If you use any form of social media you may have noticed that there’s been a divisive reaction to the recent airing of a reality documentary, called ‘Benefits Street’, on Channel 4 in the UK.
There have been two stock reactions; first, an aggressive, indignant derision of the show’s subjects as being widely indicative of a sponging underclass, and second, those who lament the castigation and lazy categorisation of the poor or unemployed, based on government rhetoric and crappy reality television shows, as reductive, inaccurate and unfair.
This split really wasn’t a surprise, what was different was how polarised it has become, and that this is becoming widely indicative of the divide over many other issues.
The current rancid Tory government’s (or token coalition if you’re a pedant) stance, and the reasons for it, on the issue of benefits, has much to do with the creation of the climate around it. In truth it has succeeded by virtue of framing the debate around benefit claimants in such absolutist terms. You’re either for ‘the scroungers’ and keeping the current system in place that allows them to ‘rip us off’, or they should be made to work for it, or be denied it altogether, and as result suffer a Dickensian existence, well, just because that would be fair, or something.
The middle ground, where each person’s claim for social security or job seeker’s allowance, and how much they should get, is reviewed on its own merits and in isolation, is shrinking. The onus is on those who oppose the loathsome Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms to disprove the validity on which they are predicated.
So just what are they predicated on?
The first and most obvious answer is that they’re Tory bastards. Just as Thatcher attacked the working class and the industries that employed them thirty years ago, portraying them as a threat to aspiration, so this current Tory lead coalition is attacking the weakest sectors of society. The convenient excuse is that they (we?) need to cut the deficit, so that ‘hard working families’ and ‘small businesses’ can prosper within another farcical housing bubble. So people who aren’t contributing, the disabled and the unemployed, those whose funding is equivalent to the rise in VAT, or any misnomer you can think of, are first up for the hammer. Meanwhile those in the top tax bracket get a five percent cut in tax, obviously. It makes perfect sense when you look at it dispassionately. Getting tough on the ‘needy’ appeals to the ideology that colonises a vast swathe of the Tory voting block – the politically insular, entirely apathetic nuevo bourgeoisie, who exhibit the risible sense of self entitlement that Thatcher’s policies helped create. See, mass categorisation isn’t very nice, is it?
The second is the message itself. As the medium is the message, never before has the method with which you choose to get your message, your version of the truth across, been so vital. There are many mediums and forms through which news exists, and each one carries its own challenge as to how political spin doctors can manipulate the public perception of an issue. There’s left and right leaning blogs, various news channels and websites with editorial biases, left and right wing Twitter accounts, etc, etc to contend with. Anyone can pre-filter the news to suit their outlook. Never before has choosing what you want to believe been so easy.
This brings us television, which is still the most potent source of delivering an ideological message effectively, because it can combine politicking with what can be categorised as entertainment seamlessly. Social media, at this point, in this context, still primarily exists as the means of reacting to things seen on television.
As per usual television’s part in the process of demonising the unemployed and underclass (which is an ugly moniker) as scroungers is interesting, particularly the continuation of the fairly recent trend of reporting extremes, and presenting this as normal journalistic practice. This is where the Tories have been clever and capitalised. Sensationalism is nothing new, but that it’s now normal, or considered to be representative of ‘reality’, for the purposes of entertainment, is alarming.
I think we’ve come to the point where it’s necessary to distinguish between entertainment and art, and not only entertainment and art, but media entertainment and artistic entertainment on television. Television, as a medium, is capable of doing both, of being both, and on certain occasions at the same time. The best example I can think of is Screenwipe, a satirical and thus non partisan (as everyone and everything is ridiculed) magazine show which reports and comments on current affairs, and how myopically, inaccurately and or stupidly the news covers them.
Media, entertainment and art do of course share an objective – they exist to alter our perception of reality. The question then becomes why and in what way?
In the case of “Benefits Street” was it, as its shows curators claimed, to present the people on benefits favourably and with compassion, or was it to feed the cultural expectation that’s been created, by and only on television, of what the underclass and benefit scroungers are like?
I would claim it is able to do both.
Now a confession, I didn’t watch Benefits Street. I didn’t have to, as Benefits Street is ‘reality entertainment’. It’s a fictional reconstruction of reality. As one person’s perception of reality isn’t and cannot be reality to someone else, so is a television programme, especially one that’s been edited to convey someone else’s perception of the truth. Clearly, the show’s cynical intention is to position itself in the debate around social degradation, unemployment and its causes, and it is designed to foment the pre-packaged ideological viewpoint of the viewer on said issues, not challenge them. This, perhaps unwittingly, helps support the message of the ideologues that are in power, who have brought the debate forward.
However, it is us who are at fault. We created this platform through demand. In recent years there have been many shows of Benefit Street’s ilk, all of which encourage our innate schadenfreudian gawking at the worst facets of human degradation and desperation. Regardless of whether we’re sympathetic to the subjects and their plight or not, most of us prefer to consume them at a safe distance. So can we complain when they become the main means for the uninformed to project their petty prejudices?
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this peculiar fascination of ours permeated television this pervasively. There probably isn’t a tipping point, just a slow erosion of standards of what was acceptable or considered to be informative forms of media and programming. The point where I started to take notice and I suspect so did others, was the advent of the Big Brother. Not necessarily the concept of Big Brother itself, but how media’s perception of popular culture’s interest in it, and the reasons for it, worked together to bastardise it into something more than just a crappy game show, increasing its popularity, and setting the template for things to come. The internet was taking off, never before could so many illiterate intolerant people publish their thoughts so quickly on something so vacuous. Today the time for measured thought has now all but vanished, what you think, what your instant reaction to what you see on television in that moment supersedes all.
