Forced perspective: the construction of political victims

Posted: October 31, 2014 in politics and ideas
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Forced perspective is a technique used in photography and filmmaking to make things appear smaller or larger than they actually are. By positioning objects cleverly in relation to the camera and to each other, tiny things can be manipulated to appear monstrous to the audience.

Something like this is happening in our politics at the moment. The very deliberate positioning of the media lens has had a telescopic impact on the visibility of UKIP, for example, while the government’s enthusiastic promulgation of certain scare stories at the expense of worthier causes has created mountains out of molehills and molehills out of mountains.

But I think these developments are symptomatic of a deeper problem related to scale and perspective in politics.

In this piece I want to explain how the forces of reaction achieve sinister political traction by using faulty scales.

I’ll begin by revisiting the great 18th century philosopher Kant, contrasting his approach to moral reasoning with the flawed arguments that disfigure much of our present political debate. I’ll then explain how this faulty form of reasoning has enabled groups as far-flung as UKIP, Fathers4Justice and Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) to mobilise support behind their causes. I’ll also take a quick detour through the gruesome terrain of the Ched Evans affair to illustrate a related point about generalising on the basis of individual incidents.

In so doing, I hope to demonstrate how isolated instances of unfairness are constructed by the political right into a narrative of systematic victimisation. The use of forced perspective invites people to perceive individual bad experiences as part of a broader (imaginary) conspiracy against them. This, I will argue, is what feeds populist right wing politics – and is what we all need to challenge wherever it occurs.

***

This Kant be fair

Oh yes – I’ve started with a Kant/ can’t joke. It’s my blog, I can write what I like.

So, anyway, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a remarkable Prussian philosopher who has given undergraduates sleepless afternoons in university libraries ever since he first put pen to paper. Not the easiest philosopher to read, it must be said, but a smart cookie if ever there was one.

His key idea, for the purposes of this blog post, is the categorical imperative.

You’ll be familiar with the so-called Golden Rule: do as you would be done by. Kant’s categorical imperative develops this idea further. Rather than simply saying you should act as you’d like others to act towards you, Kant argued that rules of moral conduct must be capable of being universalised. That is, do as everyone should be done by, not just as you would be done by.

Kant formulated this in various ways, but the essence of the argument is captured as follows:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

A categorical imperative is something that must be followed under all circumstances. As such, Kant ushers in a very modern form of universalist thought. The concept of human rights can be seen as a logical outgrowth of the categorical imperative, as rights applying to all under any circumstance at any time.

The form of thought Kant promoted, whereby moral claims were convincing as far as they could be shown to be universal, forms the bedrock of our political and social culture – whether we realise it or not. Just think about how you argue with your friends, or how politicians justify policies. You appeal to a general rule, because it’s seen as poor debating technique to rest your opinion solely on personal experience. We scaffold our opinions onto broader social-structural claims.

For example, you don’t often hear people in the public sphere complaining about their own rate of taxation, or about how the quality of the roads affects them, or about their personal experience of the health service. Well, you do, but they embed their experience in broader claims: the upper income tax band inhibits entrepreneurialism, or cyclists should contribute to road upkeep, or the NHS should be privatised to improve efficiency. (These are arguments made by horrible people.)

And this is a good thing, broadly. It is important to abstract beyond personal experience when we discuss politics, because one person’s experience will not always be representative of the population as a whole.

I wonder, though, if there have been unintended consequences from Kant’s universalist approach to moral reasoning.

It seems to me that the ideas that get picked up in modern politics are less informed by a universalising approach and more by a generalising approach.

What do I mean by this? Well, universalising a political idea involves thinking through how it would affect everyone in society. By contrast, generalising a political ideas involves applying your own experience to everyone in society.

In other words, you’re not abstracting from personal experience so that a universal idea applies to you – you’re extrapolating from your personal experience and making that apply to everyone else.

The direction of moral reasoning is going from you to society, rather than society to you.

Allow me to illustrate this concept.

