Sticks and stones and ‘othering’ names
Citizen Zero: Language is a vital tool for keeping the poor in their place
Fiction explores themes of contemporary reality in the dystopian science fiction thriller, CITIZEN ZERO, writes Mark Cantrell but what does the disparaging term ‘zero’ really mean?
“STICKS and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me.” We’ve probably all heard some version of this before, but the painful truth is that ‘names’ can be extremely hurtful — and the damage can last a lifetime.
We’re not talking playground taunts here (bad enough), or instances of adult-world bullying, but a wider cultural and political ‘common sense’ framework that’s been erected around Britain’s social security system.
Specifically, it’s the narratives crafted to demonise people who must rely on the welfare system for vital — and often begrudged — life support.
We’re talking about a casual system of ‘othering’ that has operated to a greater or lesser degree for years; one nurtured by politicians and pundits looking for easy scapegoats; headline writers chasing cheaply manufactured outrage; and the gatekeepers of cultural expression, such as the commissioners of television programming, looking for vicarious thrills and quick ratings.
“[W]e seem hell-bent on creating the socially excluded underclass that features in the novel.”
Think clickbait with Victorian attitude; one that is aimed at people down on their luck, many of them among the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, who find themselves at the grinding forefront of Britain’s growing inequalities.
Certainly, we’re talking about people who have little agency, no power, hardly any voice or platform to speak for themselves; yet they find themselves all-too-often the focus of shrill condemnation and lurid accusation.
There’s nothing like kicking an underdog to distract attention and keep the rest of the pack in line. The unemployed, and indeed the sick and disabled reliant on benefits, are easy game. They occupy an unedifying place among immigrants, gypsy and traveller communities, and others as the perennial ‘enemy within’.
We’ve had decades of this, whether its comedy dramas such as Bread, or in more recent times, Shameless, such programmes have to varying degrees helped inculcate a view of the lazy unemployed taking society for a ride.
Note, these were two successful series, both of which portrayed their characters in largely warm and sympathetic terms; all the same, this didn’t stop the overspill into toxic and dehumanising narratives that have helped oil the wheels of a hostile environment for those at the deprived base of society.
Over the last decade or so, we’ve had a succession of ‘reality’ television and documentaries that have further plumbed the depths of despair. So called ‘poverty porn’ has hardly refrained from presenting some of the most precariously perched members of society in a very poor light.
“There’s nothing like kicking an underdog to distract attention and keep the rest of the pack in line.”
This was the decade of Tory austerity and it was — frankly — open season on the poor, the vulnerable and the unemployed. In truth, it was hardly new — New Labour ploughed much the same furrow — but the ‘skiver’ versus ‘striver’ rhetoric was ramped up as ministers railed against ‘benefit scroungers’, the ‘feckless’ and the ‘work-shy’.
There was nothing new in the use of the terms, nor the sneering contempt for those on the sharp end of Britain’s benefits system. The language and the tone was commonplace for years beforehand, all the way back to the 1980s (and no doubt further before that), as a social security system never built to cope with mass unemployment was used as the dumping ground for the human collateral of rapid industrial liquidation.
Ironically, the biggest growth area in benefit claims during the austerity years was to be found among those who were employed. Most of the ‘scroungers’ were working hard for their benefits — and indeed their poverty. Simply, the welfare state (such as it had become) was effectively subsidising low-paid and insecure jobs; quite a boon for the emergent ‘gig economy’, not so much for the workers tarred with the ‘feckless’ brush.
Then we had the sick and the disabled, left in fear for their benefits when they were not actually declared ‘fit’ for work by a flawed and capricious assessment system; hardship became their lot, even untimely death. But, of course, in the narrative’s sub-text it was teaching them the error of their ‘idle’ ways and saving them from sloth.
These were the years of ‘welfare reform’, when such people would no longer be allowed to ‘take their ease’ on Benefit Street, but be enabled into work and lifted out of poverty. There’s quite a lot in a name, then, when it oils the wheels of wanton policy.
Away from the furious headlines and name-calling that helped justify the Government’s approach, charities, thinktanks, research bodies, yes, some newspapers, even the United Nations catalogued the impact on human life, only to be largely ignored by those with the power to make a difference.
Over the last 10 years, Britain has seen a massive rise in hardship: hunger, destitution, mental ill health and even death, as millions of people were plunged deeper into poverty. So, there’s quite a lot of harm in a name.
