Shame, stigma, fear and rage: Lessons from Berlin the day before #GE2015

Policy Press director Alison Shaw recently travelled to Berlin for a few days. Contemplating a wealth of history during the trip, Alison shares with us her thoughts on some of the similarities with the threats facing us today, especially around freedom of expression, the use of  shame as a political tool and the rhetoric around food and work.

Policy Press - 018 resizeA few weeks ago I was in Berlin. It is an amazing city with a complex history. We went from gazing at stunning statues of Queen Nefertiti from 14th century BC to mind-boggling brain-activated artificial limbs (husband is a neuroscientist!).

We saw the now rather glamorised Wall that separated East from West, but the thing that stood out was the Topography of Terror, a museum on the site of the central institutions of Nazi persecution, where the leadership of the Secret State Police, the SS, were housed.

Politics today

It is an astonishing museum on the history of the Nazi movement. Three things struck me in particular that are relevant to politics today.

Burning booksAs a publisher I was taken by the photos of piles of burning books – knowledge is power, and clearly those that take away that knowledge wield an intensified power. Freedom of speech and tolerance of ideas is so vital in society.

The Charlie Hebdo murders, and the response from the different communities, put this into stark relief. Our ‘global village’ is small and we have to find a way to live in tolerance with each other. The rise of extremism is something that concerns us all. But the almost hysterical rhetoric about immigration in the UK is deeply concerning.

The question is how do we engage communities who are fearful of other cultures. The rise of UKIP is something both the left and the right in Britain need to understand – they are providing something people want – so, in a multi-cultural society, how can the traditional parties address those concerns whilst staying true to their beliefs?

“The significant effect shame has on people has come to the fore recently in work on poverty.”

The second aspect that stood out was the use of shame and stigma as a method of control, such as the parading of individuals down the streets with shaved heads and placards reading out their misdemeanors.

Shame is a powerful emotion that most of us want to avoid and thus is extremely powerful. The significant effect shame has on people has come to the fore recently in work on poverty. Amartya Sen described shame as the “irreducible core” of poverty. The shame of it by Gubrium, Pellissery and Lødemel takes research from across the globe to show how policy makers must take account of the psychological aspects of people’s experiences  to provide policies that work effectively.

Families and poverty with border [FC]Closer to home O’Hara’s interviews with those facing the savage cuts to welfare in the UK for Austerity bites highlighted how shame plays a significant role in people’s responses to poverty with Daly and Kelly’s ground-breaking study Families and Poverty supporting this.

Jennifer Jacquet’s Is shame necessary? (Penguin) turns the concept on its head by looking at how the public can shame the powerful into behaving better as in the case of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the shaming of the 1% such as by Dorling in his fully updated edition of Injustice and Sayer in Why we can’t afford the rich. It will be interesting to see if there are real changes made to policy and legislation to address the inequality of the 1% to the 99% as a result.

One text line stood out for me at the Topography of Terror and that was “Those who do not work, shall not eat” which was used as the justification for the murder of the mentally and physically disabled and the mentally ill. Now we don’t murder people in the UK but we have moved to an extremely punitive sanctions regime for those ‘who do not work’ and we do leave people with literally nothing to eat.

Outraged

I remain outraged that we have benefit sanctions that are so tough that people have no money at all for months because they are late to a benefits appointment by 5 minutes. What are they meant to do? The bedroom tax has had an appalling impact on the disabled and the welfare cuts are hitting the disabled and mentally ill hard as services and care support are cut.

In the new Afterword to Austerity Bites, O’Hara gives the example of a young disabled woman who had had her support cut – she had gone from being a Cambridge undergraduate who, although severely disabled had been able to live a full life filled with promise, to someone who said: “There have been just two emotions in the last month – fear and rage. I joke that the Tories should just round up all us disabled people and have us shot – it would be quicker and cheaper than what they’re doing and it would put us out of our misery. It’s a dark joke but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. I wonder when will we fight for equality for the disabled?”

According to Mahatma Ghandi, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” How are we doing as a society? Pretty badly I would say for one of the globe’s wealthiest nations.

Related links

How benefit sanctions left me sleeping on the streets

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