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 now “manifestly inadequate” according 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.”
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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