When I was in my early teens, canvassing for the Labour Party with my father on the streets of West Cumbria, we had an encounter which has stayed with me. It came when we knocked on the door of what David Cameron would probably categorise as a 'troubled family'.
The exchange which followed was pretty raw – it certainly contained a good many expressions which were not used in our household - and although my father dealt with the situation with his customary quiet and unflappable courtesy, I was shaken by the experience. As we went on our way, he introduced me to the idea that fraternity is not always as easy as liberty or equality.
This is a fault-line in social relationships which can easily be exploited and I believe that honesty in admitting that is key to understanding what the present government is doing to our social cohesion. Every manifestation of disquieting behaviour from people who have not had the advantages of their critics, however statistically small or isolated these may be, is seized upon and used to exploit the fears of 'respectable' people. A daily drip-feed of divisive language and false statistics from politicians and some areas of the media plays into the insecurities and anxieties of these straitened economic times. We are being encouraged to see benefit recipients as an ugly, repellent and morally defective 'other', with whom we could have nothing in common and who merit neither consideration nor any sense of fellow feeling.
As most of us nourish our lives by companionship with people who are like us in outlook, education and economic status, it is not that difficult to sow the idea that there is a segment of society which is so far gone in idleness and dishonesty that they cannot be considered as part of our moral and social communities. This process has recently acquired the label 'infra-humanisation' – a term coined to distinguish it from that extreme form of dehumanisation which opens the road to the concentration camp and to genocide.
Infra-humanisation is a deliberate attempt to conceal what is common to us all and what therefore should provide the mortar of our lives. By these means, an inner life and range of sensibilities beyond those associated with the caricature of feckless idlers is denied to a swathe of our fellow citizens. If we are willing to be taught that they do not bleed, empathy is diminished. Fraternity is not only made difficult, it is presented as actively misguided. and whatever government then chooses to do in the name of 'fairness' becomes acceptable: we are made complicit in falsity and a failure of ethical obligation.
Propagandists know that whoever controls the language, will to a large extent control the debate. Remember the poll tax? Those upon whom this impacted the most heavily refused to use the government's preferred term of 'community charge', and rightly so. It had nothing to do with community. 'Poll tax' - a term which carried within it both an implication of its intrinsic unfairness and a refusal to accept Margaret Thatcher's agenda - became the usage. This is significant in that it was at least in part, the engine of the 1990 protests which contributed to the ending of her premiership.
When ministers are questioned about the 'bedroom tax', they usually spend several minutes of time-wasting, calculated evasion in protesting that it is not in fact a tax. Despite this semantic sleight of hand, they have not succeeded in changing the usage. As with the poll tax, there is a widespread perception that this is an unjust and ill-thought out policy.
However, there are many other areas in which the government and its friends in some sections of the media have succeeded in shaping popular perception by means of weighting the terminology, using ad hominem arguments (remember Mick Philpott and his children, described by the Daily Mail as 'the vile products of welfare'?), by repeating its chosen tropes and misrepresenting the statistics.
Care should be taken in quoting Joseph Goebbels, but I think it is useful to have these words in mind: “It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words, and words can be moulded until they clothe ideas and disguise.”
Let us look at some of the clothing and disguises which are currently employed. 'Social security' did what it said on the tin. It was rooted in and underpinned society. Its assurance that we would not permitted to fall off the edge was based upon an understanding of mutuality and reciprocity. Over a lifetime, many us will move in and out of work. We may experience periods of illness or disability. We may become carers. As we paid in for others in our more fortunate times, so their payments support us in our own time of need. (It is worth noting here that National Insurance contributions, the subscription fee to this humane economy, are now being referred to by government ministers as “a jobs tax”).
Look what has happened to the language – 'social security' morphed through 'benefits' to 'welfare' ( a concept which is now beginning to carry some of the contempt felt for it across the Atlantic, thus making it easier to convince us that any 'reform' must be a Good Thing) and now, with increasing frequency, to 'handouts' – a term suggesting that recipients are a net drain on a society which is dropping largesse into their inadequacy.
The politicians' preferred term for the bedroom tax was initially 'under-occupancy sanction'. Most recently, it has become 'spare room subsidy' – which plugs neatly into a tabloid sense of outrage that strivers might be bailing out shirkers. It fails entirely to place a value on the genuine needs, capacities and dignity of individuals. Make something sound unfair to the “hard working taxpayer” and any unfairness to the vulnerable or acknowledgement of their needs is disguised.
Not all tax payers are hard working. Not all who work hard pay the tax they should. Here is a moulding of words for the purpose of making circles into squares which draws on the generally unexamined assumption that you only contribute to society if you are in paid employment. This is a grave impoverishment of the contributions made by carers, of the unquantifiable value added to our experiences of life by volunteers, the elderly, the sick and the disabled. It takes no account of the needs of young people who have not been able to get into the job market and through no fault of their own, have not yet paid income tax or National Insurance contributions. It reduces grace and nuance to the brutality of a spreadsheet.
In addition to these carefully engineered shifts of emphasis and meaning, we are constantly presented with statistics which are misused and others which are entirely without foundation. Iain Duncan Smith has given a certain moral veneer to his crusade against the benefit system by regular denunciation of “a culture of worklessness” exemplified by families where, in his words, “no one has worked for three generations” and in which “welfare dependency” - with its implication of apathetic idleness - is passed from grandparent to parent, to child.
In December last year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published the results of a study undertaken with researchers from Glasgow university. The fieldwork was carried out in very deprived neighbourhoods of Glasgow and Middlesbrough and used every method available to find families with three workless generations. It surveyed clients of job centres, interviewed organisations working in these neighbourhoods and advertised via posters, newsletters and newspapers, It leafleted and door-knocked and spent months in the neighbourhoods talking to hundreds of residents.
Despite this, the researchers were unable to find any families where there were three workless generations. The survey suggested that less than one per cent of workless households had two generations who had never worked. Families with three workless generations must therefore, be even fewer. Paul Gregg, professor of Economic and Social Policy at Bath University and an expert on inter-generational worklessness in the UK has said: "It just doesn't exist on the scale people seem to think it does.”
Among those who had experienced two generations of unemployment, the research indicated that the “culture of worklessness” which we are invited to deplore does not exist either. The families involved in the survey spoke of the “miserable existence of a life on benefits”. They remained committed to the value of work and desired better for their children. The unemployed young adults in these families held conventional values about work as part of the normal transition to adulthood and were keen to avoid the poverty and worklessness experienced by their parents. It appears that the policies justified by the idea of the scrounging hereditary welfare dependent are therefore indefensible.
Nonetheless, there has been no retraction or correction from the Minister. Nor has he made any response to rebukes from the UK Statistics Authority over his statements on the benefits claimed by immigrants, his use of statistics in the debate on Housing Benefit, and most recently, his claim that the benefits cap had pushed 8,000 unemployed people into finding work. Andrew Dilnot, Chair of the Statistics Authority wrote once again to Duncan Smith to say that the claim was “unsupported by the official statistics”.
The classic tools of propaganda are being used to turn the electorate against benefit recipients: demonisation; lies and distortion, appeals to fear, stereotyping and repetition. It is disturbing to discover that public opinion is being shifted towards the government's desired ground.
Another study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, published just over a week ago, showed a hardening of attitudes. Amongst the public as a whole, 54 per cent now believe that if benefits were “not so generous,” people would “learn to stand on their own two feet”– an increase of 33 per cent since 1987. The proportion who believe the unemployed could find a job “if they wanted to” more than doubled from 27 per cent to 56 per cent over the same period. The proportion of the public believing that people “live in need” because of laziness or lack of willpower has risen from 12 per cent to 23 per cent since 1994. Most disturbingly for the post-2015 outlook, the survey found that only 27 per cent of Labour voters now believe that “social injustice” is the reason people are in poverty - down from 41 per cent in 1986. The number who blame individuals for their plight rose from 13 per cent to 22 per cent over the same period. As the government is already labelling Labour as “the welfare party”, it is not difficult to see that this is going to be a defining election issue.
