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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity to...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Manager - Production

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Managers are required to join the UK's...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will maximise the effective...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission : SThree: Hello! I know most ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A picture posted by Lubitz to Facebook in February 2013  

Andreas Lubitz: Knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 enabled mass murder

Simon Calder
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, presides at the reinterment of Richard III yesterday  

Richard III: We Leicester folk have one question: how much did it all cost?

Sean O’Grady
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss