Laurie Penny: Shame has become our stick for beating the poor

Black Triangle supporter Laurie Penny

By LAURIE PENNY , The Independent, Friday 1st June 2012


When someone starts talking about “political violence”, you usually know what that means. It means nightsticks, kettling and riot cops massing in the streets like giant beetles.


It means young men in face-rags throwing sticks and grown men on horses trampling them underfoot.

We know how the story goes by now.

People come out on the streets to protest against austerity. Police come out on the streets to stop them, armed with a variety of hastily concocted anti-dissent laws and the latest in crowd-control technology. Protesters get angry, police get violent, and people get hurt.

This week in Montreal, reporting on student demonstrations over tuition hikes much like those that shook Britain in 2010, I had a perfectly quotidian chat about the privatisation of education with a young man who happened to have lost an eye to a plastic bullet in a protest not two weeks before. This is the new normal wherever enforced austerity meets public dissent. Rinse off the blood and repeat.

There is, however, another kind of political violence, and it’s much more insidious. It’s shame.

When single mother Shanene Thorpe was interviewed by BBC’s Newsnight last week, she was expecting an honest conversation about coming cuts to housing benefit. Instead, interviewer Allegra Stratton challenged her “choice” not to live in her mother’s spare room and, according to Thorpe, asked her whether she thought she should have aborted her daughter.

Like many other people on housing benefit, Thorpe is employed, but relies on the subsidy because her salary is too low to cope with soaring London rents. This wasn’t mentioned in the interview. Instead, Thorpe was squeezed into a familiar caricature: the shameless benefit scrounger, explaining her decision to sponge off the state.

Thorpe’s experience is typical.

If you’re poor, unemployed or disabled in Britain today, you can expect to be told that it’s your own fault. Making people feel ashamed of their own poverty or powerlessness is a highly effective way of preventing them from complaining about it. It’s an old strategy, and it works: make peasants doff their caps to their “betters” and they might not riot in the streets.

Make benefit claimants out to be work-shy scroungers, in headline after screeching headline, and they might not complain about the billions being cut from the welfare bill.

Conservatives are anxious to have us believe that a nation can be run much like an individual household economy, which is convenient, because an individual household can’t collect taxes from corporations registered in the Cayman Islands. 

This fatuous “household nation” analogy turns out to be surprisingly useful when it comes to state violence. Not every household, after all, is a happy one, and one thing that state violence and domestic violence have in common is the importance of shame and humiliation.

Ask any woman or man who has lived with domestic violence what kept them in such a situation for so long, and they will tell you: he made me feel worthless. She made me feel ashamed. At every level of human brutality, physical violence is only one way of controlling a person. In the long run, it’s often more effective to keep that person cowed by making them feel small and worthless.

Shame and humiliation.

That’s the sort of social control that’s in play when the state asks every person receiving disability or sickness benefits to plead, beg and explain to strangers why they need the tiny amount of financial aid to which they are still entitled.

The Government’s flagship work capability assessments, administered by the private firm Atos Origin at a cost of hundreds of millions, require patients to fill out 28 pages’ worth of forms about whether they can wipe their own bottoms and stand without falling.

I know this because I’ve helped friends fill them in.

Every page is an affront to the dignity that so many disabled people fight so hard to hang on to in a world of prejudice.

Claimants have told me how Atos doctors, most of them unspecialised, have required them to strip semi-naked to show their self-harm scars or walk until they collapsed from pain – making them feel worthless before throwing them off benefits to prove it.

Because someone in Whitehall is clearly a frustrated comedian, Atos Origin will also be sponsoring the Paralympic Games this summer.

Shame and humiliation are often far more effective strategies of social control than horses, riot shields and baton blows.

Shame and humiliation are supposed to keep disabled people in line, along with students, single parents, working women, unemployed people, low-waged workers, and everyone else due to lose out in the new conservative economic order.

Fighting state violence doesn’t have to involve staring down a line of riot police. Some of the most important battles take place between conservative propaganda and people’s residual sense of pride.

For every protester waving a placard, there is someone struggling to remember why they are entitled to a wage, a home and a future – and winning.

Shanene Thorpe, humiliated by Newsnight, is running a campaign to demand an apology from the BBC.

