Why ‘desperation porn’ is not the answer to ‘inspiration porn’

Lots has been written lately regarding the phenomenon of ‘inspiration porn’ – images of disabled adults or children doing perfectly ordinary things allied to slogans aimed at non-disabled people encouraging them not to ‘give up’ or to ‘try harder’ – the message being ‘if disabled people can manage to do anything at all then what excuse do non-disabled people have for not achieving in life?’  It has been suggested that the UK Government’s ‘Disability Confident’ programme relies on this approach not only to influence employers but to ‘inspire’ disabled people as well.  The Disability Confident twitter account reports how images or stories of disabled people doing that most ordinary of things – holding down a job – are described by Ministers and business-people as having ‘inspired them’.  The problem of course is that it unintentionally risks re-enforcing the very thing it believes it is designed to overcome – low expectations – by regarding what should be considered quite ordinary as exceptional.   For more on this I recommend this piece by David Gillon on the matter.

I think though that there is another equally well-intentioned but unhelpful phenomenon that has emerged in recent years which for the sake of this post I’m going to call ‘desperation porn’.  This is where campaigners – perhaps feeling themselves to have exhausted avenues which might allow more moderate narratives and accounts – come to describe or assign status to situations facing disabled people using the most grave and serious labels: inhuman and degrading treatment, hate crime, hate speech, crimes against humanity and so on – which the situations, however damaging, do not merit.  Or where in pleading a particular cause, such as in relation to getting rid of the deeply problematic work capability assessment, campaigners place greatest emphasis on those who have died having recently gone through an assessment which judged them capable of work  or who are alleged to have committed suicide on threat of having their income reduced.

Of course we know that hate crime does happen to disabled people, that some disabled people are subject to inhuman and degrading treatment, that people have died shortly after being deemed capable of work and that no doubt some people have taken their lives as a consequence of being told they will lose income, services or their home.  None of this is disputed, nor should we shy away from ensuring these stories are heard. But thankfully most disabled people are not victims of hate crime.  Relatively few people are subject to inhuman or degrading treatment.  Most people don’t die or take their own lives having gone through a benefit assessment.  And it is an extremely long shot to suggest that this government’s welfare reforms enjoy equivalence with ‘crimes against humanity’ such as genocide, systematic rape and disappearances,

The assumption appears to be that only by painting such a serious and desperate picture will the media, public and politicians wake up to the gravity of the situation and begin to challenge it.   I fear the precise opposite is true and that this outbreak of ‘desperation porn’ is – like its opposite number inspiration porn – likely to do much more harm than good.   My reasoning is threefold:

1. Legal concepts such as hate crime, hate speech, inhuman and degrading treatment or crimes against humanity have very specific meaning and/or incredibly high thresholds of seriousness and extremity.  This means that at most only a slither of what disabled people are experiencing as a consequence of austerity would come even near to ‘making the grade’.  Using such terms to describe situations that do not meet this threshold risks trivialising those situations that do, while at the same time meaning others can be regarded as less serious and lacking significance, which of course dismisses the negative experiences of the vast majority of people affected.   Likewise placing so much emphasis on deaths and suicides linked to welfare reform downplays other negative experiences – of material hardship, of being subject to coercive yet useless regimes of so called employment support, of fearing the next official letter through the door – which are making life a misery for thousands.

2. Just as the fear of crime far outweighs the actuality, while still being able to damage lives, so ‘desperation porn’ holds the potential to cause fear, depress expectations and may be equally culpable in leading people into mental health problems and towards contemplating suicide. People should consider the negative impact of their own frames and narratives when promoting the idea that disabled people as a whole are hated, are ‘under attack’, that ‘disablist violence’ is an ever present threat and that the government is waging genocide.  Isn’t this just the same ‘politics of fear’ that the government stands accused of?  Does this help us achieve the change we seek or does it in fact contribute towards making matters worse by extinguishing hope?

3.  And finally, ‘desperation porn’ refuses to accept progress by failing to recognise that what can seem or look bad can sometimes be an expression of things actually getting better.  When reported disability hate crime rises by one third (against a backdrop of no rise in overall estimated incidence in the last 7 years) it is most likely a sign of improvement in people’s refusal to accept such treatment, in their confidence to report it and in the response of the police and other agencies. Where people complain about inaccessible public transport or goods and services it is in part because disabled people are both traveling and going out more and are more empowered consumers with higher expectations.  And where the general public (including let’s not forget many disabled people) extend their intolerance of people being on unemployment benefits to disabled people, is this merely a sign of coarsening attitudes, or does it reflect rising expectations that disabled people should be in work and not be excluded from the labour market?  Of course ‘getting better’ does not mean solved and we should continue to angry at hate crime, inaccessibility and discrimination.  But characterising evidence of progress as deeper failure only acts to misdirect energies and it causes disabled people and their organisations to be viewed as talking from a position of weakness when in fact they have demonstrated great strength in bringing about positive change.

Of course these are bleak times, and injustices – including extreme injustices – must be highlighted and tackled.  But hope always rises through the cracks and it is hope that leads to real change.  In these difficult times it is all the more important to ‘make hope possible rather than despair convincing’.  While we certainly need to challenge and banish counterproductive ‘inspiration porn’, we also need to be very wary of its opposite number ‘desperation porn’ taking root.

 

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Why ‘desperation porn’ is not the answer to ‘inspiration porn’

  1. Thanks for the link and the recommendation, I think you have an interesting point here, and agree to a degree with some of your points, but only a degree. It may be a glass half-full, glass half-empty situation, but where you see progress, I see nowhere near enough progress, and also a matching counter-swing towards oppression. The stats may indicate that hate-crime isn’t rising, that reporting is, but the stats also document that the media narrative has become far more negative, if not openly hostile, towards disability. Equally I do find myself worrying about going out in public, not because of stories I’ve seen, but because of actual incidents of open hostility towards me on the streets.

    Turning to the WCA situation; yes, some of the focus on post-WCA deaths hasn’t paid as much attention to statistics as it should, and recognised that a certain number of deaths are inevitable, but DWP’s response of refusing to collect the stats was only ever going to draw more attention to that, betraying as it does an instinct to hide negative data rather than discuss and fix it. There is a valid point to be made in the post-WCA deaths, deaths immediately following a medical assessment that declared the subject fit for work are innately disturbing, but especially when they seem to be occurring at a greater rate than probability alone would suggest. Note the ‘appear’ in that sentence, most of the population isn’t great with probabilities, but the numbers appear to be high enough that even those of us who have worked with stats and probabilities should be saying ‘I think we need to look at the data on that and confirm nothing is going on’, especially given the problems we know exist with WCA, and DWP are blocking us. And the deaths we absolutely should be campaigning around are the post-WCA suicides. I think there is a strong case to be made that each of those deaths should be subject to a Serious Case Review, just as any other death of a vulnerable adult or child in contact with Social Services or other local or national care and support bodies is.

    With respect to hate speech and hate crime, I think you are setting too exclusive a boundary, one that doesn’t reflect the definition used by the police or CPS. If we look at the ACPO definition of hate incidents and hate crimes, it says:
    ACPO defines a hate incident as:
    ‘any incident, which may or may not constitute a criminal offence, which is perceived by the victim or any other person, as being motivated by prejudice or hate.’
    And:
    ACPO defines a hate crime as:
    ‘any hate incident, which constitutes a criminal offence, perceived by the victim or any other person, as being motivated by prejudice or hate.’

    In no way are these ‘very specific and an incredibly high thresholds of seriousness and extremity’. Applying the ACPO standards, I’m definitely into double figures with Hate Incidents, at least three or four of which skirt if not outright cross into the Hate Crime definition by constituting threatening behaviour, and two absolutely definite Hate Crimes (an assault and a false report to the Benefit Fraud Hotline – aka conspiracy to pervert the course of justice), and I know plenty of disabled people with similar experiences. Where we absolutely have a problem is in getting the judiciary to accept that disability hate exists, that it frequently motivates crime against disabled people, and that it is their responsibility under the law of the land to apply the escalator clauses to the tariffs for crimes where hate is a component.

    WRT society and the situation as a whole, I think we’re seeing a dichotomous response towards disability rights, just as we’re seeing one with multiculturalism, gay rights, equal marriage and rape culture etc. Large parts of society have swung behind equality in all its forms, but others, perhaps those with an underlying instinct towards xenophobia and a fear of change/the new/the other, they feel threatened by the changes and have swung against it. We see it in its most moderate(?) form in the growth of UKIP (the scale of which frankly scares me), but there is a spectrum of fear, and whenever you get ten or a hundred turning to UKIP, there’ll be 1 or 2 who turn to BNP and EDL, and as the post-Lee Rigby Mosque attacks show, we’re never that far from a Pavlo Lapshyn, or an Anders Breivik. We aren’t solely seeing an underlying improvement in equality, we’re seeing a polarization both for and against that, and we need to recognise, and discuss, that with the good comes a risk of the bad.

    So for me, the disability rights glass remains half-empty, and I don’t think it’s ‘desperation’ to say so.

    • Hi David

      Thanks for such a thoughtful and detailed response. First of all I should say yes you are quite right about hate crime (and to be clear, hate crime/disability related harassment is something I have personally devoted a lot of time and energy to moving up the agenda so have no desire to undermine it). Having gone back and read the post I noticed that it should have read ‘that have very specific meaning and/or involve incredibly high thresholds of seriousness and extremity’ and have amended it accordingly. I do think however that people continue to describe things as hate crime which do not fit with official guidance and by doing so risk both trivialising hate crime as well as the experience to which they refer, which needs to be regarded as problematic within its own terms.

      A central point of my post was to argue that people should not appropriate – for the sake of believing it will be regarded with more gravity and seriousness – terms or labels which are either inappropriate or which grossly exaggerate a given situation. And the reason I argue this is because I believe it is more likely to have the opposite effect and to be more easily dismissed as a consequence. In that sense, just as ‘inspiration’ perversely risks re-enforcing low expectations and prejudicial attitutudes as well as leaving some individuals feeling inadequate, so ‘desperation’ (by which I mean using such grave terms and descriptions) risks allowing serious problems to be overlooked because they do not in fact amount to these various descriptions, as well as causing people to feel even bleaker about their situation and future.

      With respect to the dichotomous response, I think it’s between attitudes to disability and attitudes to unemployment and benefits. There has been a long term trend of weakening support for social security and growing hostility to benefit claimants. And as I say, a flipside of people coming to have higher expectations that disabled people should not be excluded from the labour market is potentially to be even more hostile to disability or sickness related out of work benefits. Certainly government’s have seen the deepening of conditionality as the other side of the coin to the extension of anti-discrimination laws. Polling actually suggests that the public are far more supportive of disabled people receiving benefits than the benefits system as a whole (which may in itself not necessarily reflect particularly progressive attitudes, but reflect low expectations and paternalism. However the climate of suspicion surrounding benefits causes people to question the legitimacy of people claiming benefits on grounds of disability or ill-health and this may manifest as hostility. This raises the prospect that where people are facing hostility related to the climate surrounding welfare reform that it is not because the protagonists believe that the person is disabled, it’s because they do not. Either way it has to be tackled, but ‘hate crime’ may not offer the best solution. I actually think strategically people should be exploring the use of s149 (5) Equality Act 2010 http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/section/149

      Best wishes, Neil

  2. Hope leads to real change? I doubt it. Hope deferreth makes the heart sick. People should of course hang on to hope so that they can have the determination to ask for, agitate for change, pester the people who have the power to implement change, and challenge those who resist it out of apathy and self interest. If they are able. But these are pretty desperate times for those who can only hope for better.