***

Fathers4Justice and intersectionality

(There’s a sub-heading to conjure with, eh?)

You might remember Fathers4Justice. On the off-chance they’re new to you, or you’ve repressed that particular memory, they were a group of sad divorced dads who believed they had been served poorly by the courts in terms of the access they were granted to their children.

(Fathers4Justice might sound like the sort of name Simon Cowell would come up with for a manufactured “man band” if he was lumbered with the over-25s category on X Factor, but they really were a political campaigning group).

Naturally, they elected to highlight their plight by, um, dressing up as superheroes and attaching themselves to buildings. They were never off the telly for a while back in 2003, much like UKIP these days.

The group failed to gain much widespread support. The reason for this was clear enough – everyone thought they were insane sexists.

Why do I bring them up? Well, I would hazard a guess that there are some fathers in the UK who have been poorly served by the courts and denied appropriate access to their children. There must be. We live in a complex society, the stakes are high with parental access cases, and human judgment is fallible.

If you or I met these men one-to-one and heard their stories, we might well be sympathetic. We might well be sympathetic to a great many individual cases. As I say – the chances of every case being resolved satisfactorily is unlikely in an imperfect world.

The problem with Fathers4Justice arose, however, when various individual incidents of perceived unfairness were scaled up into a claim that fathers were being systematically discriminated against.

This is a classic example of a group of people generalising from their individual experiences, as opposed to seeking a universal explanation for a social phenomena.

The Fathers4Justice position moved from a number of individuals feeling personally mistreated, to a claim that all fathers are mistreated.

It is interesting that this claim failed to resonate with the country at large. To explain why this happened, I want to make use of an enormously useful tool called intersectionality theory.

Intersectionality is a concept derived from recent feminist thought to reflect how discrimination is not experienced identically between individuals.

To oversimplify somewhat, it is acknowledged that people experience discrimination (or opportunity) on the basis of their salient characteristics, such as gender, race, age, social class position and disability status. And everyone has a mixture of these characteristics, so you might be from an advantaged group in terms of one but a disadvantaged group in terms of another.

If you are a woman, you’ll probably experience sexism in society. But a white middle class woman will not experience discrimination on the basis of her race or class position, whereas a poor black woman would be trebly disadvantaged.

Intersectionality seeks to explain how various aspects of people’s identities intersect (hence the name) and contribute to the construction of their social status.

The relevance to Fathers4Justice is that its members may well have been on the wrong end of a judicial settlement and they might well have had cause for complaint on the basis of their isolated experiences. However when they joined together as a campaigning group asserting the rights of fathers, it sounded like they were claiming that men are disadvantaged in comparison to women.

Clearly, all other things being equal, women are not advantaged compared to men.

That said, some women are advantaged on the basis of other salient characteristics (that is, on the basis of characteristics other than gender) – a rich woman may be able to afford a better lawyer than a poor man, for example. And perhaps some of the grievances raised by fathers reflect other forms of social disadvantage.

However Fathers4Justice reduced their cause to a clunky and unconvincing focus on gender alone – and to make matters worse they claimed that men are the disadvantaged gender!

In so doing, they tried (and, intriguingly, failed) to construct men as victims, when clearly this ignores our social reality. The contemporary Men’s Rights Activist (MRA) movement attempts a similar trick.

This hopefully illustrates the problems caused when people scale up their isolated experiences to construct a general rule. Fathers4Justice presented the public with a forced perspective, based on magnifying a few incidents of perceived unfairness in order to make them appear a bigger deal than they actually were.

The intersectional approach is very useful for explaining the complex interplay of opportunity and disadvantage in society. It is textural and nuanced, just like the phenomena it seeks to make sense of. Sadly, Fathers4Justice are far from the only group who have trampled over this fertile terrain in order to manufacture a sense of victimhood. And their successors seem to be having more success.

***

Through the looking glass

In my most recent piece I argued that non-racist people have been attracted to UKIP because the party projects itself as an active agent of change. The party points to things people feel powerless to change, and promises to change them.