Effective propaganda, depends, to return to Goebbels' words, on “psychological understanding of the people involved”. That area of our psyches which may be so easily steered away from fraternity is being cynically exploited. The worst cases of benefit fraud and the most extreme examples of dysfunction are being held up as normative. A culture which was already moving towards individualistic consumerism to the detriment of nurturing its common life before the financial crisis hit, has had its fears magnified and its willingness to look beyond immediate self-interest diminished by the effects of austerity.
As a Quaker, I am a little uneasy about describing myself as a Christian. We are a non-credal body and we refrain from making doctrinal statements about Jesus. So when it was suggested that I might like to bring some input in this area to the discussion today, I felt somewhat out of my comfort zone, knowing I would be in the company of people far more theologically literate than I am.
So, having no body of confessional social teaching to which I could turn. it seemed that the only path I could take was that of reflecting on the manner and meaning of Jesus' reactions with the people around him. It is a commonplace when doing this to make reference to his choice of keeping company with the marginalised and despised; to point to the deliberate use of outsiders and those held in disdain or suspicion as pivotal in his parables and teaching.
But 2000 years on, may not some of the immediacy of this have been lost? What was 'unrespectable' in a first century middle eastern culture is perhaps now sufficiently removed to blunt its edge of radical challenge. So it might be useful to try to draw some parallels with 21st century British prejudices and preconceptions.
Samaritans – the woman at the well and the compassionate traveller – were a people despised by the Jews of Jesus' day. They were objects of suspicion, aliens, second class citizens who had threateningly different customs and histories. Quite like the Romanian immigrants, perhaps, who are somehow going to 'take our jobs' whilst also 'living a life of luxury on benefits' Try to imagine Eastern European incomers being used as models of receptivity and love in the way chosen by Jesus.
Then there were the tax gatherers like Matthew and Zaccheus – self-enriching functionaries of the occupying power. What might they be today – police informers? Benefit snoopers? Corrupt police officers? Certainly not people for whom you would be likely to have much sympathy or respect.
And what about the disciples themselves? The Galilean accent is thought to have been a byword for provincial ugliness. They were a quarrelsome lot, status conscious and often unequal to grasping the subtlety of Jesus' teaching. Culturally superior persons might well have categorised them as 'chavs', had that mean-spirited word been around two thousand years ago.
For me, the crucial point about Jesus' interactions with people who were not 'respectable', is his refusal to follow majority opinion and his belief that each and every one of them was unique, precious and full of potential. In starting from that position, he made possible their journey towards transformation. If we do less in our own time, I believe we will miss his meaning and betray our trust.
In 1987, unemployment stood at three million; the 'big bang' of financial de-regulation had sent city salaries soaring; the mining industry and the communities it supported had been destroyed and Cabinet Ministers thought it acceptable to describe the homeless as people they stepped over on their way to the opera.
It was also the year in which the Religious Society of Friends issued this statement: “We are angered by actions which have knowingly led to the polarisation of our country - into the affluent, who epitomise success according to the values of a materialistic society, and the 'have-leasts', who by the expectations of that same society are oppressed, judged, found wanting and punished.
“We value that of God in each person, and affirm the right of everyone to contribute to society and share in life's good things, beyond the basic necessities.
“We commit ourselves to learning again the spiritual value of each other. We find ourselves utterly at odds with the priorities in our society which deny the full human potential of millions of people in this country. That denial diminishes us all. There must be no 'them' and 'us'”.
That is our challenge today. As members of faith bodies, political groupings and trade unions, what may we do to demand truth-telling and resist the oppression of the least fortunate members of society? How do we initiate and sustain a critical conversation around the twisted logic which would have us believe that people who need to claim benefits are precisely the sort of people who should be shamed and sanctioned out of them?
Today's forum is an opportunity to explore some of those questions. I believe that it is in such "small circles and quiet processes" that the seeds of change are sown.
This article is adapted from a contribution given at the welfare and benefit reform Justice Forum in Oxford on 23 May (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18420)
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen