By Milly Morris
Growing up as the youngest of fourteen siblings and living in poverty for her entire life, my Grandma has always fought to keep her head above water. In 1939, she left school at fourteen – the year that World War II broke out – and cared for her disabled father, who had lost his leg in the First World War. After he died, she was evicted and became homeless whilst she struggled to look for work.
Despite her difficult experiences, the stories that she relayed to my siblings and I were always centred around community spirit, friendship and the trouble that she would get up to at my age. Indeed, throughout my life, she has consistently taught me that compassion and community are essential to human existence. Moreover, from the perspective of the average Tory MP, my Grandma is a “model citizen”: she has worked hard her entire life, paid her taxes and – much to my annoyance – always gets excited at the sight of the Queen on TV.
Today, at 93-years-old, surely she should be able to relinquish some of her individual responsibility and be one of many vulnerable citizens that the government aims to protect and support?
Yet, when my Grandma was sent to hospital last week, she was left in a corridor for nine hours before being seen. The lack of resources meant that she wasn’t even permitted a bed for the time that she was there, being left to sleep in a wheelchair. Despite the warm and friendly staff attempting to cater to all patients, the waiting room was crowded and chaotic; patients and their families were left in undignified discomfort, lying and sitting on the floor.
Since the announcement of the upcoming general election in June, the right-wing press have hailed Theresa May’s “strength” as guaranteeing the country with a sense of stability. This is despite the fact that the UN recently condemned austerity politics as the main source of poverty and inequality in the UK, disproportionately effecting women and children.
For Foucault, language “mediates our understanding of the world” and shapes the social reality that we live in via portrayals of that reality. Indeed, within neoliberal society, rampant individualism is often misconstrued as strength whilst compassion is associated with weakness, instability and – as the right-wing media would like us to believe – millennial “entitlement.” One can see such language being played out in binary representations of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn; whilst May is a “safe pair of hands”, Corbyn’s desires to support vulnerable individuals mean that he is repeatedly presented as “out of touch” and a “loser.”
Arguably, this ubiquitous rhetoric of contempt for “weakness” has led us to the point where our most vulnerable in society are simply being tossed onto the scrapheap and left to rot. For example, calls to support refugees are branded as overly emotional, irrational and naïve. When Gary Linicker critiqued The Sun’s racist coverage of refugees – including Katie Hopkin’s column which referred to them as “cockroaches” – he was branded a “leftie luvvie.” In contrast, when David Cameron announced his plans for airstrikes on Syria, The Sun’s headline was: “Wham! Bam! Thank you Cam!”, suggesting that the former Prime Minister was efficient and strong in his violent reaction to the refugee crisis.
Moreover, such discourse shifts collective responsibilities onto the individual and demonises those who struggle to keep up. Rather than lay the blame for the refugee crisis at the foot at violent government’s doors, the right-wing media consistently asks why individual asylum seekers don’t “go back where they came from” to “fight for their own freedom.” In terms of the welfare state, individual “benefit scroungers” and migrant workers are seen to be forcing our services into disarray. This is despite the fact that the government’s welfare plans have been found to have “serious design flaws.” Indeed, we are now living in a country where starving benefit “scroungers” will go to prison for stealing £12.60 worth of meat, seemingly forgetting the fact that:
(…) just a few years ago – over 300 parliamentarians were found to have claimed expenses to which they weren’t entitled; hundreds of thousands handed over to some of the richest people in the country for duck houses, moat repairs and heating their stables.
Arguably, such pervasive and stigmatic language has meant that people are afraid to ask for help for fear of appearing ‘weak.’ Indeed, this may be why so many people who are suffering at the hand of Tory austerity are still willing to vote for Theresa May in June; when we individualize issues, people turn inwards rather than looking outwards at the powerful structures which govern our existence.
It would appear that ‘strength’ in this instance is less about providing feasible solutions for a divided country and more about shifting attention away from those who are profiting from atomistic individualism whilst simultaneously re-writing the narratives for those who criticise such ideals as simply naïve.
Yet, at a time when the NHS is on the brink of being dismantled, we must ask ourselves: if the government does not look after our most vulnerable citizens, then what are the state’s real interests?