What I didn’t explore was how people have come to be animated in the first place about the issues UKIP prioritises. I think the metaphor of forced perspective, and the misapplication of scale, helps us to make sense of this.

Central to the UKIP message is the idea that Britain is swamped with immigrants who either leech off the state or take British people’s jobs (presumably not at the same time, unless they’re receiving in-work benefits; but that’s another story).

The government and the right wing press echoes much of this rhetoric. Britain is full, so there’s no room for the spongers massed at the Calais border, waiting for their chance to claim British benefits.

And the political right extends its focus beyond foreign benefits claimants to benefits claimants more generally – and they’re all lazy, feckless, and cheating the system.

Implicit (and increasingly explicit) in all of this is the following narrative: white British people’s jobs are under threat from foreigners, and middle class British people’s prosperity is under threat from poor people.

I’ll run that past you again. White British people are disadvantaged in the labour market at the expense of non-white people (or white foreigners at least). And poor people are oppressing the middle classes by fiddling benefits and lounging around at their expense.

Where to start with this?

We’ll look at benefits claimants first. Just like I said in relation to Fathers4Justice, there are undoubtedly examples of people defrauding the benefits system. If you stand still long enough someone will tell you about a family who are doing just that. I don’t think there can be any doubt that some people try to maximise what they can claim. Of course they do.

And the most convincing complaints about this sort of behaviour come from people who claim benefits themselves. I’m being honest, they argue, so why should someone else be able to take the piss? And they give us all a bad name.

This is an example of excellent universalist thinking, straight out of Kant. You shouldn’t break the law, or tell lies, because it’s always wrong. And if you tell lies, the very act of doing so undermines general respect for telling the truth.

Poor people are very good at critiquing benefits fraud. But the story that gets told about benefits fraud by the political right is very different.

Isolated cases of fraud, plus emotive and context-free tales of families with plasma screens in every room, are drip-fed constantly through the right wing media. The lens is angled to create a forced perspective. Benefit fraud is magnified so that a fairly insignificant financial burden on the treasury is turned into a monster threatening our living standards.

If you click on this link you’ll find one analysis among many of the relative scale of benefit fraud, unclaimed benefits and tax evasion. The figures vary a little between analysts but the lesson is clear – benefit fraud is not an existential threat.

(About twice as much money is overpaid in error than is fraudulently claimed each year, while more benefits go unclaimed than claimed. Meanwhile, tax avoidance or fraud accounts for twenty-five times more money lost to the Treasury than benefits fraud).

So the argument against benefit fraud is the Kantian one – it’s always wrong to commit fraud. But the politically salient argument is different – benefit fraud is rife and threatens our economic health.

People not on benefits are therefore constructed as the victims of benefits fraud. That is, people who are economically better off than people on benefits. People with a more advantageous social class position. They are the victims. And people who are economically dependent on benefits, whether they defraud the Department of Work and Pensions or not, are constructed as monsters threatening the middle classes.

As with Fathers4Justice, some isolated examples of unfairness (actually existing benefits fraud) are scaled up to become the rule. This is a generalisation, not a universalisation.

The demonising of foreign workers follows a similar dynamic.

The story you hear across the South of England is of foreigners taking British people’s jobs. Now, I suspect you are no stranger to the “lump of labour” myth that underlies this idea, but if not, here it comes.

People who don’t understand how an economy works think that there are a fixed number of jobs in the economy. As soon as one new person enters the labour market, that’s one more person to be accommodated within that fixed number of jobs.

Now, an economy is much more interesting and complex than that. The people working within an economy also create jobs. They earn money and spend it, which turns into capital to be invested. And entrepreneurs invest this capital in their business ideas, which creates additional jobs. It has to – otherwise why are there so many jobs?

That said, individual people don’t have a god’s eye view of the operation of the economy. They see their own economic activity and that of the people they know. And sometimes they, or their friends, will lose out on work to a foreign applicant or a foreigner’s tender. It happens. None of us like to lose out on work. Even worse, this applies when an area that previously offered lots of jobs starts to experience economic decline.