To stay relevant television had to adapt to this new paradigm, and so we get more shows like Benefits Street. It doesn’t exist to educate, it’s structured to polarise and provoke those on either side of the political spectrum with cheap clichés that are emblematic of ‘Broken Britain’. It leaves the viewers to squabble over media contrived perceptions and of the show’s intent in real-time, while in reality, the actual reality, people continue to suffer, and the Tory party’s policies continue to cause real damage to our societies sense of fairness and cohesiveness.
This whole debate around Benefits Street masks a lack of empathy in our culture, which is slowly eroding with each passing day. At the root of this negative perception of people on benefits is the inherent belief that we’re superior to others in some discernable way. The issue of benefits provides a platform for this to be played out and in turn the truth becomes an inconvenience and an afterthought. The anger shown to those clichéd examples of benefits claimants that only exist on television is one example. Another is the condescending browbeating by lefties towards those who hold that misinformed opinion. Instead of looking to inform, many deride, revelling in their moral and intellectual superiority. It’s no better than those who mindlessly hate the scroungers on Benefits Street, and what they represent to them, the worst facets of their nature – laziness, selfishness and ignorance.
The reality of living on £70 a week is pitiful, demoralising and stressful. I’ve done it you see, going down the Job Centre to sign on, for most, is a humiliation. It was one of the lowest moments of my life, and I imagine it will remain so.
So it always amuses me when I hear some intellectual or politician openly ruminate and then espouse the notion that taking this away would act as an incentive. If you strip away everything from someone, any hope they do have is vanquished, and they’re likely to become disillusioned with a society that doesn’t care about them or value them, it sends the message that they’re an irrelevance, an inconvenience. Why would anyone be motivated to aspire to be part of a system that rejects and holds them in such contempt?
The choice, and it is a choice, to believe that benefit claimants receive so much for contributing so little rankles the most with those who go out to work hard, and they always say they ‘work hard’, don’t they? They also say they receive barely more than claimants. It’s pure egotism, as it allows them to see themselves in a noble or admirable light. Housing benefits claimants as social pariahs on television is the new ghettoisation, and it’s one driven both by ideological selfishness and technology working together. It means they can be demonised for your own gratification without you ever having to confront and empathise with the realities of what being a job seeker entails, and more importantly introspectively analysing why you think the way you do about them.
It struck me that this attack on the unemployed, and immigrants, is entirely hypocritical when set against the backdrop of a concerted trend towards ensuring greater moral and legal equality for groups who had previously faced discrimination, and in some cases were persecuted by law. The cynic in me believes that this is now passé, taken for granted or accepted by those who are unaffected, and is being upheld by those in power only for political capital. As commendable and necessary as it was, and we can call it progress, I contend that in this media saturated climate the switch in the west to publicly denounce the negative, now minority opinions some have of accepted minorities only drives prejudicial thoughts into the realm of privacy, where opinions are more likely to fester in resentment, and most importantly go unchallenged within that limited milieu. And what better conduit for prejudices to be cemented and fomented than reality television documentaries, such as Benefits Street, which allow you, in your own home, to say and think whatever you like about its subjects.
The result of this is we’re left with a disparity between how people have to be treated, rather than people wanting to treat them fairly through an acknowledgement of what decency is. We’re seeing many less stable democracies revoke certain so called (though they shouldn’t be) minority human rights by amending their constitutions. That may be an extreme example, where the minority becomes the majority. Here the reaction is still mostly provincial and confined to the individual sphere, but as we’ve seen with the rise of UKIP, these topical breeding grounds of resentment offer an easy campaigning pitch for the fanatical right. In short, the media’s ability to offer a form of safe detachment for prejudicial views, when coupled with certain cultural expectations that oppress them, can work to discourage the acceptance of diversity.
All opinions are formed by experience. What we don’t or cannot experience first hand we get through the surrogacy of the media. In a lot of cases we now absorb elements of our culture entirely through the context with which they appear in the media.
We’re all subject to this conditioning, particularly by television. In my weaker moments unfounded perceptions, notions and or prejudices have crept in. I can think of two clear, recent examples. My mum, who was very intelligent and rational, thought that Kate and Gerry McCann were guilty of killing their daughter. When I challenged her as to why she held this belief stringently, namely what evidence she had, her answer was depressingly unsatisfactory. A gut feeling is what it amounted to, that and the allegation that they were swingers. All of her opinions were informed by the facts of the case, as reported by the news. There were of course very few facts, which made it so compelling for most, but the news, now in its twenty-four hour formatting, was presented as opinion, reporters waffled on, speculating, even offering their own dire deductive reasoning as to what had happened. Opinions were formed on the irresponsibly uninformed opinions of others who had to fill time with ‘something’.
Five years ago a woman who worked in a nursery in Plymouth was arrested as part of a paedophile ring. The leader was of course a bloke, but that isn’t the point. I struggled to believe that women could be paedophiles, or commit sexual acts on children. It seemed impossible to conceptualise, and I’d never considered it possible beforehand. On further analysis why did I believe this? Is it because I’d never heard of a woman sexually abusing a child, or was it simply that because most of the paedophiles I’d seen convicted, on television, were men, and that I assumed, due to this, that it was entirely a male complex?
Television, with the current prevailing style of news reportage and the glut of reality programming, encourages us to think in such narrow, clichéd parameters. Timothy Leary once famously said, “Turn on, tune in and drop out”, but nowadays in this context, taken literally, it is bad advice. We should start turning off bad television, tuning in to introspection and eschewing any form of pseudo reality. Then we might start looking around us, looking at reality, and asking ourselves what it is and what we really think of it.