Tag: #oppression

The DWP call handlers’ strike, structural violence and the Milgram experiment framework

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Universal Credit call handlers working at centres in Wolverhampton and Walsall have overwhelmingly voted in favour of strike action, accusing the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) of treating them with “utter contempt”.

A ballot of PCS members working for the DWP on it’s highly controversial programme was announced earlier this month, warning of “severe under investment, staff shortages and ironically, criticism from claimants on how they are treated”. They also want full contracts for fixed-term workers, and an end to “management by statistics.”

Speaking ahead of the vote, PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka challenged assumptions by government ministers that “Universal Credit is working well for workers and claimants”, instead arguing that “the opposite is in fact the case”.

He said that is was clear the DWP “want to run this service into the ground”, but the DWP insisted its “top priority remains assessing and making payments to customers”.

PCS and its members are calling on the DWP to hire 5,000 new staff, full contracts for fixed-term workers, and a reduction in the number of calls from Universal Credit claimants each case manager is required to handle.

Commenting on the result of the ballot, Serwotka said: “The message from our members is clear – changes need to be made otherwise they will walkout for two consecutive days.

This will mean that approximately 274 call handlers who work at the two offices will walk out for 48 hours starting on 11 March, after 90% of those balloted by the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union backed industrial action.

Serwotka added: “The union has tried to negotiate for months but to no avail. Ministers have stuck their heads in the sand and our members are now sending them a very loud wakeup call.

“PCS members have not taken the decision to strike lightly but the fact is industrial relations have broken down because ministers seem intent on running this service into the ground while treating staff with utter contempt.”

Margaret Greenwood MP, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “It is shocking that staff working in DWP offices are feeling so stressed through overwork that they are going on strike and calling for the government to recruit more staff.

“Not only is the government’s flagship social security policy Universal Credit failing claimants, the government is also failing the DWP staff who work so hard.

“Labour will deliver a social security system that treats those in need and the people who are employed to support them with respect.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “This result is disappointing, we greatly value the work that our colleagues do and our top priority remains assessing and making payments to customers.

“We are comfortable with current staffing levels and will monitor and reallocate resource where necessary.

“Contingencies are underway to ensure the smooth running of our services to minimise any impact.

“We urge PCS to seek to resolve this through further dialogue.”

Serwotka said: “The union has tried to negotiate for months but to no avail.

“Ministers have stuck their heads in the sand and our members are now sending them a very loud wakeup call.

“PCS members have not taken the decision to strike lightly.

“But the fact is industrial relations have broken down because ministers seem intent on running this service into the ground while treating staff with utter contempt.”

Four years ago, 1,300 Universal Credit staff staged a 48-hour walkout in protest of the “oppressive” workplace culture.

DWP workers complained of staff shortages, poor training and at least £40m ‘squandered’ on IT that wasn’t used.

However, there was no complaint made about the intentionally cruel policies being implemented by the DWP, which troubles me a lot.

Some thoughts: government policy, structural violence and the Milgram experiment framework 

Milgram 1

 

One of the most famous and controversial studies of obedience in psychology was carried out by Stanley Milgram in 1963, he was a psychologist at Yale University. He conducted an experiment which explored the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. Milgram examined justifications for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the World War II, Nuremberg War Criminal trials. Their defence was often based on “obedience” – that they were just following orders from their superiors.

The experimental procedure was that the participant was paired with another person and they drew lots to find out who would be the ‘learner’ and who would be the ‘teacher.’  However, the draw was fixed so that the participant was always the ‘teacher’, and the ‘learner’ was one of Milgram’s confederates (and actor pretending to be a real participant).

The ‘learner’ (a confederate called Mr. Wallace) was taken into a room and had electrodes attached to his arms, and the ‘teacher’ and researcher (there was also an “experimenter” dressed in a grey lab coat, played by an actor – not Milgram) went into a room next door that contained an electric shock generator and a row of switches marked from 15 volts (Slight Shock) to 375 volts (Danger: Severe Shock) to 450 volts (XXX). 

Milgram was interested in researching how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person, and how easily ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities. 

Two rooms in the Yale Interaction Laboratory were used – one for the ‘learner’ (with an electric chair) and another for the ‘teacher’ and experimenter with an electric shock generator. The ‘learner’ (Mr. Wallace) was strapped to a chair with electrodes. After he has learned a list of word pairs, the ‘teacher’ then tested him by naming a word and asking the ‘learner’ to recall its partner/pair from a list of four possible choices. For the purpose of the experiment, Mr Wallace gave the wrong answers deliberately.

The punitive shocks were administered at an increasing voltage each time the ‘learner’ made a mistake. There were 30 switches on the shock generator (pictured above) marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock). 

Milgram wanted to know whether people would administer what they believed to be fatal shocks to another person under the pressure of an authority figure.

Some of the teachers protested as the authority figure gave the orders to continue — which began with “please continue” or “please go on” and increased in severity to “you have no other choice, you must go on.” 

Other subjects were detached and methodical, not protesting even as the learner screamed from the other room, ostensibly from the extremely painful shocks.

65% (two-thirds) of participants (‘teachers’) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.

Mr Wallace was a convincing actor who shrieked in pain and begged for the shocks to stop. All of participants believed the shocks they administered were real. 

They weren’t.

Participants in the experiment were also told that researchers know a good deal about how positive reinforcement improves learning, but they know very little about how punishment improves learning. This was the ‘front’ for the purpose of the study.

Milgram’s pessimistic conclusion was that ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being.  Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up.

People tend to obey orders from other people if they believe their authority is morally right and/or legally based. This response to legitimate authority is learned in a variety of situations, for example in the family, school, and workplace.

The government’s welfare policies place emphasis on citizen ‘learning’, compliance and obedience to authority. The Conservatives’ distorted and prejudiced views about social security claimants have resulted in technocratic attitude and ‘behavioural change’ programmes – a pseudoscientific behaviourist approach – which is embedded in extremely punitive and oppressive policy and DWP practices.  The government’s coercive and behaviourist methods of achieving their aim has resulted in a class related and particularly vindictive form of structural violence. 

