Paul Dodenhoff is an independent researcher and writer. See 'bio' for contact details.
In my last article for Disabled-World, 'Analysing the Characteristics of 'Hate': Disability Hate Crime' published on 2014/11/06 , I gave a brief analysis of the common characteristics of 'hate' that I have come across in recent times as an investigator/researcher into this insidious crime. By using the same high profile case studies, I will move on this time to discuss the possible 'motivation' behind the crime.
This article is primarily to get people to think about the subject matter and to begin a discussion. The actual field of 'hate crime' concerning race, ethnicity, religion and sexuality is highly complex, and disability hate crime is no exception, containing additional or unique features that are not seen in hate crime committed towards other social groups. However, common themes do emerge from investigating abuse, harassment and violence perpetrated against race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality and disability. So, hopefully this article will be illuminating and help to make some kind of sense of something that is often perceived as being quite 'senseless'.
Disability hate crime - key themes
In my last article, I argued that in most cases of 'hate' committed towards disability, we can often pick out themes of 'Exploitation' , 'Incarceration' , 'Accusation' (as a precursor to violence) and 'Entertainment '. Ultimately, the roots of disability hate crime have their foundations within the historical and cultural background of society, and in the UK (like most societies world-wide) disability is not only something to be 'feared', but something that has been primarily considered to be a negative deviation from the 'norm'. And therefore considered to be a 'defect' .
It is disability as a 'defective' characteristic of a person that has made the disabled a target for state and medical control, both yesteryear and today. However, why should anybody actually be bothered enough or motivated enough to want to commit abuse, harassment and violence against another human being, even if that human was indeed considered by the authorities or the medical profession to be 'defective '. What would any ordinary person actually gain by pursuing such behavior
If we look at crime in general, the majority of crime is often largely considered by our politicians and media to be 'senseless' criminal acts. However, often we are able to pick out the overriding motivation behind any criminal offense, and in many cases the motivation may be argued to be driven primarily by personal gain. Actions that lead to some kind of temporary or long term economic, social or psychological advantage for the individual, whether this is by theft, exploitation, abuse, harassment or violence.
Certainly when discussing why people commit crime, on a common sense level we may argue that certain criminal acts are committed in order to obtain 'something'. Be that money or to get items to sell in order to make money; or to obtain material goods that we can't afford; to dominate, control or exploit another human being in order to fill our personal whims and desires; to extract revenge for a perceived misdemeanor or 'sleight'; or just to release frustrations about the social world or make ourselves seem more 'important' or 'cleverer' within that social world.
You, the reader may be able to think of many other reasons for crimes that are often perceived to be 'senseless' criminal acts. However, the most interesting thing about anybody classifying crime as 'senseless', is that it not only downplays the reasons behind the crime, but it also diverts attention away from the way society is actively constructed and maintained. Thereby, focusing attention solely on the 'deviant' individual who carried out that 'senseless' criminal act, and less on 'social' or 'economic' causes.
Senseless acts, sometimes do make sense
If we look at 'hate crime' itself, crimes committed against race, ethnicity, religion or sexuality (and therefore crimes solely motivated by a person's identity characteristics), these are acts that are also largely considered to be 'senseless' acts of violence.
But are they really? Why would any human being do anything that didn't have a purpose, motive or reason? And it may actually be impossible for any human being to undertake any act, be it one of abuse, harassment and violence, without there being an underlying cause of that behavior. Even if it is just a reaction to something.
There is now a wealth of research that examines the motivation behind acts of abuse, harassment or violence committed towards race, ethnicity, religion and sexuality. The cause of these insidious crimes have often been argued to have any number of possible starting points, from feelings of economic alienation or the effects of economic deprivation; thrill seeking or status seeking behavior; revenge and retaliation against perceived misdemeanors; or defending communities from a perceived intrusion.
While these theories and explanations have been proposed by academics without having disability in mind, it may be a useful exercise to see how far these ideas 'fit' into disability hate crime. Using the four case studies that I covered in my last article, let's now have a look to see if we can pick out the possible motivation behind these so called 'senseless' acts of abuse, harassment and violence
Case study 1- Louise
' When I was eight my mum gave me up to foster care. I had an assessment a few years later which said 'you have moderate learning difficulties'. That's the category they gave me. After 10 years with my foster family, I went to a special boarding college then into supported housing. I eventually moved to Torquay, which is where the attack happened.
