Laurie Penny: Shame has become our stick for beating the poor

Single mother Shanene Thorpe was squeezed by the BBC into a caricature: shameless scrounger

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When someone starts talking about 'political violence', you usually know what that means.

It means nightsticks, kettling, and riot cops massing in the streets like so many giant beetles. It means young men in face-rags throwing sticks and grown men on horses trampling them underfoot. After two years of reporting on protests in Europe and North America, that's the sort of scene I've grown frighteningly used to. The first time I saw a police officer put his boot on a teenager's face, it was shocking, but the fifth time felt almost routine. 

We know how the story goes by now. People come out on the streets to protest against austerity. Police come out to stop them, armed with a variety of hastily-concocted anti-dissent laws and the latest in lethal and semi-lethal crowd-control technology. Protesters get angry, police get violent, and people get hurt.

This week in Montreal, reporting on student demonstrations over tuition hikes much like those that shook Britain in 2010, I had a perfectly quotidian chat about the privatisation of education with a young man who happened to have lost an eye to a plastic bullet in a protest not two weeks before. This is the new normal, wherever enforced austerity meets public dissent. Rinse off the blood and repeat. 

There is, however, another kind of political violence, and it’s much more insidious. It’s shame. When single mother Shanene Thorpe was interviewed by BBC Newsnight last week, she was expecting an honest conversation about coming cuts to housing benefit. Instead, interviewer Allegra Stratton challenged her ‘choice’ not to live in her mother’s spare room and, according to Thorpe, asked her whether she  thought should have aborted her daughter. 

Thorpe had done nothing to deserve this humiliation besides having the nerve to be poor in public. Like many other people on housing benefit, she is employed, but relies on the subsidy because her salary is too low to cope with soaring London rents. This wasn’t mentioned in the interview. Instead, Thorpe was squeezed into a familiar caricature: the shameless benefit scrounger, explaining her decision to sponge off the state. It bears mentioning that the multinational arms dealerships and investment banks slurping money out of the British treasury are rarely required to justify themselves in this way.

Shanene Thorpe’s experience is typical. If you’re low-waged, unemployed or disabled in Britain today, you can expect to be told that it’s your own fault. Making people feel ashamed of their own poverty or powerlessness is a highly effective way of preventing them from complaining about it. It’s an old strategy, and it works: make peasants doff their caps to their “betters” and they might not riot in the streets. Make women ashamed of their sexuality and they might not seek social independence from men. Make benefit claimants out to be work-shy scroungers, in headline after screeching tabloid headline, and they might not complain about the billions being cut from the welfare bill.

Conservatives are anxious to have us believe that a nation can be run much like an individual household economy, which is is convenient, because an individual household can't collect taxes from corporations registered in the Cayman islands. The fatuous ‘household nation’ analogy turns out to be surprisingly useful when it comes to state violence. Not every household, after all, is a happy one, and one thing that state violence and domestic violence have in common is the importance of shame and humiliation. 

Ask anyone who has lived with domestic or partner violence what kept them in such a dangerous situation for so long, and they will tell you: he made me feel worthless. She told me I was disgusting. He made me ashamed. At every level of human brutality, physical violence is only one way of controlling a person - in the long run, it's often more effective to keep that person cowed by making them feel small and insignificant. Bruises have a way of attracting attention, but the invisible damage, the damage done to the human spirit, lingers long after the skin has scabbed and healed.

Shame and humiliation. That’s the sort of social control that’s in play when the state asks every person receiving disability or sickness benefits to plead, beg and explain to strangers why they need the tiny amount of financial aid to which they are still entitled.

The government’s flagship work capability assessments, administered by the private firm Atos Origin at a cost of a hundred million, require patients to fill out 28 pages’ worth of forms about whether they can wipe their own bottoms and stand without falling. I know this because I’ve helped friends fill them in. Every page is an affront to the dignity that so many disabled people fight so hard to hang on to in a world of prejudice. 

Claimants have told me how Atos doctors have asked them to strip semi-naked to show their self-harm scars or walk until they collapsed from pain - making them feel worthless before throwing them off benefits to prove it. Because someone in Whitehall is clearly a frustrated comedian, Atos Origin will also be sponsoring the Paralympic games this summer.

Shame and humiliation. They can be far more effective strategies of social control than horses, riot shields and baton blows - although the Metropolitan police proved themselves willing to use physical violence against disabled people in a pinch when they dragged cerebral palsy sufferer Jody MacIntyre out of his wheelchair during the student protests of 2010. Shame and humiliation are supposed to keep disabled people in line, along with students, single parents, working women, unemployed people, low-waged workers, and everyone else due to lose out in the new Conservative economic order.

Fighting state violence doesn’t have to involve staring down a line of riot police. Some of the most important battles take place privately, on the field of hearts and minds. They take place between conservative propaganda and people’s residual sense of pride. For every protester waving a placard, there is someone simply struggling to remember why they are entitled to a wage, a home and a future - and winning. Sharlene Thorpe, humiliated by Newsnight, is running a campaign to demand an apology from the BBC. Meanwhile, across Britain, disabled activists continue to exhaust themselves countering misinformation in the government’s workfare programme. Shame is a form of state violence, but so long as people have the strength to fight for human dignity in an age of austerity, a poorer, meaner society, a society built on humiliation, may yet be held at bay.

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