I’m not saying it’s easy, but the universalist principles that should underlie an economy are equality of opportunity, and fair hiring policies. And sometimes a fair hiring policy in a context of equal labour market access will result in someone else getting a job ahead of you.

The story told by the right wing press and populist politicians is quite different, of course. They continue to pretend that the lump of labour theory holds validity, with the consequence that new migrants entering the labour market are taking jobs that rightfully belong to the people who were there earlier. It’s the EU’s fault, and the government cannot control its own borders. Vote UKIP and we’ll take the power back.

You’ll have guessed what’s coming next. This is a process of generalising from one-off instances of people missing out on work, rather than considering universal principles that should guide a labour market.

You could reasonably argue for an end to free movement of labour on universalist principles, if you wanted. But UKIP and the Daily Mail just deal in wild extrapolations from individual cases. And by manipulating their lens, they make all foreign workers appear monstrous and make white British citizens their victims.

Again, intersectionality theory helps us untangle some of this. The people most likely to be suffering in the labour market at the moment are people with disadvantageous social class positions. They are not suffering on the basis of their race. Foreigners are not advantaged over white British people in our society, on the basis of race. If some foreign workers achieve success in the labour market it’s due to other capacities. But still the populist rhetoric supposes discrimination against the white majority. Some white people are not flourishing in our contemporary economy, but it’s nothing to do with their colour!

You hear the same nonsense peddled by some white Americans these days too, as if white people are the racial losers in the USA…

***

To summarise, populist political forces manipulate individual examples of unfairness and make them appear representative of general trends. In so doing, they offer people a structural explanation for what are merely isolated examples of disadvantage.

This results in people believing they are being victimised on the basis of one of their identity characteristics, such as gender, or race. And by extension, the people victimising them become monsters, benefiting at their expense on the basis of their own salient characteristics.

Crucially, the people being supposedly victimised on the basis of one of their social characteristics, are in fact part of the socially dominant group in terms of that characteristic (they are male, or white). Any genuine discrimination or disadvantage they encounter cannot be on that basis.

And by encouraging huge numbers of otherwise socially-advantaged people to buy into a narrative of victimhood, populist forces can assemble significant electoral support for their demagogic claims. And so the vulnerable appear strong and the strong appear vulnerable, and social reality is left behind on the other side of the looking glass.

***

L’affaire Ched Evans

I’ll finish by changing tack slightly and applying some of the above ideas to the recent Ched Evans case.

I want to explore this to add a further level of complexity to the issue of moral reasoning, and suggest that even Kant’s universal principles can sometimes be problematic.

As you’ll no doubt be aware, Ched Evans was a footballer who played for Sheffield United. He recently emerged from prison after being convicted of rape. He wants to return to his former career, and claims that his conviction was unjust.

It’s fair to say the case has divided opinion.

Rather than toss my tuppence-worth into the debate, I want to show how complicated it is and how much is at stake at a conceptual level.

Firstly, there is the question of the purpose of punishment.

For some people, punishment justified on retributivist grounds. That is, punishment is about inflicting some sort of pain on a wrongdoer. A jail sentence takes away your freedom, and the unpleasantness is justified on the basis that you deserve to suffer for what you’ve done.

Others justify punishment on rehabilitative grounds – that is, wrongdoers should be encouraged to see the error of their ways and reconstructed so that they don’t do it again.

Or, punishment is justified on utilitarian grounds – that is, as a means of securing societal goals. Punish some people heavily for a certain type of behaviour and it will deter others from doing it in future. This is focused on society as a whole, rather than the criminal himself (indeed, the recipient of punishment might not even need to be guilty – as long as his punishment guides other people’s actions correctly).

Usually, people’s view of punishment is based on a mixture of some or all of these ideas. As a rule of thumb, however, rehabilitation tends to be liberal view based on an idea of human improvability, while retribution tends to be favoured by people who believe in evil and the impossibility of changing bad character. Utilitarian views creep into people’s assumptions regardless of their politics.

In terms of Evans, then, his punishment could be justified on the basis of:

•inflicting pain as redress for his crime; or
•re-educating him so that he doesn’t reoffend; or
•sending a message to society about certain types of behaviour.

And punishment might not be restricted to prison – it could take the form of post-prison restrictions on activity.

Then we can add a further level of complexity. Is rape different from other crimes? If so, why, and in what way? And if so, does this have an influence on the type of punishment meted out to convicted rapists, and the justification for that punishment?

To illustrate this, it could be argued that people who commit certain serious crimes, such as rape, should never be released from prison because they cannot be rehabilitated (an anti-rehabilitation view).

Alternatively, they could be kept in prison forever in order to send a message to the rest of society about how seriously we take this sort of behaviour (a utilitarian position).

Or maybe their crime is so serious that they deserve nothing but pain (a retributivist view). This may justify torture in prison, or public stoning after release, or restrictions on economic freedom (like banning them from working).

Or, of course, you may think all crimes should be treated in the same way.

But yet another complication arises from Evans’s celebrity. As a high-profile criminal, working in a high-profile industry, should he be treated differently from an “ordinary” criminal?

A utilitarian argument could be made that he should be. In order to send a clear message to male football fans that sexual violence is unacceptable, and to female fans that rape is taken seriously, it could be argued that restrictions should be placed on Evans’s freedom to work that wouldn’t be placed on other convicted rapists.

Equally, a rehabilitation perspective would hold that he is as capable of being reformed as anyone else, and deserves the chance. And a retributivist would argue that punishment is about inflicting pain as redress for a crime, and once that pain has been inflicted then everything goes back to normal.

Finally, and in some ways the most troubling aspect of the case, is Evans’s attitude to his conviction. He continues to deny that his actions constituted rape, and his support team regularly attack the victim as a deluded liar.

His conduct is consistent with two possibilities. Either he’s even worse than a rapist: a rapist without a conscience about it; or he didn’t do it. Now, British legal history is hardly free from examples of miscarriages of justice, as everyone knows. So we have to put this into the mix too.

If you are a utilitarian, you could argue that it doesn’t matter if he did it or not. The key thing is he was convicted, and that sends a strong message to society. But if you justify punishment on other grounds, the risk is that pain has been pointlessly inflicted on an innocent man, or someone has been needlessly exposed to rehabilitation when they were fine to start with.

So all of this is swirling about when people talk about Ched Evans.

An interesting aspect of the case, and the reason I raise it, is that people who normally sound like rehabilitators are among the strongest opponents of his return to football. Meanwhile, people who normally join the hangers and floggers brigade seem to be convinced that he deserves another chance.

His opponents, therefore, adopt a utilitarian position based on what’s the best message to send to society, because he’s a celebrity. Whereas his supporters are either embracing the idea of rehabilitation, or (more plausibly) taking the retributivist view that once pain has been inflicted on a criminal, that’s the end of the punishment.

This throws up a challenge to universalist thinking. I suspect that liberal people who hold well thought-through views on punishment will be absolutely convinced of the importance of rehabilitation. However a number of these liberal people are citing utilitarian grounds for opposing Evans’s return. As such, the universal principle that everyone is capable of rehabilitation and deserves a second chance is being trumped by a wish to send a specific message to society via a celebrity.

This is hardly a secure universal principle. You either support rehabilitation or you don’t.

Similarly, people who take a retributivist view in general, and a very tough line on rapists in particular, seem to be quite open to Evans playing for Sheffield United again after a short prison sentence. He hardly experienced the toughest punishment ever meted out in judicial history. There’s no way they’d stand for that if the victim was their friend. So that’s hardly a consistent position either.

But maybe there is something to be said for this. Late in life, Kant wrote about the dangers of lying. He asked the reader to imagine that a killer is on the loose. You get a knock on the door of your cabin in the woods, and it’s a terrified person on the run from the killer. They beg you to hide them.

