In a historic referendum on Thursday June 23, the people of Britain voted for a British exit (or Brexit) from membership of the European Union. The vote was very close but completely unexpected by Britain's political classes, the majority of whom had actively opposed Britain's withdrawal and fervently campaigned against it. The result was therefore an deep embarrassment to our PM David Cameron, who actually reported beforehand that he had no plan B in place for such a result, and consequently resigned as PM and leader of The Conservative Party because of it.
One of the most interesting but highly disturbing issues that has come out of the referendum is an actual recent surge in hate crime. Reports to police increased by 42% to more than 3,000 incidents of racial and ethnic hate crime across Britain in the week before and the week after the 23 June vote. Many reports upon social media have indicated that some British people may have simply taken the referendum debate and its outcome as licence to behave in a racist and a discriminatory manner. Our politicians have been running around ever since, trying to blame each other for the Brexit vote going completely wrong, and also for this current wave of 'hate', pinning much of the racism and prejudice surrounding the campaign primarily upon one political party - UKIP (The United Kingdom Independence society).
While I don't have much time for UKIP myself, I think some of the criticism has been a touch unfair. Firstly, the Conservative Party have never been slow to play the 'immigration' card themselves over the years, and many politicians of all political colours view the Brexit result to be driven as much by declining living standards and a consequence of disenfranchisement, as it is about 'immigration'. An argument that 52% of the United Kingdom wanted to give our political classes a damn good trashing and used the referendum vote to do so. Our media has also been to blame with a continuing agenda that seems much more concerned about disseminating political propaganda around race, religion, sexuality and disability, that actually disseminating factual and truthful 'news'.
Bias and prejudice within the UK
For a long time now I have argued that Britain has become a much less tolerant society and a much more bullying one, with a widespread bullying culture that cuts across schools, the workplace and the wider community. In my previous article for Disabled-World, I wrote about the sad murder of Jo Cox, a British Labour member of parliament who died on Thursday 16th June after being shot and stabbed outside her constituency surgery in Birstall, West Yorkshire. An attack argued to be motivated by far-right political extremism and an increasing intolerance towards immigration and race. But not just toward race and immigration, but also towards anyone perceived to be actively supportive of such diversity.
A death that came at a time when racism, sexism, homophobia and disablism have all been reported to have increased, year upon year within the UK, and a sure sign that the UK is becoming generally less amenable to anybody perceived as 'different' from the 'norm'. So, it's perhaps an indication of a deep-rooted culture of bullying, where some social groups become perceived not only as being different but negatively different, and either as a threat to the way we live, and/or are receiving 'special privileges' of some kind that the majority of us do not.
It is a phenomena that while cutting across social class, has firmly developed within an increasingly polarised UK, and one polarized by a perceived disparity in opportunity, income, wealth and access to resources. In a society that arguably views opportunity and access to resources as becoming increasingly scarce, it is those social groups that have been traditionally oppressed, marginalised and dominated in the past, that somehow now face a resurgence of previously contained hostility, abuse and violence. A hostility that is perhaps aimed at regaining what is perceived to be lost or eroded by those groups who perceive themselves to be superior to the rest.
Competition and social threat
The European issue has been a long debated topic within political circles, within the media and within British society as a whole, for as long as we have been a formal member of the European Economic Community. Much of the debate has actually centred on the issue of immigration and the freedom of movement of people from the European Community to the UK in order to live and work. This country has therefore arguably been split for some time between people supportive of immigration, and others hostile towards it. Where some view diversity and immigration as a real treat to British culture itself, their standard of living, as well as a drain on the NHS, schools and housing. With others believing immigration to be a good and enriching influence, supplying us with skills, abilities and culture that we would surely be poorer without.
However, many within our political classes and within our media have continually hammered home the point of the anti-immigration lobby, by misleadingly portraying immigrants to be receiving special treatment from the British state that the rest of us do not. Special treatment such as quicker access to social housing and welfare, free healthcare that they have not paid into, as well instant access to scarce community resources. The referendum vote and the debate surrounding it has therefore awakened a widespread but dormant underlying hostility towards those who are not only viewed as being different from the rest of us, but a threat to the real interests of a significant proportion of the population. And rather interestingly, people who were born in other countries but who are how also fully fledged British Citizens themselves, also seem to be becoming primarily 'anti-immigration'. Something that indicates that this issue isn't simply about race or ethnicity as such, but involves the threat of competition over resources and the perceived allocation of such resources.