Meanwhile, across Britain, disabled activists continue to exhaust themselves countering misinformation in the Government’s workfare programme.

As long as people have the strength to fight for human dignity in an age of austerity, a poorer, meaner society, a society built on shame, may yet be held at bay.

The Independent

10 thoughts on “Laurie Penny: Shame has become our stick for beating the poor

  1. jeffrey davies says:

    well done spot on with ,how can the bbc leave this presenter Allegra Stratton be left in her job and whot a single mother lives at home or in her own home shouldnt have been brought up .theres so much hate brought on by these in power towards the unemployed and sick and disabled its not thier fault they had to bail the banks out but now have to pay for it by cutting or stopping of ones benefit ,well done politicians pherhaps you all should be saying your prays before starting your work( ops sitting on ones backside i call it) as for your humanity looks like its none there and wount be any anytime soon atos ser the peoples doctor who can make the sick fit for work jeff3

  2. Jean cozens says:

    That BBC presenter presumably lives in a £1,000,000 terraced house in Shepherd’s Bush, paid for by the tax-payer, yet she has the nerve to barrack Shanene for wanting a bit of space for herself and her child. It’s notShanenes’ fault her wages wont cover her rent. And as fotelling her she should have had an abortion!! Eugenics is alive and well and flourishing at the BBC.

  3. DAVID A SHAW says:

    Those who wish to make the vulnerable feel ashamed, whatever cynical ideology they use to convince themselves they are right will not be the victors in the battle of hearts and minds. Interesting that the rise of the religious right and their ‘ shame’ ideology goes hand in hand with what this government is attempting to do as pointed out in this article. But we must never feel ashamed of what we are, for if we unshackle ourselves from a worldview that accepts that some are predestined to be more worthy than others, and that in a top down Theodicy those at the bottom belong there because that is their place. i quote from a famous hymn a line that is no longer sung due to its implications, i wonder if it will be restored under the current government.
    ‘The rich man in his castle , the poor man at his gate, he made them high and lowly and ordered their estate’.
    Worth thinking about i feel.

  4. Cyberwolf says:

    Let no-one be under any illusion. There are those of us who are more able, willing and capable of taking the fight against this Government’s Nazi Ideology. We are not afraid of them, for they are not our betters and we do not acknowledge their powers. We are able to take the fight to all those who portray the weak, disabled and unemployed as being ‘scroungers’ or degrade and humiliate them through need and want. The BBC, ITV are included in a long list of those held responsible for repeated attacks upon the weakest in our society – those they ALL swore to protect. This country will be shown the full horror of their sycophantic and slavish obedience to this Coalition – for in the end: no Government goes on forever, and there is ALWAYS a reckoning and punishment! So rather than thinking there is no defence against Cameron’s pitiful “regime” – think this instead. Those who make the weakest their victims will not be spared when their time comes. And it will come.

  5. Jaki says:

    Yes, and shame’s opposite ‘shameless’ is the title of a programme I have never watched, but I believe depicts ‘so-called scroungers’. To be shameless and disabled and/or unemployed or – god forbid, both – is the worst sin you can commit as far as the Nasty Party are concerned

  6. Dominic Mulgrew says:

    Glasgow Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! are holding a public meeting in the Piper Bar, George Square, 7.30pm, on 27 June to start organising consistent and regular pickets of the Atos centre on Cadogan Street in Glasgow. See details for the meeting ‘Action against Atos!’

    The first picket is called for 29 June, 2-4pm. See details –

    Victory to Black Triangle!

  7. Humanity2012 says:

    The Evil National Socialist Regime Hounded the Poor/Sick/Disabled/Vulnerable
    and this present Con Dem Regime is on a Par with Regards to this .

    It makes Myself Angry to Hear about the Way Laurie Penny has been Treated
    which Explains why I do Not Like the TV Propaganda Box and it’s Out of Touch
    Reporting of Events

    The Real Scroungers are the ” Royal ” Family and the Westminster Millionaire
    Politicians and Lobby Fodder

  8. w hawkins says:

    The only reasons the Eton crew seek out political positions is to ensure they get a continuum of wealth by government raping our finances then going to the political wilderness to spend our money and wait for the stupid public to forget it happened. Now they are wiser and control all three main parties instead of just the one. job done!!

Leave a Reply