsidered on a mandatory basis by civil servant “decision makers”, as punishment for non-compliance with the new regimes of welfare conditionality for which people claiming out of work benefits are subject.

Positive psychology courses, and the use of psychological referral as punishment for non-compliance with the new regimes of welfare conditionality applied to people claiming out of work benefits are example of the (mis)application of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

CBT is all about making a person responsible for their own thoughts and how they perceive events and experiences and can sometimes be used to empower people. But used in this context, it’s a political means to push an ideological agenda, entailing the “responsibilisation” of poverty, with claimants being blamed for not having a job or for being ill and/or disabled.

However, responding with anger, sadness and despair is normal to many events and circumstances, and to deny that in any way is actually grotesque, cruel and horrendously abusive – it’s a technique called gaslighting – a method of psychological abuse that is usually associated with psychopathic perpetrators.

Gaslighting techniques may range from a simple denial by abusers that abusive incidents have occurred, to events and accounts staged by the abusers with the intention of disorienting the targets (or “victims”.)

The government is preempting any reflection on widening social inequality and injustice by using these types of behavioural modification techniques on the poor, holding them entirely responsible for the government’s economic failures and the consequences of  class contingent policies.

Sanctions are applied to “remedy” various “defects” of individual behaviour, character and attitude. Poor people are being coerced into workfare and complicity using bogus psychology and bluntly applied behavioural modification techniques.

Poor people are punished for being poor, whilst wealthy people are rewarded for being wealthy. Not only on a material level, but on a level of socially and politically attributed esteem, worth and value.

We know from research undertaken by sociologists, psychologists and economists over the past century that being poor is bad for mental wellbeing and health. The government is choosing to ignore this and adding to that problem substantially by stripping people of their basic dignity and autonomy.

The application of behavioural science is even more damaging than the hateful propaganda and media portrayals, although both despicable methods of control work together to inflict psychological damage on more than one level. “Positive psychology” and propaganda serve to invalidate individual experiences, distress and pain and to appropriate blame for circumstances that lie entirely outside of an individual’s control and responsibility.

Social psychologists such as Melvin Lerner followed on from Milgam’s work in exploring social conformity and obedience, seeking to answer the questions of how regimes that cause cruelty and suffering maintain popular support, and how people come to accept social norms and laws that produce misery and suffering.

The just-world” fallacy is the cognitive bias (assumption) that a person’s actions always bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person, so that all honourable actions are eventually rewarded and all evil actions are eventually punished.

The fallacy is that this implies (often unintentionally) the existence of cosmic justice, stability, or order, and also serves to rationalise people’s misfortune on the grounds that they deserve it. It is an unfounded, persistent and comforting belief that the world is somehow fundamentally fair, without the need for our own moral agency and responsibility.

The fallacy appears in the English language in various figures of speech that imply guaranteed negative reprisal, such as: “You got what was coming to you,” “What goes around comes around,” and “You reap what you sow.” This tacit assumption is rarely scrutinised, and goes some way to explain why innocent victims are blamed for their misfortune.

The Government divides people into deserving and undeserving categories – the “strivers” and “scroungers” rhetoric is an example of how the government are drawing on such fallacious tacit assumptions – that utilises an inbuilt bias of some observers to blame victims for their suffering – to justify social oppression and inequality that they have engineered via policy.

The poorest are expected to be endlessly resilient and resourceful, people claiming social security are having their lifeline benefits stripped away and are being forced into a struggle to meet their basic survival needs. This punitive approach can never work to “incentivise” or motivate in such circumstances, because we know that when people struggle to meet basic survival needs they are too pre-occupied to be motivated to meet other less pressing needs.

Maslow identifies this in his account of the human hierarchy of needs, and many motivational studies bear this out. This makes the phrase trotted out by the Tories: “helping people into work” to justify sanctions and workfare not only utterly terrifying, but also inane.

Unemployment is NOT caused by “psychological barriers” or “character flaws”. It is caused by feckless and reckless governments failing to invest in growth projects. It’s not about personal “employability”, it’s about neoliberal economics, labour market conditions, political policies and subsequent socio-structural problems.

Public policy is not a playground for the amateur and potentially dangerous application of brainwashing techniques via the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) or “nudge unit”. This is NOT being nasty in a nice way: it is being nasty in a nasty way; it’s utterly callous.

The rise of psychological coercion, “positive affect as coercive strategy”, and the recruitment of economic psychologists for designing the purpose of  monitoring, modifying and punishing people who claim social security benefits raises important ethical questions about psychological authority. Psychology is being used as a prop for neoliberal ideology.

We ought to be very concerned about the professional silence so far regarding this adoption of a such a psychocratic, neo-behavourist approach to social control and an imposed conformity by this government.

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone 

Related reading:

AFTER FORCED-PSYCHOMETRIC-TEST DEBACLE, NOW JOBCENTRES OFFER ONLINE CBT – Skywalker

The Right Wing Moral Hobby Horse:Thrift and Self Help, But Only For The Poor

From Psycho-Linguistics to the Politics of Psychopathy. Part 1: Propaganda.

The Poverty of Responsibility and the Politics of Blame

Whistle While You Work (For Nothing): Positive Affect as Coercive Strategy – The Case of Workfare by Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn (A must read)

 


I don’t make any money from my work. But you can support Politics and Insights and contribute by making a donation which will help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated, and helps to keep my articles free and accessible to all – thank you. 

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