The concept of 'Competition' is something that British people are hit over the head with constantly on a daily basis and have been for many years. We are taught as children that we must be competitive against other children, fighting for prizes either academically or via sports. As we get older we are told that we must be competitive in order to make ourselves employable, and that we must then be competitive within the workplace in order to keep that job, faced with individual targets and team targets that are set with the sole aim of motivating us to continuously 'improve'. As a nation, we are told that we are in ever increasing global competition with other nations where global markets demand us to be ultra-competitive and ever-more flexible, primarily by reducing our own wage demands and often accepting unstable, unsocial and unreasonable working contracts and conditions.
British society in general therefore takes for granted that competition will motivate people to do something extra and more cheaply - and it can. But the existing research on competition actually indicates that competition is only motivating within certain conditions, and that such tactics can be soul destroying and de-motivating when badly employed. In fact, research has often shown that splitting people randomly into groups in simple competition with each other can automatically trigger hostility towards the other. We should not be too surprised then when political and media rhetoric over perceived competition for ever deceasing resources causes conflict, particularly when hostility, bias and prejudice towards race, ethnicity, religion, homosexuality and disability had always been highly prominent within our past social history, and may be much more deep-rooted within our individual consciousness and group consciousness than we may first consider.
However, I'm not saying that hate crime is totally over competition for resources, as it's clear that bias and prejudice can cut across social class and is not simply restricted to those who may feel the worse consequences of austerity and a continual political attack upon Britain's poor. What is clear is that negative political and media rhetoric is something that can be argued to be little more than simple political propaganda, and something that can stir up animosity amongst all social classes. Hate crime is a complex phenomenon, where the only thing we can be actually sure of is that hate crime of any type is committed predominantly by males. Therefore, we must consider this gender aspect of the phenomena, in conjunction with any social 'normalisation' of competition and the historical bias and prejudice that some social groups have faced over the years.
Research indicates that males are generally more competitive than females, but whether this trait is genetic or learnt socially has never been completely answered and still a subject of great debate. Certainly, women can be competitive and perhaps an indication that socialisation has a much greater influence on us than mere biology. While I have no information at present about any increase in homophobia or disablism brought about directly by the European referendum debate and vote, instinct dictates that we would unlikely see such an increase in abuse and violence committed towards gay people and disabled people motivated by a debate that largely focused upon race, ethnicity and immigration.
However, both gay and disabled communities have suffered a huge increase in hate crime within recent years, and much of it can similarly be argued to have been stirred up by negative political and/or media rhetoric, and negative rhetoric that often portray gay people and disabled people as not always working in society's greater interests, be that morally or economically. Additionally, both social groups have made strong strides towards 'equality' within recent decades, becoming more confident, more visible and more vocal within society. However, this is something that may elicit animosity from certain quarters, and we have seen this within the UK, particularly over the legalisation of 'gay marriage' and over disability 'benefit fraud' and 'unproductiveness'. Social media on both sides of the Atlantic seem to be rife with people quite openly and shamelessly denigrating gay people and disabled people for all sorts of perceived moral faults. Even our former Department of Work's and Pensions Secretary, Stephen Crabb, was once reported as saying that "gay people can be cured by praying to god". Not exactly a good sign when a highly ranked Government official can come out with such scarily uninformed opinion. Opinion that also contains an undeniable, underlying degree of unashamed prejudice.
The motivation underlying disability hate crime
I have written for some time now on the motivation I believe to be behind the abuse, harassment and violence committed towards disabled people. My own research indicates that disability hate crime is undeniably embedded within the social acts of oppression and domination. A concept of oppression that according to Iris Marion Young (1990) can be broken down even further into their component parts, such as oppression itself, marginalisation, cultural imperialism, exploitation and violence. Certainly, we can view many of these components at play in many, many cases of 'hate' committed towards disability.
Why people should behave in this way towards disability is a question that has always been difficult to answer, causing some to focus on the vulnerability of the victim as a chief motivating cause. However, while vulnerability may indeed make somebody an easier target than somebody considered not to be vulnerable, it doesn't even begin to answer the question of why some people need a target to attack in the first place. Not everybody commits 'hate crime' and not all abuse, harassment and violence aimed at disability is for pure exploitative purposes or for some kind of obvious gain.
Quite a lot of abuse, harassment and violence is seemingly conducted for the sole purpose of 'entertainment' which arguably situates such behaviour firmly within the area of domination for domination sake - or at the very least, becomes chiefly a display of bullying taken to a massive extreme. Certainly, some people may be so vulnerable that they cannot fight back against those really determined to 'have a laugh' at their expense, but even in such cases, we can still pick out a pattern of domination that can be broken down even further into acts of 1) actual or symbolic incarceration, 2) humiliation and 3) false accusation.