The politically orchestrated hierarchical organisation and institutionalisation of structural violence has recently reminded me of the Milgram experiment. 

Structural violence

structural violence

The government’s antiwelfarist ideology has resulted in structural violence being institutionalised, administrated and imposed on targeted groups of society, namely the poorest citizens. From the top down, this culture of inflicting harm on certain groups has become routinised and normalised. It’s hidden in plain view. 

However, the key difference between the experiment and current punitive practices within the DWP – such as sanctions – is that the harm inflicted in the former was not real. The punishments inflicted by the DWP are very real and are having catastrophic consequences on some groups of citizens, ranging from hunger and fuel poverty to destitution, rough sleeping and even death. 

In a few years it has become acceptable to threaten people who are already on the breadline with the removal of their lifeline support, leaving them without the means to meet their most basic survival needs – food fuel and shelter.  

According to Norwegian sociologist, Johan Galtung, structural violence is an “avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs”. As it is avoidable, structural violence is a high cause of premature death and unnecessary disability. Because structural violence affects people differently in various social structures or groups, it is very closely linked with inequality, social injustice and oppression.

A major contributing factor to the increase the ‘culture of workplace oppression’ is the collective behaviours of the current government, which has perpetuated, permitted and endorsed prejudices against marginalised social groups, such as disabled and unemployed citizens, with a complicit media amplifying these prejudices.

Because the Conservatives’ policies embed such a deeply punitive approach towards the poorest social groups, this in turn means that those administering the policies, such as staff at the DWP and job centres, for example, are also bound by punitive, authoritarian behaviours directed at the targeted group.

As authority figures and role models, their behaviours establish a normative framework of acceptability. Parliamentary debates are conducted by the Conservatives with a clear basis of one-upmanship, lies and aggression, rather than being founded on rational exchange. Indeed, ministers frequently sneer at rationality and do not engage in a democratic dialogue, instead they employ the tactics of a bully: denial, gaslighting, scapegoating, vilification, attempts at discrediting, smearing and character assassinations.

This in turn pushes moral and normative boundaries and gives wider society permission and approval to behave the same.

Studies of power, and obedience to authority provide an interesting paradigm in psychology, sociology, social psychology, political science, and obviously within organisational behaviours.

Scapegoating groups of citizens has a wide range of focus: from ‘approved’ enemies of very large groups of people (such as the mythologically discrete group known vaguely as the  ‘tax payer’) down to the scapegoating of individuals by other individuals.

The scapegoater’s target always experiences a terrible sense of their personal accounts of experiences being edited and re-written, with the inadequacies of the perpetrator often inserted into public accounts of their character (projection), resulting in isolation, ostracism, exclusion and sometimes, expulsion and elimination. The sense of isolation is often heightened by other people’s reluctance to become involved in challenging bullies, usually because of a bystander’s own discomfort and fear of reprisal.

Many of the participants in Milgram’s experiment said they acted as they did, not because they were committed to the experimenter or to science, but because they trusted the experimenter not to let them inflict serious harm.

The call handlers who voted to go on strike complain of “severe under investment, staff shortages and criticism from claimants on how they are treated”. They also mention a culture of oppression. Perhaps they believe they are administering harmless policies, and that their own stresses are simply down to severe under-staffing, “management by numbers”, mismanagement of IT projects and ‘complaints’ from claimants. But the call handlers are not those who are being targeted with political ‘contempt’. 

I was shocked that the DWP call handlers complained of “criticism from claimants on how they are treated”, rather than criticising how claimants are being actually being treated. 

Authority bias is the tendency to obey the orders of authority figures, even when you strongly believe that there is something wrong with those orders. During the Milgram experiment, participants could indicate at any point that they wished to stop. Most didn’t. 

At any point during the experiment, participants could indicate that they wish to stop. Any time this happened, the experimenter would tell the subject the following things, in order using an authoritative tone:

Please continue.

The experiment requires that you continue.

It is absolutely essential that you continue.

You have no other choice, you must go on.

If, after saying all four lines, the subject still refused to carry on with the experiment, then the experiment was stopped. 

I’m bitterly disappointed that both the workers themselves and the union fail to recognise the part those workers play within a hierarchy of power that is instrumental in inflicting structural violence on people claiming social security – those who have no negotiating power to change their circumstances whatsoever. 

It’s time to stop the experiment now.

 


 

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Concerns about the impact of Brexit on the human rights of disabled people in update report to UNCRPD

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Yesterday I wrote an article about the government’s shameful lack of progress on disability rights in the UK. I discussed the details of a new report and the recommendations made by the UK Independent Mechanism update report to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

This is a summary of some key concerns that I only touched on in my original write up, and it also focuses on one of the important themes that emerged in the report: the potential impact of Brexit on disabled people’s rights. 

The new report and submission to the UNCRPD – UK Independent Mechanism update report to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (published October 2018) – provides an independent assessment of the UK Independent Mechanism (UKIM) on the “disappointing” lack of progress by the UK governments to implement the UN’s recommendations since August 2017. 

A year on, there is still no comprehensive UK-wide strategy demonstrating how the UK will implement the CRPD Committee’s recommendations. There has also been “continued reluctance” from the UK Government to accept the conclusions of the CRPD Committee’s inquiry report on the impact of the UK Government’s policies on the rights of disabled people. 

Disabled people across the UK continue to face serious regression of their rights to an adequate standard of living and social protection, to live independently and to be included in the community. UKIM has reiterated that the grave and systematic violations identified by the CRPD Committee need to be addressed as a matter of urgency and that the overall approach of the UK Government towards social security protection requires a complete overhaul, so that it is informed by human rights frameworks, standards and principles, to ensure disabled people’s rights are respected, protected and fulfilled.