  3. Reads like a ‘blame the victim’ post to me. It’s criticising the way people react to bad treatment rather than criticising the way people dish out the bad treatment.

    If there is a danger of anything doing more harm than good, it is when people make out that this bad treatment is not all that bad after all.

    • I’d argue that it’s about ensuring that the bad treatment is recognised for what it is in its own terms, rather than relying on descriptors which do not fit and which enable those responsible to dismiss the claims (such as ‘crimes against humanity) too easily. If the impact or practice of welfare reform were not be regarded by a Court or UN body as inhuman or degrading treatment or a crime against humanity (which I would suggest is very likely indeed) then the inference is that the bad treatment either didn’t happen or wasn’t so bad after all. By using inappropriate terms we weaken our chance of securing justice and change, we don’t strengthen it.

  4. Are you just a bit of a clown really neil? Or are you far more dangerous than that? That’ll be for others to decide, but, theres no doubt whose interests are being best served by this roll of inacurracies.

  5. Who is to decide what are ‘inappropriate’ terms? !0, 600 sick and disabled people died within 6 weeks of their ESA being stopped. Over the same time frame, 310 sick and disabled people on Incapacity benefit died. You mentioned the stress and fear people experience regarding the brown envelop arriving and the process of assessment. All of those issues are interconnected, and families of the dead consistently report that the strain of assessment and loss of income contributed significantly to the deterioration in health of those who died. Please don’t try and trivialise and invalidate those accounts and experiences.

    Those on still on IB don’t experience that strain from constant and unfair assessment. Those on ESA under the current regime do. Wouldn’t you think that those DWP figures – the significant difference in those death rates – would warrant some investigation? Let’s assume that 310 people would have died on average anyway. That leaves 10,300 that shouldn’t have, yet they did.If a car had been suspected of causing that many deaths, it would have been taken off the road by now. You stop just short of accusing people of ‘scaremongering’ about this issue, but frankly I think it’s an outrage that people aren’t bothered by this,and the fact that the figures I cited are from an FOI in 2012, and the DWP have reused to release any more stats since. Doesn’t the lack of transparency ring any alarm bells for you? The refusal to investigate the high number of deaths correlated with the welfare reforms?

    As for ‘hate speech’, well anyone with knowledge of propaganda techniques and basic psychology knows that prejudice happens incrementally. Allport’s work on the Holocaust demonstrates the various stages of prejudice, and how decency boundaries are pushed gradually until the unthinkable becomes acceptable.That you can’t see that the most vulnerable people are being purposefully scapegoated to justify the withdrawal of support is one thing, but please don’t trivialise the real experiences of others.

    And I personally find facing a situation, no matter how dire, and fighting,resolving to change it is infinitely more hope-inspiring than living in denial. Supporting those suffering also inspires hope, and letting people know they are not alone.

  6. Dear Kitty

    Thanks for your reply. I’m sorry that you felt the post trivialised people’s experiences. My argument was actually that by appropriating terms and descriptions such as ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’, ‘hate speech’ or ‘crimes against humanity’ which have specific legal meaning which in most cases the issues being raised are unlikely to meet, that they risked the issues they cared about and which do require attention being trivialised when the powers that be (Courts, UN Committees and so on) judge them not to meet those definitions or thresholds. I don’t agree that this is merely a subjective question about deciding ‘appropriate terms’ as if it were than the terms would have no meaning at all and the law could not function. This is especially important as people are not simply using them rhetorically but are seeking the attention and action by e.g. the International Criminal Court or the UN. People may feel that by framing the issues in this way and by pursuing such channels that this is the best way to fight, but I disagree as ultimately these bodies are likely to dismiss these claims out of hand. That to me presents a greater risk of the issues being ‘trivialised’ than had people simply argued them on their own terms.

    I absolutely agree with you that ‘fighting,resolving to change it is infinitely more hope-inspiring than living in denial’ but I also believe there is no faster why to extinguish hope that by leading people up the garden path.

    Best wishes, Neil

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