While perpetrators may argue that they are simply having a laugh and not intending to cause real serious harm, such behaviour can become repetitive and increasingly extreme if not stopped, displaying traits that arguably mirror the oppression, exploitation and marginalization of disability that we would have witnessed hundreds of years ago. An historical oppression such as the medicalisation and subsequent institutionalisation of disability, the abhorrent and humiliating Victorian freak-shows, and the general hostility and fear generated towards those accused as being morally and/or mentally defective in some shape or form. When looking at current cases of hate crime, we can often spot a pattern of behaviour that may simply be a throw-back to those cruel dark days of the 'invisible' disabled, a conscious or sub-conscious attempt at removal from the community and the incarceration of anybody designated not only to be disabled, but inferior. A time when the disabled were not meant to be seen out in public and certainly not living lives similar to us 'normal' folk.
It's interesting when looking at hate crime committed towards people with a diagnosed mental illness to see how neighbours and friends may completely alter their behaviour once somebody has become diagnosed with a mental health condition such as schizophrenia. I have come across cases of hate crime where such a diagnosis turns previously amiable neighbours and friends into complete monsters once they discover that their neighbour or friend as become labelled as 'schizophrenic'. Hate crime which seems as much about forcing the victim out of the community because of their 'new' and 'inferior' identity of being an 'schizophrenic', as it is about the misunderstanding of mental illness and the negative media portrayal of it.
Researchers who sing enthusiastically about the 'concept' of vulnerability would undoubtedly recoil in horror at any suggestion that people position themselves or are positioned by others on some kind of hierarchical ladder, according to one simple and perceived identity characteristic. But why not, we Brits do seem to live in an extremely hierarchically structured and competitive society, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not. The workplace is just one example of this highly hierarchical social structure, where the lower down the organisational ladder you are, the less well paid you are, the more rules you may face, the more surveillance and monitoring you may be subjected to, and the less employment flexibility and benefits you may be entitled to. The workplace is also an area where bullying and harassment by both management and fellow colleagues are said to have been increasing for years, particularly concerning disability.
But the informal language we use daily within our interactions also indicate that we may indeed perceive some kind of social hierarchical structure to exist that goes beyond that of the workplace. For example, the terms 'posh', 'chav', 'under-class', 'working class', 'middle class' and 'upper class' all indicate positions of varying social status and/or ability that go beyond simple occupation. Terms that also imply a link between social status and social behaviour, and with appearance, morals, beliefs or potential likes or dislikes. Paradoxically, phrases such as 'climbing the social ladder' and 'keeping up with the Joneses' indicate a hierarchical social structure that is not perceived to be completely inflexible, but something often dependent upon individual income. Where a better job, an inheritance or a big lottery win can move us a few more steps along the social chain.
However, while we all want to climb the social ladder at some point, there may be some people within our social world who believe that some of us should not be moving up the social ladder at all, particularly if that involves jumping ahead of those who perceive themselves to be traditionally higher up in the natural pecking order of things. 'First come, first served', as us queue loving Brits would undoubtedly say.
Social status and social hierarchy therefore only works if there are people out there that we can actually compare ourselves with. Race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender and disability are all identity characteristics which people may attach labels of inferiority and superiority to, and primarily as a measure of their own social standing within the world. For the social hierarchy to work in our psychological self-interest, wellbeing and favour, somebody has to be below us upon the social ladder. Somebody has to be inferior to us.
The art of prediction.
Prediction is not just the art of a good psychic but also of a bloody good theory. If we can come up with a theory that pretty much ties together all hate crime, not just behaviour towards disability, then we can be sure that we are at least on the trail of something tangible. Certainly, academic theories that focus purely upon vulnerability as a motivator of hate crime fail to explain why some attacks upon disability occur even in the presence of friends, relatives and carers connected to the victim. And theories that focus purely upon competition for resources alone may also fail to explain why hate crime towards race, religion, sexuality and disability can actually cut across social class or income.
What we only know for sure is that hate crime of any type within the UK is primarily perpetrated by white males under the age of 40. Not exclusively, but we must at least acknowledge that 'hate' tends to be a male thing rather than a female thing. There are variations to this pattern of course, but even when females commit hate crimes, they may indulge in actions that still mirror wider spread patterns of gender behaviour.
My own research indicates that our past social history as a nation may influence how we personally see ourselves today, and something which imprints upon our own social behaviour. As a nation we perceive ourselves to be historically strong, inventive, active and dominant within the world, something which we clearly hark back to when you actually talk to people over here. Where some Brit's believe Britain to have declined as a world-power over the decades, not only becoming increasingly dependent upon other nations for economic and physical survival, but increasing dominated by them. Nations that are enjoying their own independence and freedom from our past historical dominance and often brutal interference.
However, it's an erosion of national dominance that perhaps mirrors the erosion of traditional social dominance that the white, heterosexual male may personally perceive to have happened to their own race and gender over the years. Particularly after a visible decline in traditional male employment and the proliferation of short term, temporary, low paid and unstable employment. Areas that were once viewed as primarily women's work, but jobs that males now also have to compete for, with decreasingly little of perceived 'masculine' work left.
Even in the home, male dominance is not automatically the norm as it used to be just 50 years ago, where the social pecking order and the associated special privileges once perceived as being a divine male 'right' have become much more enlightened and more equalised. The introduction of gay rights and disability rights legislation, thanks to a fight against oppression and marginalisation that has undoubtedly been taken up by Black and Ethnic communities, Gay and Lesbian groups and Disability activists over the years, may have also given the white, heterosexual male the perception that their traditional dominance is truly disappearing for good. And it is this erosion of traditional dominance that may in fact underlie much hate crime, be it perpetrated against Race, Ethnicity, Sexuality or Disability. It's an erosion of traditional, socially legitimated male dominance that some feminist groups also consider to underlie the surge in domestic violence perpetrated against women that we have seen within recent years in the UK, together with a massive surge in sexual violence and sexual assault. Actions were male abuse and violence are viewed purely as an attempt at reasserting something that is perceived to be lost through gains in women's rights and greater economic, social and sexual independence.
Certainly, not all males indulge in 'hate' of any type, but it's arguably indulged by some males who do seem to be more inclined to want to dominate others, for whatever reason. Therefore, the concept of vulnerability alone would fail to answer adequately why a significant number of different social groups suffer abuse, harassment and violence at the hands of (young) white males. Not all such crimes are perpetrated when the victim is on their own, and therefore perceived to be more vulnerable to such wayward and senseless aggression.
But if bias and prejudice can be viewed primarily as a motivator of hate crime committed towards race and religion (as many researchers and politicians seem to agree) then it is a bias and prejudice that seems to effect some white, heterosexual males more than others, and males more often than females. And if bias and prejudice can be a motivator of abuse, harassment and violence towards race and religion, then way can it not be a motivator of hate crime committed towards disability? Not all disabled people can be classed as 'vulnerable', particularly when they are attacked in the presence of friends, neighbours and even social workers.
If bias and prejudice based upon an aspect of somebody's identity is therefore considered a motivator of abuse, harassment and violence, then we cannot alter this analysis simply in order to eliminate disability from the discussion. Why on earth would we need to do that? It doesn't make any sense to say that bias and prejudice towards race, ethnicity, religion or sexuality can motivate abuse, harassment and violence, but it doesn't towards the identity characteristic of disability. Particularly, when many disabled people complain that the able-bodied often see disability a long time before they may see any other aspect of their identity.
By eliminating disability from the discussion, we may simply be doing the bidding of the politicians and the media who arguably have blood stains on their hands with their constant (intentional or not) stirring up of such bias and prejudice in the first place. The current surge in racial/ethnic abuse and violence during the run-up to the Europe referendum and afterwards, may be just one example of where some people not only get completely carried away by an intense social debate, but may also feel that their own negative beliefs, attitudes and wishes are actually mirrored by and legitimated by a significant number of other people out there within British society.
If a common denominator can be found to exist between hate crime committed towards race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, disability and gender, then it is certainly won't be vulnerability - at least not on its own. At present, a common denominator does seem to underlie the majority of most hate crime cases and that seems to be male social behaviour, or to put it more accurately, gender associated behaviour. Identity, perceived social status, the normalisation of competition over resources and gender behaviour are all likely to be variables that interact together to create hate crime. Vulnerability may certainly act as a trigger in some cases of disability hate crime, but so do other factors, such as a relatively minor incident that may escalate completely.
This is something that Professor Paul Iganski touches on in his analysis of race and religious hate crime, where some 'sleight' by the victim is perceived to have occurred or some minor boundary considered to be contravened. It's as if the seeds of bias and prejudice are already sown well beforehand, and simply waiting for a little heat to be applied before they suddenly sprout up in all their gaudy, technicolour glory.
