Disagree with me, sure. But don't wish me dead

Our writer suffered threats of violence and sustained abuse after writing about disability benefits. Here he reflects on the phenomenon of online hate campaigns

Philip Hensher
Thursday 24 January 2013 01:00
Why can't we have more TV presenters like Mary Beard?
Why can't we have more TV presenters like Mary Beard?

Last week, I wrote a column for this newspaper about the Government’s assessment for incapacity benefit, a brutal questionnaire administered by a firm called Atos. The assessment is unacceptably broad-brush, and has led, as I said, to a lot of misery and even, it is claimed, to deaths. I have no doubt, and voiced no doubt, that when people are unable to work through ill-health, they must be properly supported.

What troubled me was the replacement of proper, professional support and assessment by an all-purpose questionnaire. As the writer Nassim Taleb recently put it: “If you give a pilot an altimeter that is sometimes defective, he will crash the plane. Give him nothing and he will look out the window.” The Atos-administered questionnaire is that defective altimeter.


What led to trouble was that I did suggest that some assessment was necessary. There are some appalling cases of benefit fraud in this area. The number of people asking the Government to support their ill-health, in addition, has risen in a way difficult to believe in recent years. I could have gone further, and drawn attention to some obviously incredible statistics: one of the hot-spots for claims of this sort is in the immediate vicinity of the agency which handles the claims. Why? Do people have poorer health there than they do 50 miles away? Or is expertise in applying for the claims more effectively disseminated? In no way did I suggest that the disabled should have support removed.

I expected people to disagree. I know that there are plenty of people who believe that the Government should accept all claims for public money in every single case. I did expect an explanation of why such claims have risen so sharply, and out of line with almost every comparable economy.

This is what I got. “People are being killed and your column helped the brutality continue”. “You fake fucking toff”. “Latte-slurping knob”. “A cunt”. “Complicit in murder”. “Twat”. “A colossal douchebag”. Insults, even libellous ones, were one thing, but gloating expressions of hope for my violent death, or threats of violence another. A reader said that he hoped I would fall off a cliff and be killed; another that I fall over and be permanently crippled. Someone said that they hoped to come to my next appearance in public and physically attack me. A blogger, who went to great lengths to insist on speaking to me, wrote: “I have bashed down better men than him.. [I] will rip you tooth and claw…he needs hitting and poking with a sharp stick.”

As a synonym for “I disagree with what you write”, this is unacceptable. Unacceptable, too, for people to telephone not only the newspaper I wrote the piece for, in some cases so frequently as to be fairly viewed as harassment, but also the university I teach at. Hardly any of these complainants are anything but anonymous, even the ones who described me as “a twat and a coward”. A coward for refusing to enter into discussions with people who had shared fantasies about inflicting violence on me.

Far from alone

This is not unique. Over the weekend, the classics professor Mary Beard (above) shared some of the disgusting online abuse she has had since appearing on the BBC’s Question Time. She is a charming woman of instantly engaging intelligence: she has a striking appearance, which is that of an Englishwoman of her age. The abuse this wonderful woman suffered I am not going to repeat. The journalist Suzanne Moore endured far worse than me for simply saying, quite plausibly, that the appearance women are expected to aspire to was probably most easily attainable by a Brazilian transsexual.

I have a belief that nobody should be forced to endure being called a “cunt” or subjected to threats of physical violence as a condition of their work. But I have now discovered that some people believe, not only that I should put up with this personal hatred – when all that is meant is “I disagree with you” – but that I should subsequently be obliged to deal with the purveyors of it.

What is to be done? “Don’t look. They are unfortunate, unhappy, suffering people who are angry that they have no voice,” said friends. My partner was more direct. “Walk away from it. You don’t need to write journalism at all.” But I like engaging with public issues, and it is a good thing to engage with readers and with people who disagree with you. Not one person disputed the point that disability benefit claims have risen enormously. Many of them started with personal abuse, and then demanded, as of a point of right, that I apologise and enter into discussion with them – by which they did not, I’m afraid, mean a discussion at all.

The thing is that I do know about incapacity. I know how mental health can make it impossible to work. I also know that, in many cases, the incapacity retreats, with or without government benefits, and the full ability to work slowly returns. I have learnt that it is apparently unacceptable to say anything other than that illness is in every case indefinitely extended, and that no option other than a permanent retreat from work can ever be envisaged or discussed. I don’t believe it. It is not, necessarily, the mark of a “twat” or a “cunt” to suggest otherwise.

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