Robert de Vries has today written in The Guardian on the subject of welfare recipients and the perception that non-welfare recipients apparently have of them.
He is clear to mark himself as a non benefit-recipient by captioning his header: “Research suggests many of us regard people on benefits as part of an ‘outgroup’ who don’t feel the same emotions.” (emphasis added). He thinks that the fact that the people in his peer group think that way is “scary”.
He goes into the usual A-Level sociology waffle about “othering” – and a special, new, specific type of “othering” called ‘infrahumanisation’, which has been invented by a French man – describing it as a process whereby “certain groups are not felt to have the same range of emotional experiences as everybody else. Specifically, while people are fine imagining them feeling basic emotions like anger, pleasure or sadness, they have trouble picturing them experiencing more complex feelings like awe, hope, mournfulness or admiration. The subtle sentiments that make us uniquely human.”
He then describes disabled people and elderly people as being perceived to be “warm and friendly”, as opposed to welfare recipients who are viewed as being “threatening and incompetent”. The word “threatening” is not used in the study (the only study) cited to evidence Robert de Vries’ argument; De Vries has chosen to use that word to describe the fact that respondents to the study’s questionnaire ranked welfare recipients as having low levels of perceived “warmth”. Fig 2 on pg 886 actually shows that respondents ranked the “rich” as having almost the exact same perceived levels of “warmth” as welfare recipients, rendering any class-comparison on that specific issue null and void anyway. De Vries is making up his own definitions here, and in doing so is suggesting that a study somewhere found that a significant majority of people perceived welfare recipients to be “threatening”. Anyone who does not research this claim could possibly be left more prone to thinking: “well hey, other people find welfare recipients to be threating, maybe I do too”; and if you doubt me, then consider the average mindset of The Guardian reader.
If you further doubt me, then consider the Asche Effect where it is demonstrated that a person is very likely to alter their perception of what they at first believe and know to be true if the people in the group around them insist that the truth is something completely different.
If Robert de Vries is as concerned about the “dehumanising” “othering” that is going on towards welfare recipients as he says he is, he would do well not to infer that they are perceived as being “threatening”, when he links to no such study with the language to support it. The study merely shows that disabled people, the elderly and people on welfare are seen as being less competent than the rest of the public; with elderly people perceived to be the “warmest”, personality-wise, then disabled people, then just the average able-bodied worker. This isn’t particularly news; these perceptions have been there for centuries. They are certainly not evidence of a new and special kind of “dehumanisation” going on.
The most dehumanising instance in De Vries’ article is an actual quote from De Vries himself:
“You can try it for yourself. Imagine the most stereotypical “chav” you can. Imagine their clothes, their surroundings, their posture, their attitude. Now imagine them feeling surprise, anger, or fear. Easy right? Well now imagine them experiencing reverence, melancholy, or fascination. If you found that just as easy, congratulations. But I’d bet for a few of you it was just that bit harder. I’m ashamed to admit it was for me.”
I cannot for the life of me understand the point of this thought exercise. Here, try this one: imagine that you are a reporter who thinks that there is a culture of anti-Semitic “othering” in this country. In order to prove it, you invite everyone who isn’t Jewish to imagine a big, strawman “kike” (and you are sure to use the perjorative, because it’s somehow helpful!), and try to envisage this obviously exaggerated monstrosity behaving in a civillised way. You then admit that you found it very hard to do so, and then send it into a national newspaper as proof that everybody who isn’t a Jewish person probably thinks Jews are less than human.
It would never, ever be printed. Because, ’tis batshit!
As far as I can tell, Robert de Vries is basically saying: “Look, I know they’re rancid, the unemployeds, hell even I find it difficult to imagine a Melancholy Chav (Imagine guys, a Melancholy Chav! Not even Dickens, not even Dickens himself could imagine a…an, um… Fascinated Chav! *laughsnort* *slurp o’ wine* *ahem*”); but we ought to stop bullying them, guys! Or Hitler will happen, or something I dunno, I dunno… hey Editor – pay me.”
De Vries’ OP is really more of a reflection on the sorts of people The Guardian pays to write on working-class issues; than the actual attitudes of general society towards people who are unemployed. “Othering” is nothing new, in fact my friends do it all the time in regard to our collective “social betters”. We don’t think they’re less than human though. We just disagree ideologically with a fair few of ’em, and we take the piss a little bit. And the only proof so far that rich people think that we welfare recipients are actually less-than-human (think about that) is that one rich person wrote that it must be so, in The Guardian. Some of them most certainly do have very erroneous assumptions about what sort of people we are, but let’s face it, if a significant majority of the most influential people thought that poor people were actually animals, we’d have all been killed off. De Vries’ article is nothing but a lazy, speculative, attempt at “rabble-rousing” very poorly disguised as concern.
The Guardian is written by prosperous liberals, for prosperous and aspirational liberals; and the only purpose it serves is to line the Labour Party’s coffers. This current, downright weird attempt at “sympathy” for those receiving benefits by the jolly Tarquins and Jemimas on staff will fade into oblivion when Labour are re-elected, and continue with the existing austerity measures that have been put into place by this continuing joke of a Coalition government. Like a stopped clock, I expect, there will continue to be the occasional good article; this most certainly not being one of them.