I visited a friend one day and there were these homeless people there, one of whom was called Karl. They told me they didn't have anywhere to live, so I let them stay in my house share for £50 a fortnight. One afternoon we all had a drink at the house of a woman called Maryanne, who had been going out with Karl. He asked me if she was cheating on him. I said yes. I was telling the truth, but she denied it. Both of them kept shouting at me 'you're lying, you're lying'. Everyone was egging on everyone else to throw in the first punch. Then Maryanne lunged at me, got her stiletto and hit me in the face. I tried to get away but they wouldn't let me. They kept punching and kicking me.
Then I was frog-marched to a house next door, where I was held hostage again. They locked the doors and shut all the curtains. Karl was standing near the door giving orders of what to do to me. I can still see myself sat in that room. I was beaten with saucepans and plates. They dumped a big plant pot over my head. They broke my nose. They cut me with a kitchen knife behind my ear and on my arm. One of them tried to strangle me.
When the case eventually came to court, I went along for the verdict. All I heard was each person's name and the years they got each, and I thought, 'Yes, I've won this one'. Since the attack, I think to myself all the time 'why me' Is it because I'm kind-hearted or because I'm vulnerable? I don't like meeting new people now. I feel uncomfortable. I have nightmares.'
The first thing to spring to my mind in reading this extract, is that the 'homeless' in this case started out by intentionally 'exploiting' Louise, and primarily to have somewhere to stay. I would perhaps regard this as an example of 'economic deprivation' or 'economic alienation' in action.
Certainly, in a modern and relatively rich society like the UK, nobody should be homeless now for any real length of time - whatever the reason. However, an influential report released last year and based upon research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Crisis , highlighted that homelessness within the UK has increased for three consecutive years. Partly because of housing shortages, but also because of cuts in welfare benefits, with an estimated 185,000 people a year now affected by homelessness in England alone.
Exploitation of the disabled, particularly those considered to be mentality impaired, has become increasingly common within recent times. Exploitation that Pam Thomas (2011) would perhaps consider to be one aspect of 'Mate Crime', a unique factor of disability hate crime that we do not see in hate crime committed towards other social groups. As the UK continues to embark on ruthless welfare reduction, we will undoubtedly see more and more examples of this type of exploitation perpetrated against the disabled, as perpetrators will 'befriend' some disabled people purely to see what they can get out of them.
However, we must be careful not to ignore other possible motivating factors visible in the abuse, harassment and violence directed at Louise. Undoubtedly we see acts of brutal violence perpetrated against Louise that are initially instigated by false accusations, accusations that Katherine Quarmby (2011) would consider to be a form of 'Scapegoating'. 'Accusations' are quite common starting points in crimes committed against the disabled, signifying the deep-rooted notion within society of the 'deviant' nature of disability itself.
However, other social groups also experience false 'accusations' against them, accusations of inherent 'deviant' characteristics that are also negatively associated with race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality or gender. These 'false' characteristics are driven primarily by social stereotypes or social representations - common notions that permeate into the consciousness of society, influencing beliefs and attitudes.
Additionally, we may also be able to pick up on the fact that the perpetrators seem to be getting a 'thrill' out of dominating another human being. And thrill seeking or status seeking behavior is certainly an aspect of 'hate' that can also be seen in cases of hate crime directed towards other social groups within the UK, not just the disabled.
Case Study 2 - Fiona Pilkington.
For anybody unfamiliar with this tragic case, Fiona Pilkington killed herself and her 18-year-old disabled daughter in October 2007 after her family suffered many years of targeted abuse, harassment and violence. Here is what one newspaper reported:
"Pam Cassell, Miss Pilkington's mother, told the inquest the same youths were responsible for all the abuse. They would also urinate in the garden and throw stones and eggs at the house, the inquest heard. Mrs Cassell said: 'It was Halloween and firework night coming up and Fiona was dreading them because she knew that the children would start throwing things at the house and start putting fireworks through the letter box. They would start on Fiona and throw things and then go round the back and do things in the garden. It was always the same group of youths. 'Sometimes they would go round the side of the house and urinate. 'They used to ring on the doorbell and say that she had been hitting her kids. They were petty things like that. 'They used to throw stones at the house and then they threw acorns and flour and eggs. 'Frankie was frustrated because she couldn't go out in the garden without being tormented or teased. We used to take her to the park and take her out in the rain because she used to love jumping in puddles. 'Frankie could be genuinely lovable but when she was frustrated she used to pull hair and bite and punch because she couldn't do what she wanted to do.' Mrs Cassell added that the gang, which often numbered 16, would torment Francecca and her brother before they went to bed. They would throw stones at the window and try and get her to lift up her nightdress.' The abuse began when Miss Pilkington's dyslexic son Anthony, 19, fell out with a child who lived on the same street in Barwell, Leicestershire, when he was just eight. In one incident, Anthony was marched at knife-point into a shed."