Taking this line of argument would not only explain the violent surge after Brexit, but why even merely seeing somebody disabled stepping out unaided from a car parked in a 'disabled' bay, or seeing somebody disabled travelling on public transport may simply be enough for some males to trigger any underlying resentment or fear that they may have over 'difference'. Where the disabled are not only seen as receiving special privileges of some kind that have traditionally been the preserve of the dominant, but are also transgressing territorial, social or moral boundaries that have been firmly marked out through British social history.
Males are often not just highly competitive but also highly territorial, and part of my research indicates that in many cases of disability hate crime, perpetrators seem to be effectively marking out some public places an no-go area for disabled people - people who become viewed simply as mere 'invaders' and 'interlopers' into social territory that they are not privileged to be in. Certainly, if our politicians and media are constantly telling the world that our welfare system is being constantly undermined and exploited by disabled people, together with a general misunderstanding and lack of education about what disability actually is. Then no wonder when some males react to disability in a completely negative manner, looking for the slightest of reasons to lash out at someone perceived not only as being socially and morally inferior, but crossing the lines of traditionally designated social boundaries.
So, do we have a theory that predicts hate crime? Well not yet, but we may have one that indicates that any real decline in the traditional social standing of the white, heterosexual male, together with advances in equality gained by those social groups traditional 'ear-marked' to be inferior to the great white male, will motivate some level of abuse and violence within society at large. Hate crime within both the US and the UK is remarkably high, and both countries have seen a decline in traditional male employment as companies look to increase profit by relocating their businesses, or seeking technological change in order to reduce cost. White, heterosexual males now compete within a social world where traditional masculine roles are perceived to be disappearing fast and being replaced by roles that were once perceived to be primarily female roles. So, not only in competition for 'women's work', but in competition with other races and religions as well as with gay people and disabled people – either directly at home or indirectly through globalisation.
Barbara Perry (2001) used an approach to hate crime in America with an analysis of race, gender, sexuality and religion that is regarded as a highly influential study within the field of 'bias' research. Perry argues that hate crime is not predominately an abnormal event caused by individual pathology or 'hate' itself, but is an extension of historically legitimated social bias that allocates privilege in some kind of social hierarchical order. For Perry, race, gender or sexuality is therefore something that individuals 'do', an active process that socially constructs and maintains identity, giving people a sense of reality and grounding within the social world. When people indulge in hate crime, they are actually 'doing difference' in a highly active manner, seeking to protect their traditional, hierarchical dominance and associated privileges via abuse, harassment and violence against those perceived to be racially or socially inferior. A divine right to decent, stable employment is one such historical privilege that both American and British white males arguably view as becoming completely eroded.
Arguably there are ever decreasing privileges attached to being the great white, heterosexual male here within the UK itself. Traditional male employment has declined, although some may find a job in a perceived 'female' role, with a boss who is perhaps black, gay, a Muslim, a Jew, female or disabled. They may also see, hear or read about our politicians talking negatively about immigration, about global competition, about the rise in home-grown Muslim extremism, about women's rights, gay rights and about equality for disabled people. Therefore, in a social world where politicians and our media look to make scapegoats out of 'difference' in order to manipulate the public into backing radical and increasingly extreme social, economic and foreign policy, this mix of social threat and fear of 'difference' may become highly potent.
What 'Brexit' has confirmed at the very least, is that negative political and media rhetoric surrounding the debate does have some kind of influence upon 'hate crime' committed towards race and ethnicity. If we transpose similar negative rhetoric towards 'disability', we are arguably likely to see a similar influence on attacks upon disability. While disability hate crime has been a massive problem within the UK for years, any negative political and media rhetoric surrounding disability is akin to poring oil upon fire.
It is now time for our politicians and their associated media army, to take a long, cold look at themselves and the way they consistently mislead the public with half-truths, dodgy statistics and just plain, propaganda. This political madness has been well and truly highlighted by the recent Brexit vote and its aftermath of hate. If our political classes want to make political scapegoats out of ordinary people, then don't be surprised if some males within the UK see that as a legitimate licence for 'doing difference' and in an most vile and obnoxious way possible.
Iganski, Paul. 'Hate Crime' and the City. University of Bristol Policy Press. 2008
Perry, Barbara. In the Name of Hate: Understanding Hate Crimes. Routledge. New York. 2001
Young, Iris Marion. 1990. "Justice and the politics of difference". Princeton. NJ: Princeton University Press.