There’s a superb blog post by Bernadette Meaden on the Ekklesia website. Responding to the first suicide attributed to the Bedroom Tax, it draws attention to the increasing desperation of the poorest in British society at a time when the richest are getting richer at a phenomenal rate. Why, Bernadette asks, has this situation not more public concern? She answers:
Research has shown that many people, shockingly, regard benefit claimants as being less than fully human. This process, known as ‘infrahumanisation’ means that people in receipt of benefits are thought not to feel the full range of human emotions as say, a ‘hard working taxpayer’ would.
Unconsciously, the research indicates, people think that those being hurt ‘aren’t real, full people’.
This explains a lot. Writing this in Liverpool, I cannot help feeling shocked that so much suffering should be imposed on so many people who are in no way to blame for their country’s overall economic situation and cannot get paid employment. On top of this, having been ill for a long time I am acutely aware of how those who are unemployed through ill-health are demoted in public esteem, with countless effects. It is not just central decision-makers and media propagandists who create this situation; an important part of the story is the many people who buy into the ‘shirkers and strivers’ rhetoric and are willing to blame the poor for their poverty – a stance they would not take if they were among the victims themselves.
To say that ‘infrahumanisation’ comes easily explains how this happens. It is, however, contrary to all mainstream ethical systems. Toddlers have to learn that, just as they don’t like someone’s finger poked into their eye, they should not poke a finger into somebody else’s eye. It’s an important part of early learning that other people are like us, with pain and pleasure, hopes and fears. This need to understand that other people are like us is essential to all ethics. It needs to be learned. People who fail to learn it are a danger to society.
Any economic or political project which depends on subverting this awareness, and encourages people to think that the victims of the system don’t suffer as much as they themselves would, is to that extent evil. Wicked. Contrary to all the publicly recognised moral traditions: Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, utilitarian, deontological, virtue-based, rights-based, the lot.
It’s too easy to point to Hitler or Idi Amin and congratulate ourselves on living in a much better society than theirs. Every government gets tempted to encourage the worst aspects of human nature for the sake of one project or another, and every society is capable of moral degeneration in response.
When this happens, who will stand up for the age-old moral norms, the reminder that other people are like us? Usually the people who do it are religious leaders. We have heard church leaders criticising recent rounds of welfare cuts; but the criticisms have been too detailed, too framed in the language of statisticians and economists. We need something more challenging: a coherent, credible alternative account of the needs and potential of human lives, a vision of better ways to care for each other; at the very least, a determination not to ignore the lot of the least fortunate by demonising them.
The people best placed to do it are religious leaders, because they can draw on well-established moral traditions to resist the political and economic agendas of governing classes. In the UK we got close to it in the 1980s with Faith in the City. If only faith leaders were not so wrapped up in preserving their own institutions, it could happen again today.