Most certainly, we could argue that the youths in question in this tragic case were also getting a rather large 'thrill' out of their behavior, behavior that continued even after a very wide 'exclusion' zone had been placed around Fiona Pilkington's property by the police. However, repetitive abuse and violence against the same people and perpetrated by the same pulpits is something unique to hate crime committed against the disabled. Hate crime perpetrated against race, ethnicity, religion or sexuality is often transient and opportunistic behavior, even if the motivation is indeed, thrill seeking. In most cases involving disability, abuse and violence isn't always transient nor opportunistic.
This signals that something more is happening here than mere 'thrill seeking', particularly as the abuse and violence perpetrated against Fiona and her family occurred almost on a daily basis. Something which you think would have tailed away through boredom itself at some point, once the novelty had worn off - if thrill seeking alone was the primary motivator for most of these youths. Therefore, it doesn't take a genius to work out that the youths in question were probably not just looking for 'thrills', but perhaps actually wanted Fiona and her family imprisoned or contained within their own home for some reason (or even better, 'removed' from the community). In the end they got their wish when Fiona killed herself and her daughter.
In cases of hate perpetrated against race, ethnicity, religion and sexuality, it has been argued that many acts of abuse, harassment and violence can be considered to be 'defensive' crimes, where the perpetrator (usually male) is argued to be 'defending' their community from some kind of 'intrusion' by a minority group member.
This is something that the American researchers, Levin and McDevitt (1993) picked up in an analysis of Boston Police Department reports, finding that while three out of five hate crimes committed in Boston were indeed committed just for the 'thrill' of it and for 'having fun', not all of these cases were motivated by looking for thrill's or excitement. Some were found to be 'defensive' crimes, where perpetrators were responding to a trigger incident or a perceived threat and intrusion, rationalizing their defensive reactions in terms of protecting themselves or their community.
The idea that the youths in Fiona Pilkington's tragic case where in some bizarre way trying to 'defend' or 'protect' their community from Fiona and her family may shock some readers. But please bear in mind that within the UK, disability has largely been hidden from view since the 1800's, and only within recent times have we seen large numbers of the disabled introduced back into the community. Sadly, for many people, deep-rooted notions that the disabled need to be kept locked up in 'institutions' or 'hospitals' and therefore removed from society, may still exist.
As we saw in Fiona's tragic situation, this nightmare basically started from one small and accusatory 'trigger' incident: "The abuse began when Miss Pilkington's dyslexic son Anthony, 19, fell out with a child who lived on the same street in Barwell, Leicestershire, when he was just eight. In one incident, Anthony was marched at knife-point into a shed."
Therefore, if we view disability hate crime as partly being about 'defense', then we can perhaps move forward a little in trying to make sense of acts that are often difficult to understand. For many people, the thought of becoming seriously ill, disfigured or disabled is something to be feared, particularly as the general public still have very little contact with disability, and even less knowledge or understanding of it.
To put it another way, what we don't understand, may scare us, and what may scare us, may be something we may want to avoid, flee from or fight.
Case Study 3 - Chantelle
' It was karaoke night at the Weaver's Arms when Chantelle Richardson was attacked by a stranger because of her disability. The 23-year-old, whose face has been disfigured since she was 14, had already left one pub that night after comments about her condition. Now drinking with mates at her local in Oldham, it happened again. "Is your friend wearing a mask" said the woman who'd just stopped singing as one of Richardson's pals approached the mike. "Your friend's face is disgusting." The woman repeatedly told Richardson: "Take off your mask," before punching her in the face. The blow was so strong it could have been fatal and left Richardson hospitalized for weeks. For months, she was depressed and afraid to go out in public. Her attacker, brought to court in March last year, was sentenced to eight months in prison'.