Despite the empirical evidence presented from a variety of researchers and the UN investigation concerning the significantly adverse effect of welfare reform on disabled people’s rights to independent living and to an adequate standard of living and social  security, the UK Government has failed to act on this evidence and to implement the CRPD Committee’s recommendations regarding these rights.

The authors of the report remain seriously concerned about the continued failure of the UK Government to conduct an assessment of the cumulative impact on disabled people  of multiple policy, cuts and law reforms in relation to living standards and social security. 

In the section about prejudice and negative attitudes, the report also cites a shameful example of rhetoric from the government that has potentially reinforced negative attitudes and the stigma surrounding mental health and disability: “This includes the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, stating before a Committee of the UK Parliament: ‘It is almost certainly the case that by increasing participation in the workforce, including far higher levels of participation by marginal groups and very high levels of engagement in the workforce, for example of disabled people – something we should be extremely proud of – may have had an impact on overall productivity measurements.’

Many people understood this statement as indicating that the increase in disabled people in employment is partly responsible for the UK’s decreasing productivity.”

The report also says that employment rates for disabled people have actually risen only very marginally.  

Conservative prejudice is embedded in social security policy and administration

The UKIM report says that government has not taken appropriate measures to combat negative and discriminatory stereotypes or prejudice against persons with disabilities in public and the media, including the government’s own claims that ‘dependency’ on benefits is in itself a disincentive of employment. This is important because it shows just how embedded Conservative prejudice is in policies and within our social security administration.

The idea that welfare somehow creates the problems it was designed to alleviate, such as poverty and inequality, has become almost ‘common sense’ and because of that, it’s a narrative that remains largely unchallenged. Yet international research has shown that generous welfare provision leads to more, better quality and sustainable employment. 

Moreover, this ideological position has been used politically as a justification to reduce social security provision so that it is no longer an adequate amount to meet citizens’ basic living needs. The aim is to discredit the welfare system itself, along with those needing its support. The government have long wished to replace the publicly funded social security provision ultimately with mandatory private insurance schemes.

The idea that welfare creates ‘dependency’ and ‘disincentivises’ work has been used as a justification for the introduction of cuts and an extremely punitive regime entailing ‘conditionality’ and sanctions. The governenment have selectively used punitive behavioural modification elements of behavioural economics theory and its discredited behaviourist language of ‘incentives’ to steadily withdraw publicly funded social security provision.

However, most of the public have already contributed to social security, those needing support tend to move in and out of work. Very few people remain out of work on a permanent basis. The Conservatives have created a corrosive and divisive myth that there are two discrete groups in society: tax payers and ‘scroungers’ – a class of economic free riders. This of course is not true, since people claiming welfare support also pay taxes, such as VAT and council tax, and most have already worked and will work again, given the opportunity to do so. For those who are too ill to work, as a so-called civilise society, we should not hesitate to support them.

In the recommendations, the authors say the government should implement broad mass media campaigns, in consultation with organisations representing persons with disabilities, particularly those affected by the welfare reform, to promote them as full rights holders, in accordance with the Convention; and adopt measures to address complaints of harassment and hate crime by persons with disabilities, promptly investigate those allegations, hold the perpetrators accountable and provide fair and appropriate compensation to victims.

As a society we take tend to take human rights for granted. We seldom think about rights because much of the time, there is no need to. It’s not until we directly experience discrimination and oppression that we recognise the value of having a universal human rights framework. Our rights define the relationship between citizen and state, and ensure that there is no abuse of power. However, we no longer have equal access to justice and redress for human rights breaches and discrimination. 

The high demand for advice on disability benefits since the government’s welfare reform means that the almost complete removal of welfare benefits from the scope of legal aid has had a disproportionate impact on disabled people or those with a long-term health condition.

People entitled to disability benefits relied on legal aid to support appeals of incorrect decisions and to provide a valuable check on decision-making concerning eligibility for welfare support. The revisions to the financial eligibility criteria for legal aid have had a disproportionate impact on various groups including disabled people, women, children and migrants. This is because of the restrictions that the government placed on legal aid accessibility with the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO).

There has been a 99% decrease in support provided by the Legal Aid Agency for clients with disability-related welfare benefits issues, compared with pre-LASPO levels, and the total number of such claims has plummeted from 29,801 in 2011/12 to 308 in 2016/17.

The government has failed to ensure access to justice, removing appropriate legal advice and support, including through reasonable and procedural accommodation for disabled people seeking redress and reparation for the violation of their rights, as covered in the  report.

It’s difficult to imagine that this wasn’t a coordinated effort on the part of the government to restrict citizen freedoms, support and access to justice for precisely those who need justice and remedies the most.

Human rights don’t often seem as though they matter, until they do. But by then, it may be too late. 

Concerns about the impact of Brexit on the human rights of disabled people

In 2016, I wrote an article about concerns raised regarding the rights of disabled people following Brexit. Earlier this year, I wrote another article about my concerns that the European fundamental rights charter was excluded in the European Union (EU) withdrawal Bill, including protection from eugenic policy.

The result of the EU referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, and forthcoming withdrawal, carries some obvious and very worrying implications for the protection of citizens rights and freedoms in the UK. Historically the UK Conservative government has strongly opposed much of Europe’s social rights agenda.

So it was very concerning that the House of Commons voted down a Labour amendment to ensure that our basic human rights are protected after Brexit, as set out in the European Union Charter. 

The EU Withdrawal Bill threatened to significantly reduce existing human rights protections. It excluded both the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (in its entirety) and the right of action for violations of EU General Principles from domestic law after the UK’s withdrawal. It also handed sweeping powers to ministers to alter legislation without appropriate parliamentary scrutiny, placing current rights and equality laws at risk.

Worryingly, Suella Fernandes, who was promoted to the Brexit department earlier this year warned in November last year that transposing the ‘flabby’ charter into British law would give UK citizens additional protections on issues such as “biomedicine, eugenics, personal data and collective bargaining.”

However, the very fact that anyone at all in government objects to retaining these fundamental rights and protections indicates that we do very clearly need them.

It should be inconceivable that a democratic legislature would vote to take away citizens rights. The regressive step means the loss of the Charter goes rights that simply don’t exist in the Human Rights Act or in our common law. Gone is the enforceable right to human dignity. Gone are our rights to data protection, comprehensive protection for the rights of the child, a free-standing right to non-discrimination, protection of a child’s best interests and the right to human dignity, refugee rights, the right to conscientious objection, academic freedom and wide-ranging fair trial rights to name but a few. Then there are the losses of economic and social rights. Gone too, are the right to a private life, freedom of speech, equality provisions and employment rights governing how workers are treated. These are all laws that protect us all from abuses of power. 

A group of more than 20 organisations and human rights legal experts, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission, signed an open letter on the importance of the Charter of Fundamental Rights ahead of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill returning to Parliament on 16 January this year. The letter was published in the Observer.

Trevor Tayleur, an associate professor at the University of Law, explained that the charter, although narrower in focus than the Human Rights Act, offers a far more robust defence of fundamental rights.

“At present, the main means of protecting human rights in the UK is the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) ,” he said. “This incorporates the bulk of the rights and freedoms enshrined in the European convention on human rights into UK law and thereby enables individuals to enforce their convention rights in the UK courts. However, there is a significant limitation to the protection afforded by the HRA because it does not override acts of parliament.

“In contrast, the protection afforded by the EU charter of fundamental rights is much stronger because where there is a conflict between basic rights contained in the charter and an act of the Westminster parliament, the charter will prevail over the act.” 

Under the HRA, only an individual who is a “victim” of a rights violation can bring a claim, whereas anyone with “sufficient interest” can apply for judicial review based on the Charter (see this briefing at p 11)

In their report, UKIM say:  “There are fears that the significant uncertainty in relation to Brexit will lead to a further deterioration of disabled people’s rights.

“The lack of a devolved government in Northern Ireland is also a specific concern to that jurisdiction, because it is significantly inhibiting the relevant departments from taking the required steps. Without a clear and coordinated plan for how the UK and devolved governments will address the UN recommendations systematically, the limited steps taken so far are unlikely to be enough to address the concerns raised by the CRPD Committee.”

The report goes on to say: “Following the European Union (EU) referendum in June 2016, there continues to be significant uncertainty regarding the future applicability of  existing human rights protections in the UK that derive from EU law. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights was excluded from the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, meaning that from ‘exit day’ it will no longer apply in domestic law. 

“As a result, domestic protections are more vulnerable to repeal. The Charter goes further than the non-discrimination provisions in the Equality Act 2010 or the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Article 26 of the Charter, in particular, is a useful interpretive tool to support disabled people’s right to independence and integration and participation in the community. 

The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 also leaves human rights protections at risk of being changed through the use of wide-ranging delegated powers. This means that changes to fundamental rights currently protected by EU law can be made by ministers through secondary legislation [statutory instruments, usually reserved for ‘non-controversial policy amendments] without being subject to full parliamentary scrutiny.

The EU is itself a party to the CRPD. Under EU law, international treaties to which the EU is party have a different status than they do under UK law. For example, EU law (unlike UK law) must be interpreted consistently with the CRPD. To ensure there is no regression, and that disabled people in the UK benefit from future progress driven by the CRPD, the UK Government should ensure these protections are incorporated into UK law, for example by giving enhanced status to the CRPD. 

The Conservatives have used secondary legslation to try and quietly push through several very controversial policies over recent years, such as £4bn-worth of cuts to family tax credits, and the removal of maintenance grants from around half a million of the poorest students in England. The changes mainly hit disabled, ethnic minority and older students.

The government have introduced swathes of significant new laws covering everything from fracking to fox hunting and benefit cuts without debate and scrutiny on the floor of the House of Commons. Many of these policies were not included in the Conservatives’ election manifesto and were nodded through by obscure Commons committees without the substance of the change being debated.

Image result for use of statutory instruments kittysjones

After the House of Lords successfully challenged the tax credit instrument, the Government then proposed limiting peers rights to reject statutory instruments. This would mean if one was rejected by the Lords, the ministers would simply have to retable it and it would pass automatically.  All of this should be seen alongside other Conservative proposals – including limits on freedom of information, changes to constituency boundaries and electoral registration, attempts to choke the opposition of funding within the Trade Union Bill, and the Lobbying Act. 

In light of this repressive pattern of behaviour, you could be forgiven for thinking that we’ve entered the realms of constitutional gerrymandering, with an authoritarian executive waging war on the institutions that hold them to account. With its fear of opposition and loathing of challenge, the government wants to stifle debate, shut down opposition and block proper scruting and democratic accountability. 

It is within this authoritarian political context that many of us have raised concerns about the impact of Brexit on the human rights of disabled citizens.

I’m always concerned that language use sometimes reinforces prejudices against disabled people by focusing on us as a group as ‘vulnerable’ and as ‘those in need’, as opposed to citizens and rights holders. However, grave and systematic violations of disabled peoples’ human right inevitably increases our vulnerability to further political abuse. 

The Yogyakarta Principles, one of the international human rights instruments use the term “vulnerability” as such potential to abuse and/or social and economic exclusion. Social vulnerability is created through the interaction of social forces and multiple “stressors”, and resolved through social (as opposed to individual) means. 

Social vulnerability is the product of social inequalities. It arises through social, cultural, political and economic processes. 

While some individuals within a socially vulnerable context may break free from the hierarchical order, social vulnerability itself persists because of structural – social, cultural economical and political – influences that continue to reinforce vulnerability. Some campaigners are very critical of the use of the word ‘vulnerability’, because they feel it leads to attitudes and perceptions of disabled people as passive victims

Since 2010, no social group has organised, campaigned and protested more than disabled people. Many of us have lived through harrowing times under this government and the last, when our very existence has become so precarious because of targeted and cruel Conservative policies and disproportionate cuts to our lifeline support. Yet we have remained strong.in our resolve. Despite this, some of our dear friends and comrades  have been tragically lost – they have not survived, yet many of them were very strong in their resolve to challenge discrimination and oppression.

In one of the wealthiest democratic nations on earth, no group of people should have to fight for their survival. Vulnerability is rather more about the potential for some social groups being subjected to political abuse than it is about individual qualities. Disabled people currently  are and have been. This is empirically verified by the report and conclusions drawn from the United Nations inquiry into the grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s human rights here in the UK, by a so-called democratic government. 

The government’s ‘paternalism’ is authoritarian gaslighting

Over recent years, Conservative policies have become increasingly ‘paternalist’, also reflecting the authoritarian turn, in that they are designed to act upon us, to ‘change’ our behaviours through the use of negative reinforcement (‘incentives’), while we are completely excluded from policy design and aims. Our behaviours are being aligned with neoliberal outcomes, conflating our needs and interests with the private financial profit of the powerful. 

As one of the instigators of the United Nations investigation, to which I regularly submitted evidence regarding the government’s systematic violations of the human rights of disabled people, and as a person with disability, I don’t care for being  described by Damian Green as “patronising” or being told that disabled people – the witnesses of the investigation – presented an “outdated view” of disability in the UK. This is a government minister attempting to discredit and re-write our accounts and experiences while ignoring the empirical evidence we have presented. Such actions are profoundly oppressive.

The only opportunity disabled people have been presented with to effectively express our fears, experiences and concerns about increasingly punitive and discriminatory policies, to voice a democratic opinion more generally and to be heard, has been in dialogue with an international human rights organisation, and still this government refuse to hear what we have to say. Nor are we consulted with, democratically included or invited to participate in the executive’s decision-making that directly affects us. As UKIM note: 

“There is a continued lack of action from the UK and devolved governments on the CRPD Committee’s recommendations. This includes setting up systems that will  ensure that disabled people and their organisations are involved in the design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation of legislation, policy or programmes that affect their lives. It remains unclear how the new Inter-Ministerial Group on Disability and Society will work with disabled people and their organisations, and UKIM, to promote and monitor implementation of UN CRPD. 

“It is particularly concerning that the UN CRPD’s requirement to effectively involve disabled people and their organisations is not specifically reflected in the inter-ministerial group’s terms of reference. Nor do the terms of reference refer to the CRPD or the CRPD Committee’s recommendations.”

Oppression always involves the objectification of those being dominated; all forms of oppression imply the devaluation of the subjectivity and experiences of the oppressed.

This is very evident in the government’s approach to designing policies that act upon us.  The government has consistently failed to actively consult, engage with and include disabled people, our representative organisations and give due consideration to our views in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of any legislation, policy or programme action related to our rights. Furthermore, the current Minister of State for Disabled People, Health and Work, Sarah Newton, has refused to meet with disabled people and allied organisations. (See also I’m a disabled person and Sarah Newton is an outrageous, gaslighting liar.)

Last year, Theresia Degener, who leads the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), said the UK Government has “totally neglected” disabled people, during a two day meeting with UK government officials in Geneva.

Degener told them: “Evidence before us now and in our inquiry procedure as published in our 2016 report reveals that social cut policies have led to a human catastrophe in your country, totally neglecting the vulnerable situation people with disabilities find themselves in.” 

The Government’s welfare cuts have resulted in “grave and systematic violations” of the rights of disabled people – a claim opposed by ministers but supported by UK courts.

For example, Judges have ruled that three of the government’s flagship welfare policies are illegal because of the impact they have on disabled people and single parents. In January 2016, the Court of Appeal declared the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ unlawful because of its consequences for disabled children, as well as victims of domestic violence. 

Sanctions imposed on people who refused to or could not take part in the Department for Work and Pension’s ‘back to work’ schemes were also thrown out by Court of Appeal judges in April 2016. In June 2017 the High Court said the government’s benefit cap is unlawful and causes “real misery for no good purpose”.  This year, a High Court ruling found that the Personal Independence Payments (PIP) policy had discriminated against people with mental health conditions. 

Between 2011 and 2017 the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) underpaid more than £450,000,000 in means-tested benefits, due to its mishandling of the process by which claimants were moved from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance.

When announcing its plans to remedy those underpayments on 14th December 2017, the DWP claimed the law ‘barred’ it from paying claimants any underpayments arising before 21st October 2014. That would have had two serious effects: first, up to £150,000,000 of the underpaid benefit would have been kept by the Government instead of passed to citizens who were deprived of it through no fault of their own; and second, any arrears which were paid to disabled people could after 52 weeks have been treated as ‘capital’, and reduced or stopped their ongoing entitlement to benefit.

In March 2018 the Child Poverty Action Group, acting for one affected claimant, brought judicial review proceedings in R (Smith) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions JR/1249/2018 arguing that the DWP’s position was unlawful. The DWP accepted that it ‘got the law wrong’. The DWP said it will now start making those payments. It was necessary to take legal action against the Government because it said it had no legal power to fully remedy the consequences of a major error it had made in transferring claimants from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance.

Ministers have also accused by the UN of misleading the public about the impact of Government policies by refusing to answer questions and using statistics in an “unclear way.”

Gaslighting.

The CRPD Committee has requested that the State party (the government) disseminate the concluding observations of their inquiry widely, including to non-governmental organisations and organisations of persons with disabilities, and to disabled people themselves and members of their families, in national and minority languages, including sign language, and in accessible formats, including Easy Read, and to make them available on the government website on human rights. 

That hasn’t happened and is unlikely to do so in the future. So please do share this article, The government’s shameful lack of progress on disability rights in the UK – new report update and submission to the UNCRPD Committee, and the UKIM update and shadow report widely.

 

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I don’t make any money from my work. I’m disabled through illness and on a very low income. But you can make a donation to help me continue to research and write free, informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. I co-run a group online that helps people with ESA and PIP claim, assessment, mandatory review and appeal, increasingly providing one to one emotional support, too.

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The biggest barrier that disabled people face is a prejudiced government

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The very act of renaming incapacity benefit support for sick and disabled people “employment and support allowance” signaled the political intent to make that support precarious, with an aim of pushing people previously exempted from work on medical grounds from lifeline social security protection into work on political grounds, regardless of the consequences. The word “allowance” means the amount of something that is permitted, especially within a set of regulations or for a specified purpose. This language shift signaled the increasing contingency of support for disabled people.

It also reduced and transformed the sick role, making it increasingly transitory, redefining chronic, incurable conditions as somehow transient, and marking a shift from medical definitions of sickness and disability to psychopolitical redefinitions, which are ultimately aimed at pushing forward a small state neoliberalist agenda. Welfare provision is being steadily dismantled. 

However, changing the name and making the eligibility criteria for support much more stringent has not helped sick and disabled people into work. It has simply created circumstances of further disadvantage, hardship and distress for many people.

It hasn’t worked because many of those people affected by the nudge-styled rebranding of their lifeline support and draconian cuts to “incentivise” people to take up and cherish the Puritan work ethic, as the paternalistic Conservatives think we ought to, are simply too ill to work.

Of those that may be able to work, over time, their would-be employers have not engaged with legal requirements and provided adjustments in the workplace to support those disabled people seeking employment. The government have removed the Independent Living Fund, and reduced Access to Work support, Personal Independence Payment (PIP) is very difficult to access because of the stringent eligibility criteria, whilst the disability benefit Employment and Support Allowance was also redesigned to be increasingly difficult to qualify for.

But political word games, and intentions to attempt to shrink the categories of what is deemed “illness and disability” along with the ever-shrinking state, don’t cure illness and disability, and it’s offensive to witness a very wealthy first world so-called democratic government viciously hounding and shamefully coercing a group of people, negatively labeling them as a “burden on the taxpayer”, and forcing them to take any low paid, insecure work, without any support whatsoever, despite the fact their doctor and the state, via the work capability assessment, have deemed them already to be unfit for work, whilst at the same time leaving this group on an isolated, ever-shrinking island with ever-decreasing lifeline support.

Perhaps PIP ought to include invisible bootstraps in the aids and appliances categories.

This is juxtaposed with the recent gifted tax cuts for the wealthiest, indicating clearly that Conservatives perceive and construct social hierarchies with policies that extend inequality and discrimination. The axiom of our international human rights is that we each have equal worth. Conservative ideology is fundamentally  incompatable with the UK government’s Human Rights obligations and with Equality law. The chancellor clearly regards public funds for providing essential lifeline support for disabled people as expendable and better appropriated for adding to the disposable income for the wealthy.

Most people (over three-quarters ) who are disabled became so during their working life. There is an implicit political prejudice regarding disability, evident in policy-making, which is that it is an undesirable state and somehow preventable. There is another more explicitly stated prejudice, which relates to the oversimplistic false dichotomy of society. Citizens have been redefined as taxpayers or economic free-riders. However, not only have most disabled people worked and contributed tax and national insurance, people claiming social security also contribute significantly to the Treasury, because we pay VAT, council tax, bedroom tax and a variety of other stealth taxes.

The state confines its focus and responsibility mainly at re-connecting disabled people with the labor market, without any consideration of potential health and safety risks in the workplace, as a strategy of “support,” and justifies the draconian cuts to support as providing “incentives” for people to work, by constructing a narrative that rests on the bogus and socially divisive taxpayer/free-rider dichotomy:

 “You answer if a disabled person can’t work there is NO cut but if they can but won’t, why should taxpayers subsidise them & trolls go mad!”

 By “trolls” Michael Fabricant actually means disabled people and campaigners responding to his tweet.

What happens to those people that can’t work or cannot find an understanding employer, prepared to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace?

On becoming ill – it can happen to anyone

I am medically ill and my illness (lupus) affects my mobility, focus and general wellbeing. I am restricted in what I can do, and the symptoms and exacerbations are very unpredicable. However, it is economic, political and cultural forces which have created and continue to create my ongoing disability and social marginalisation, not my illness. Many of my problems are compounded because of an unadapted physical environment, a lack of resources and the attitudes of others, particularly the current government’s.

I don’t accept that health problems ought to be seen as the cause of the socioeconomic deprivation and exclusion that many of us are experiencing, because the real cause is entirely political. Policies, which exclude disabled people from their design and rationale, have extended and perpetuated institutional and cultural discrimination against disabled people.

My own illness arose partly because of a genetic predisposition, partly because of my gender and hormonal events which often trigger the illness, and probably a variety of other complex reasons, none of which specialists fully understand yet. Prior to becoming very ill, I led a very active and healthy life. I worked hard in a job I loved. My diet is and always has been balanced and healthy, I enjoyed outdoor activities such as climbing, abseiling, archery and walking. I was never inactive or overweight, and I am not stupid when it comes to health issues. Lupus isn’t a “lifestyle choice” and it didn’t arise because of something I did wrong.

All the same, I frequently get well-meaning but bad advice to try different diets, “natural” herbal remedies (people forget that they contain chemicals) – usually the immune- enhancing ones like echinacea, which my rheumatologist has already advised could be very dangerous – and the best one of all: “You should stop taking the heavy duty medication and ‘cleanse your system’.” That would be medication that I take to keep me alive because I tried and ran out of all the other options. I usually recommend a simple course of water melons for such “experts”, to be taken at four hourly intervals, rectally.

Like many other ill and disabled people, I have worked for most of my life. My work was rewarding, and the professional roles I took up have entailed developing inspirational ways to support and enable others, from voluntary work with Women’s Aid and Victim Support, to salaried youth and community work, social work, mental health work and delivering training. I worked whilst being ill for a number of years.

