It is some time since I last wrote anything in long form – and whilst it has been mere months in reality, I look at the glare of the blank white screen, eagerly consuming the the letters I type, and I smile at it like a long lost and much adored lover. I have missed writing intensely, but for many reasons it has been a long way down my list of priorities.
But I’ve had some thoughts crystallising in my mind of late.
I was at my PIP assessment today and I wanted to scrub myself with a wire brush after. I’m sure the chap who conducted the assessment is nice to his old Mum, and he seemed like the type of bloke who has a muscular, slightly ugly mutt at home he adores, and he wasn’t… unpleasant as such. Its just that he hasn’t had to sit on my side of the table and would probably be personally offended if I had told him I found the whole process utterly dehumanising. Because it wouldn’t matter how nice the person conducting the assessment is (or how truthful they may, or may not, turn out to be).
When you go to these assessments (or – if you need one, and have jumped the endless hoops you are required to jump through to get one – had a home visit), you go as the person with the disability/disabilities, and/or chronic illness, and/or mental health issues. Your physical/medical/mental health has prevented you from working for a whole host of reasons, the vast majority of which are not your fault. Nobody asks or wants to be disabled, chronically ill, depressed, addicted, be involved in life changing accidents, or the (repeated) victim of crime – or whatever unexpected life altering thing it is that you couldn’t possibly have seen coming. You sure as hell don’t want to be in that office discussing whether or not you wet yourself, or cannot with the best will in the world fill in a form without hyperventilating. And you would rather gauge your eyes out with a rusty spoon that sit there hoping the assessor will decide you are sick enough for some small amount of help, but you hope for it anyway because the alternative is being told you aren’t sick enough and should be working, and you’ve probably half killed yourself working for longer than you should of already, because you anyway live month to month and the roof has to stay over your families head.
You are only at that assessment because, metaphorically, your house is burning and the flames won’t go out.
But the benefit system as it is now is based on this simple premise: you have to prove you are on fire.
Its archaic – literally. The powerful, demanding that the powerless (who cannot conform to the prescribed behaviour set out by the powerful) prove their truthfulness/need for assistance by performing the claimed ‘weakness’* to the satisfaction of those with the power to help.
(*In this context, it is the powerful who perceive and promote the disability/illness etc as a weakness in a negative context. The idea of illness/disability/sexual and/or gender difference as a weakness or failing, is promoted by the powerful to maintain control).
Yet no matter how archaic it is – and to some extent, irrespective of the ideologies attracted to this method of achieving and maintaining power and control – it perpetuates, re-invented in some new form every few decades, but surviving largely intact and otherwise unchanged no matter what century it is. And there is an uncomfortable truth at the centre of that.
When I was writing more regularly about my experiences of rape culture, I was then – and remain now – utterly perplexed by how normalised it is for victims and survivors not to be believed. There are those who would tell you that its simply hysteria to suggest that sexual abuse, assault, and rape are as much of a problem as they are. And whilst it means that those who should be taking responsibility are not, it is not the expected intransigence, arrogance or duplicity of a system that will of course seek to protect itself, that causes most perplexity. Or even, arguably, is the most difficult thing to resolve.
There is an extraordinarily simple reason why a rape victim needs to hear the words “I believe you”. If you believe them, then (setting aside, just for a moment, the positive impact on the victim), you have acknowledged that there is a problem. If you have acknowledged the problem, you are more likely to accept the problem needs to be resolved. If you accept the problem needs to be resolved, you are more likely to look positively at what will resolve that. Because whilst prevention is better than cure, you still need the cure.
But since prevention is better than cure – what happens if you believe that most people would rather swallow a bottle of castor oil than lie about being raped or abused, and that (however uncomfortable it might make you feel), the overwhelming majority of victims of sexual violence are telling the truth?
What happens when we all acknowledge that? And what’s stopping that?
The thing is – it isn’t just rape victims who need to be believed. That’s not the only systemic abuse problem. For disabled and chronically ill people the benefits system is inherently abusive, predicated as it is on the presumption of guilt. For Black/of colour/LGBTQ+ disabled and chronically ill people the problem is still more pronounced. The politics of belief around chronic illness and hidden disability is a minefield. You are reduced to someone who has to permanently prove yourself innocent of a crime that never occurred, far less was ever committed.
But if we accept that most people would rather work than put themselves through the Dickensian benefits process, and we believed disabled and chronically ill people, then would we really continue to tolerate and normalise the thousands upon thousands of disabled and chronically ill people dying, every year?
What happens when we believe black people and people of colour about racism, and about how we as white people, need to address our internalised racism and do something about it?
What happens when we believe trans women and trans men, believe that they are who they say they are and that they receive the abuse and discrimination they are telling us they receive?
What happens when we believe the refugees who tell us of the brutality and wars they are escaping?
What happens when we actually do think of the children, and believe them when they say they are being abused?
What would happen, if we chose to believe them all?
The uncomfortable truth is this: we choose to believe the victims we are comfortable believing. And we choose to acknowledge the oppression’s we are comfortable enough to acknowledge.
And whilst its the system that sells the lie, it only keeps working because people keep believing it. And all of us do, at one level or other: some people will believe disabled people about the how the benefit system is killing people – but not a person of colour when they say that something is racist, and won’t believe the refugee escaping war and brutality; and some people will believe disabled people and people of colour, but won’t believe that trans women are women and trans men are men . Or they will believe a person can be gay – but not bi. Or accept all that, but won’t believe that the respectable man up the road with the good reputation could possibly be an abuser, and will tell you how terrible it is that he has to live with that accusation…
And the still more uncomfortable truth is this – because we choose to believe some people are living under oppressive systems, but do not, cannot or will not believe the same of others – the cycle of abuse across the multiple layers of society continues. It might be chipped away at, in piecemeal fashion – but you only have to look around you to understand that the foundations of that system remain as strongly entrenched as ever, and that all we have successfully and systemically managed to do is disbelieve black people, rape victim, the disabled, trans people, LGBQ people, women, the sick and refugees.
We believe who we are comfortable believing. We believe those who don’t challenge our world view – and we definitely don’t believe those who challenge more profoundly our view of ourselves. We believe those we perceive as being acceptable to believe.
And we can choose to ask ourselves why we don’t believe the black person, or the disabled person or the trans person, or the refugee – and then answer that honestly, or not.
Because belief is a choice. So the perplexity remains.