Although this is a very brief description of the incident, it is still illuminating. Again, we can see 'accusations' leveled towards the victim (accusations that also precede violence) and accusations that are arguably put into play in order to provoke and justify the violence that was subsequently directed towards Chantelle. These crude accusations also carry the implication that because Chantelle is perceived to be ugly by the perpetrator (i.e., wearing a mask) she should not be seen out in public. Or to be more precise, not to be seen in that particular pub.
This again is a 'defensive' action, perhaps combining not only a defense of community and territory, but a psychological defense of something that may frighten the life out of us - disfigurement. However, it may also be a defense of the social notion that women must look 'pretty' within society, a philosophy or ideology that many women within the western world still seem keen to support or conform to. Within all societies, the 'inhabitants' of those societies pick up on all kinds of social notions, thoughts, beliefs, social representations and stereotypes, and internalize them in order not only to make sense of the social world around them, but to guide their own behavior.
Behavior that can also be considered to be a little bit 'conformist' at times, as most of us want to fit into society as best we can, as we certainly do not want to be excluded from it by others. However, this largely conformist aspect of human behavior make us also extremely susceptible to the half-truths, false-hoods and half-baked propaganda that may circulate around any society, and on a daily basis.
Case Study 4 - Emma
Emma Round, 28. In 2009, nerves in Round's abdominal cavity became badly damaged, making walking extremely painful. Unable to leave the house without help, she became effectively trapped for nine months until a doctor decided to give her a wheelchair. The change revolutionized her independence, but also made her a target of abuse. Sitting outside a local shop not long after getting her wheelchair, she was approached by a well-dressed stranger. "He lent over, looked me in the eye and said, 'It's a good scam. Someone your age shouldn't be in a wheelchair ... You're just doing it for the benefits, aren't you? Scum.' Then he walked off. I just sat there crying," Round says. That incident was not a one off. "Since then I've been called lazy frequently and had people grab my wheelchair and tell me to get out and walk. I've been called a scrounger, a sponger, a faker and other words you wouldn't be able to put in print."
Once again we see accusations over the 'deviant' behavior of the disabled, this time linked to negative government rhetoric and negative media stories over welfare benefit abuse. Whether or not the perpetrators of this nonsense actually believed that Emma was a fraud and faking disability, it is quite obvious that some perpetrators of disability hate crime have indeed picked up on the benefit fraud angle in order to 'justify' their own abuse and violence towards the disabled.
Whether this type of behavior is motivated by genuine concern over benefit fraud or just another way of forcing the disabled back into 'invisibility' within British society, I don't know. But at the very least, we could argue that such behavior may be considered to be in defense of the 'work ethic', something that is constantly argued by politicians, business leaders and the media to be diminishing within British society.
Certainly, a fear of 'faking' disability is something of a recent development within British society itself, and arguably motivated by the myth of an overgenerous welfare system that encourages welfare benefit abuse and fraud. I'm not going to get into a debate here about the half-truths and false-hoods largely generated within British politics and by the British media over 'benefit fraud', as these outrageous lies can easily be disproved by anybody willing to research the matter for themselves. But I would like to say that I don't see any of our politicians nor their journalist buddies dashing to swop their healthy salaries for a life on 'welfare benefits' - something that speaks volumes about the reality of the situation.
In my last article, I argued that in most cases of 'hate' committed towards disability, we can often pick out themes of 'Exploitation' , 'Incarceration' , 'Accusation' (as a precursor to violence) and 'Entertainment '. However, this doesn't really tell us a great deal about why these things happen. In this article, I have suggested that we may find the motivation of disability hate crime, sometimes within the 'economic' deprivation or alienation that exists within the UK, and sometimes within the defensive' actions of perpetrators, who may be responding either to a trigger incident, or a perceived threat/intrusion that is mixed up somehow with the historical incarceration or hospitalization of disability.
Most certainly, we cannot pin all disability hate crime on 'thrill' seeking or 'benefit' fraud. The problem goes much deeper than that. However, if we are to get to the bottom of this huge social problem within the UK, we need to urgently invest in research that will better inform our thinking about 'hate'. Once this begins, we will be able to gain a better indication of the motivation behind the crime, and hopefully find a solution. At the moment, disability hate crime is not taken as seriously within the political world nor the academic world as 'hate' perpetrated against other social groups. That is a provable fact. I will leave the reader to make up their minds to why this may be the case.
Paul Dodenhoff is an independent researcher and writer. See 'bio' for contact details.