By 2010, I simply couldn’t work any more. My previous and mostly background joint, nerve and muscle pain suddenly became all consuming. My ankles, knees, wrists and fingers swelled. I caught a cold at work which turned to pneumonia on two occasions in 2009. I had apparently random finger abcesses, inexplicable kidney infections, and bruised every time I was touched. I had severe nerve pain in my face and optic nerves, which affects my vision. My hips and lower spine became stiff and painful, my shoulders became frozen. I had a painful rash across my face that looked like eczema, only it wasn’t. I was profoundly tired all of the time, and weighed less than eight stones. My GP ran some tests and everything came back lupus, with complications such as a severe autoimmune bleeding disorder, very low immunity to infection and neurological involvement.

Working put my safety, health and wellbeing at substantial risk. It also potentially exposed other people to risk, too, because of the impact of my illness on my judgments, reliability and consistency, eyesight, ability to supervise, mobility and so on. A tribunal agreed with this assessment in 2012.

It was a very painful recognition that I could no longer work, my decision to leave was very difficult, compounded by a sense of loss of self worth and meaning. I felt that my experience, developed skills, not to mention time and effort invested in studying for a highly vocational Master’s degree, were meaningless and unavailing. However, I was completely unprepared for the damaging impact of the political othering and socioeconomic outgrouping that followed from 2010.

And the poverty. I came to feel that I had been politically redefined as somehow “deviant” by 2012. A much needed transformation to add to the grieving process for the person I was before my body became a traitor. Cheers, Mr Cameron, for the milk of human blindness. The Sex Pistols got it a bit wrong back in the last days of counter-culture and agitprop: it’s not just anarchy that we need for the UK, it’s a modicum of empathy, too.

Doctors and rehabilitation professionals continually recommend medical treatments and practices even though they know that these will not necessarily improve my quality of life. Most of the treatments for autoimmune illnesses such as lupus are largely experimental: comprised of chemotherapies and immune suppressants that carry their own life-threatening risks, and being ill with lupus and other autoimmune illnesses presents a constant and difficult process of weighing up of such risks – life threats from the illness versus life threats and serious life-changing risks from the treatments. 

The dangers that arise when everyone thinks they are an expert on illness and disability

That didn’t stop a job advisor, during my time in the employment support allowance work-related activity, group telling me I should take the chemotherapy methotrexate because her friend with rheumatoid arthritis had some benefit from it. Methotrextate helps around 25% of people taking it, to various degrees, but it cannot cure the illness. Side-effects include sudden death, blindness, liver, kidney and heart failure, lung fibrosis, thrombocytopenia – a serious bleeding disorder which I already have – and death from an overwhelming infection, which I am already susceptible to, since my immune system is easily compromised and broken, amongst many other problems.

As it happens, I had already tried methotrexate for many months, administered by injection into my stomach. It didn’t work and the side-effects were truly diabolical, adding to my existing misery and multiplying symptoms. Another treatment, considered far less risky, called hydroxychloroquine, damaged my retina because I was prescribed too high a dosage, I’m now partially sighted.

However, the unqualified advice from a job coach overlooked that I have a different illness than her friend, and that methotrexate is a black box drug with life-threatening side-effects. Everyone seems to think they are a medical expert nowadays, and that’s the government’s doing, since they have been redefining illness and disability, making it a moral and public matter rather than a private, medical issue. Such political negative role-modelling has permitted a rise in expressions of social prejudice towards disabled people, which is why hate crime has risen significantly since 2010 and is now at the highest level since records began.  

We are either deserving or non-deserving, abled or disabled, never just ill or physically disadvantaged. Our lives have somehow become public property, with all manner of unqualified people feeling entitled to intrude at an intimate level to tell us how to “manage” our illness better. Or to transform media tropes and political folk devils into forms of justification for abuse.

Job centre staff it seems will recommend anything, including unqualified advice about medical treatments, regardless of the risks that may be involved, to coerce people from what was once a social safety net and into any job, regardless of its appropriateness, quality, pay, security, and importantly, it’s potential impact on people’s health and safety.

Last October, I flagged up the extremely worrying government plans to place job coaches in GP practices, with provision made for job centre staff to “update” people’s medical files. The government hadn’t announced this  “intervention” in the lives of disabled people, nor had we been consulted or involved in its design. I found out about it quite by chance because I read Matthew Hancock’s recent conference speech: The Future of Public Services.

I researched a little further and found an article in Pulse which confirmed Hancock’s comments: GP practices to provide advice on job seeking in new pilot scheme.

The government plans to merge health and employment services, and are now attempting to redefine work as a clinical outcome. Unemployment has been stigmatised and politically redefined as a psychological disorder, and the government claims somewhat incoherently that the “cure” for unemployment due to illness and disability, and sickness absence from work, is work.

This is why I visit my doctor and not David Cameron or George Osborne when I need advice, support and treatment related to my medical (and not political) condition.

It’s a prejudiced government that has edited the script regarding sick roles – we no longer have medical sick notes, they have been replaced by political fit notes. The subtext is that we must participate in the world of mainstream work without any choices, without reasonable adaptations and without support. Without any acknowledgement of illness and disability, in fact. Or, we have to accept being redefined, our identity rewritten as “dependent”, “impaired” “unfit for work” as a trade-off for a degree of meagre support.

All of our previous achievements and contributions are forgotten. We once celebrated the achievements of disabled people, but now, we cannot, because disabled people are systematically repressed. We are politically defined as either fit for work (and thus not seen as “disabled”) or not. There are no other options for us, unless we happen to be very wealthy as well as ill.

Singing the body politic in our own voices

We don’t fit with neoliberal dogma and the Tory ideals of “individual responsibility”, competition, a “small state” and compulsory (low) paid employment to enhance profits for the elite’s old boys network. Any positive association with impairment, such as reasonable allowances made or degrees of freedom from the Tory notion of “social obligations” and “responsibilities,” is prohibited. We are faced with an overly simplistic, terribly reductive and dehumanising either/or choice.

We are deemed either fit for work, or too disabled to work, with no accommodation made for what we may be able to contribute in myriad ways to society, nor is our past accumulative experience and skill regarded as a valuable. The moment there is a hint we may have some kind of tenuous work-related capability, all support is withdrawn. However, once we are deemed unfit for work, we are denied full citizen’s status and economic inclusion.