The killer eventually finds your cabin and knocks the door. He asks you if there is someone hiding in your cabin. What do you do?

Notoriously, Kant argued that you should admit that you are indeed hiding someone in your cabin. His view was that if you start telling lies it will erode the value of the truth, and there no telling where that will lead.

It hopefully goes without saying that Kant hasn’t had too many takers on that idea. But in a sense he’s only being consistent with his universalising notion of the categorical imperative: that moral rules should be true in every and any circumstance.

With this cautionary tale in mind, it’s perhaps wise to adopt pragmatism when dealing with moral matters.

And so, you might normally be a big fan of rehabilitation, and utterly opposed to the scapegoating potential of utilitarianism – but there could be a circumstance when you adjust your thinking.

A circumstance, for example, involving a convicted rapist, who has shown no repentance, who has accused his victim of lying in a culture when hardly any rape cases result in a conviction, and who stands to make a huge amount of money playing football in front of women, children, and malleable men.

It’s useful to think about who the real victims are, even if it makes consistent moral reasoning rather difficult at times.

***

Conclusion

I’ll conclude by sharing an entertaining analogy from the world of Italian football.

In 2006, the top Italian football league (Serie A) was consumed by a match-fixing scandal.

It turned out that Juventus had been bribing referees for years to secure generous decisions from officials in their matches and matches involving their rivals.

So this was an actual conspiracy, and the other teams (who long suspected the refs were biased in favour of Juve) were being discriminated against.

One of Juventus’s leading rivals, AC Milan, got wind of the bribery and decided to combat it. Even though Milan were a hugely successful team throughout the period of Juventus match-fixing, they took personal exception to being disadvantaged.

So they started bribing the linesmen.

To me, this is a bit like men claiming women are given preferential treatment, or white people claiming black people are given preferential treatment.

Life isn’t fair, and there are social-structural tools that can help to explain how the complex web of social advantage and disadvantage is constructed. Intersectionality theory is an extremely useful way of approaching this issue, since it acknowledges how our identities are assembled from lots of different salient characteristics – gender, race, age, social class, sexuality and so on. Different aspects of our identity will be more or less socially advantaged than others – and intersectionality gives us the apparatus for thinking through how those pluses and minuses interplay in different situations.

So sometimes the courts will make wrong decisions, and the powerless individual citizen feels as though he or she has little redress against the might of the judiciary. There are obvious power relations that can be analysed when we think about the judiciary. But to decide that decisions sometimes go against fathers because society discriminates against men is ludicrous.

Equally, in our post-Keynes late capitalist economy there are huge challenges for people to find work. But to blame that on some foreigners, on the basis that white British people are discriminated against, is ridiculous.

By bribing the linesmen in retaliation for Juventus’s control of the referees, Milan simply made life even worse for the other teams who were now disadvantaged by both the referees and the linesmen. When white people blame migrant workers for their plight, or men blame women for their problems, they simply add to the disadvantages faced by their scapegoats.

So the next time a politician or a political columnist tells you that you are being discriminated against because you are a certain type of person, ask yourself this: are those kind of people the sort of people who routinely experience discrimination?

And if they are not, then maybe the monsters that loom so large will suddenly appear a little smaller. And the trembling victims begging for mercy will suddenly seem somewhat more powerful. And the reality we are sold by right wing populists will turn out simply to be the result of clever camera-trickery.

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Comments
  1. As ever, very interesting. As to intersectionality, would you agree with my theory that Diane Abbott did not stand a chance of becoming Labour leader (in 2010, was it?) not because she is a woman, nor because she is black but, in these strange times, because she is old?

    Like

  2. Marjorie says:

    I think this is my favourite of your posts so far. I like the forced perspective metaphor.
    Now.
    Seriously.
    When does your PhD start? 😊

    Like

  3. Clicky Steve says:

    I truly enjoy your blogs. I’d love to start some sort of upstart blog with clever folk like yourself, but not sure what the main focus would be.

    If I ever get an idea formulated I’ll let you know. Also open to suggestion.

    Liked by 1 person

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