The 2010s proved to be an era when an already socio-economically divided nation split ever further apart. In a way, the decade was the era CITIZEN ZERO had been waiting for, given how austerity and welfare reform was fuelling inequality and poverty. Even now, we seem hell-bent on creating the socially excluded underclass that features in the novel.
Nowadays, Covid-19 has added a new twist to the sorry saga; one that plays havoc with this well-established welfare narrative, but quite how it will impact future policy as yet remains to be seen.
Over the last year, we’ve seen millions of workers placed on furlough in the hope that they will have jobs to return to once the pandemic eases; plenty more have already lost their jobs. For them, it’s the brave new world of Britain’s benefits system.
Inevitably, it comes as quite a shock, for someone who has had little or no contact with the benefit system prior to covid; to suddenly find yourself ‘feckless’, ‘workshy’ and ‘lazy’ must be quite disorientating after a life led as anything but a benefit ‘scrounger’. Of course, this toxic rhetoric hasn’t been applied to them — yet.
No, for the most part we’ve seen a scaling back of the narratives, even an easing of the tight conditionality restrictions the system imposes, but many new claimants have learned the hard way how modern welfare scarcely covers the basics of bare subsistence.
Even with a £20 a week top-up of Universal Credit, people are discovering for themselves the hardship and uncertainties many others have endured for years. So it remains to be seen how this unpleasant ‘wake-up’ call will play out in the months and years ahead.
“These unfortunates are literally deemed to have zero status and zero place… Think of them almost as refugees long-since abandoned and left to rot on the edges of our world.”
Things could go on to get very nasty indeed; or the covid influx of redundant workers may force an easing of what has too-often proved a capricious, unforgiving and mean-spirited machine.
A global pandemic never played out in the rough backstory I originally devised for CITIZEN ZERO, it must be said. The idea seemed like overkill at the time so it was dismissed, but as the last year has unfolded it’s became clear that it fits. Certainly, from what we have seen, it could very much play a role in creating the zeros.
‘Zero’ is a catch-all term in this fictional reality for all the common disparaging terms we are familiar with here and now: ‘work-shy’, ‘feckless’, ‘benefit scrounger’, ‘dole dosser’, but it also refers to people who are effectively cast out of society in its entirety. These unfortunates are literally deemed to have zero status and zero place among we the citizenry. Think of them almost as refugees long-since abandoned and left to rot on the edges of our world.
As depicted in the novel, the zeros are a largely destitute underclass that has been allowed to emerge in this future Britain. So, who are they? Well, we’ll leave a more detailed portrait for another time, but as a sketch they are the undocumented migrant, the homeless, the victims of economic misfortune, those discarded by automation and the rise of AI, they are the excluded, exiled to eke out an existence any way they can in the derelict shells of abandoned places.
“By their very existence are they criminalised; we hate what we fear and we fear becoming them.”
They have no rights, these non-citizens; no recourse to any kind of public support. These poor souls have literally been cast out, ignored by all but those security forces tasked with keeping them firmly outside society’s ‘safe’ enclosure.
Zeros are — potentially — you and me, so we hate them all the more. As today’s covid castaways rather symbolise, ‘upstanding citizens’ holding down jobs can all-too easily become ‘benefit scrounging’ zeros policed by the agencies of government. They have uses, then, to the powerful who rule this future realm. By their very existence are they criminalised; we hate what we fear and we fear becoming them.
Like many a pejorative term, of course, ‘zero’ tends to be bandied around rather fast and loose. Strictly speaking, the novel’s protagonist, David isn’t a zero but that doesn’t preclude him being referred to as such. Prejudice has little regard for strict taxonomy.
David is on the dole. As such, his life is constantly monitored by the social security state and he remains under the day-to-day authority of the JobMart (think Job Centre). Even so, and because of this, he still retains a few frayed threads of citizenship, for what that’s worth in such a draconian surveillance society. But his position is precarious; those few threads could so easily be cut, abandoning him to sink into the zeros proper.
What’s in a name? For David, it’s the potential fate that awaits him. For the State that governs his life, it’s a way of invoking the porous and fragile membrane that separates the citizen from the unperson.
Language has power. Zeros have none. Names don’t break bones, they don’t need to; not when they can break lives, shatter communities, and fracture society itself.
Copyright © April 2021. All Rights Reserved.