This narrow political approach does nothing to enable and support people, nor does it reflect human diversity. It simply disables us further and denies us autonomy and the right to define ourselves. It’s an approach that actually punishes people for the abilities, experience and skills that they have, stifling human potential. The moment those abilities and skills are revealed at a work capability assessment, all support is withdrawn and those qualities remain unfulfilled. Instead of investing in personal development and extending opportunities, the government is simply cutting social security and public service costs at our expense. It’s not actually their money to cut.

We are expected to participate in an unaccommodating and increasingly competitive job market or suffer the dehumanising consequences and impoverishment of claiming social security long-term. And the people profiting from this are the competing, vulture capitalist private “service” providers.

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There is no support for creating circumstances where our skills may be transfered. There is no support to help anyone adapt their skills and experience to fit future employment. Access to higher education has been restricted because of the steep rise in cost, especially for mature and disabled students. There is nothing in place to ensure that employers recognise disabled people’s skills and experiences and make adaptations to accommodate people wanting to work, and no safety net at all to encourage personal development for disabled people, since all support is tied to rigid definitions of disability. You can either work or not.

Under the guise of lifting burdens on business, this government has imposed burdens on those with disabilities by removing the “reasonable adjustments” that make living our lives possible and allow us some dignity. The labor market is hostile and unaccommodating, providing business opportunities for making profit, but increasingly, the needs and rights of the workforce are being politically sidelined. This will invariably reduce opportunities for people to participate in the labor market because of its increasingly limiting terms and conditions.

This highlights the paramount importance of shifting the political focus to the pressing need to change a disabling culture and to actually listen to our lived experiences, including us in policy design from that of merely coercing us into fitting reductive Conservative definitions to accommodate and fit in with a neoliberal model of society.

We have smug, wealthy and healthy Conservatives redefining disablity, our identity is ascribed by others who have handed us a socially devalued status: we are being told who we are and how we must be.

Citizen’s “needs” are being aligned with politically defined neoliberal outcomes. Those most acutely aware of this are those politically assigned a lower status in the increasingly steep socioeconomic hierarchy. Stigma and othering is used politically to justify the hierarchy and the consequent crass inequalities, which are designed and mediated through policies, not citizens.

Stigma arises because of the perceptions of the oppressor, not those being oppressed. But perhaps it’s time that people who are “working hard” to contribute to the increasingly enclosed economy paused and observed what is going down, because disabled people are not the only ones being stigmatised and radically reduced by a particularly toxic combination of social conservatism and neoliberalism. Punitive and coercive welfare conditionality, including sanctioning, has recently been extended to those in low paid employment and part-time work, as tax credits and additional support vanish under the guise of “universal credit”. The bedroom tax is likely to be extended to the elderly. How does this in any way ensure that “work pays”?  All this will do is increase the precariousness of people’s situations and substantially increase their vulnerability.

The recognition and celebration of human potential, diversity and equal worth has been superceded by an all-pervasive Puritan “hard work” ethic. Our worth is being defined purely in terms of our economic contribution. We are measured out in pounds and pennies whilst making billions for a handful of other people. That is a value that comes exclusively from the dominant paradigm-shaping elite – the ones who actually profit from your hard work.

You don’t.

The government’s new “health and work” programme is actually workfare for sick and disabled people. Apparently, slave labor for big business is good for our “health” and has the added bonus of adding substantially to profits for friends of the Conservatives. It’s amazing how quickly the public have accepted the political semantic shifts, such as “work programme” – compulsory labor for no wage, which was originally about “exploitation” and has now been redefined as “work experience”. Apparently that is also “fair”, “inclusive”, “good” for our health and “makes work pay”.

Makes work pay for whom?

Disability can no longer be considered solely as a medical problem, affecting only a minority of the population. It must be seen for what it is: as a civil rights issue as central to mainstream political discourse. This government uses draconian policies to act UPON disabled people, it does not value our lived experiences nor does it listen and RESPOND to us. It’s a government that simply tells us how we must BE. That is profoundly undemocratic, it discriminates against us and excludes a social group on the basis of a protected characteristic.

There are and have been a lot of ways to define disability, it has variously has been defined through the eugenic model, a medical model, charity model, rights-based model, social model and a radical model. Now it’s time for a disabled people’s model, founded on our lived experiences and varied needs.

Understanding that oppressive situations have not arisen through any fault of our own, and that the oppression is real and has a basis in sociopolitical prejudice and discrimination provides us with the courage needed, and a more solid ground on which to fight for liberation. It always seems to be the case that fighting social injustice is left to the very people who have been excluded and systematically deprived of a political voice and power, it’s always down to us to make others listen. Yet it is invariably the case that when one social group is targeted for political prejudice and discriminatory policies, it affects everyone. Historically we have learned it quickly follows that other groups are singled out, too.

The universal character of human rights is founded on the inherent dignity of all human beings. It is therefore axiomatic that people with medical conditions that lead to disabilities, both mental and physical, have the same human rights as the rest of the human race.

The United Nations is currently investigating this government’s gross and systematic violations of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and a recent report from the House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability, investigating the Act’s impact on disabled people, has concluded that the Government is failing in its duty of care to disabled people, because it does not enforce the act.

Furthermore, the Select Committee concludes that the government’s red tape challenge is being used as a pretext for removing protections for disabled people. It’s a government that regards the rights and protections of disabled people as a mere bureaucratic inconvenience.

There’s a certain irony regarding the Conservative preoccupation with preserving social order: their rigid ideologically-driven policies create the very things they fear – dissent, insecurity, disorder and the raising of public awareness and recognition of a pressing need for social change and reform. It’s seems to be the case that Conservative governments prompt a growth of social challenges that encourage the flourishing of the very radicalism and revolutionary ideas that they fear and loathe.

That is what happens when people are oppressed.

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Picture courtesy of Robert Livingstone

 

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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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