21 January 2019
Language is a funny thing, isn’t it?
By changing the words of a statement, we can change how we feel, even when we haven’t changed the meaning one bit.
Take the unemployed. As a society we are always extremely careful to talk about the unemployed in ways that make us feel both comfortable and superior.
For example, when we want to force them to do work that nobody else will do, for below minimum wage, we call it “mutual obligation’.
Who could object to mutual obligation? We live in a society, don’t we? Nobody should expect something for nothing, should they?
Of course not. And by the language we’ve chosen to use, we convince ourselves that what we’re doing is basic fairness, rather than punitive cruelty.
When it comes to the unemployed, the language we use is a collective exercise in self-delusion. As a society we find comfort in the fantasies we have constructed around unemployment. The fantasy, for example, that there is a job for everyone.
Obviously we know that there isn’t: unemployed people vastly outnumber job vacancies, before we even get into whether the qualifications required match the ones actually held by job seekers. We know that even if every single unemployed person jumps through every hoop that Centrelink holds up for them, a lot of them are going to stay unemployed. But if we don’t mention that fact, we will find it a lot more easy to justify constructing ever-more-onerous hoops.
Because we ask ourselves, well, are they serious about getting a job or not?
If they are, they’ll be willing to do anything — apply for as many jobs as we tell them to, fill out as many forms as we demand, attend as many patronising Job Network appointments as we require – to find work.
And if they’re not willing to do that, why should we give them anything? They haven’t earned it.
And from there we get to the most vicious fantasy of all: that unemployment benefits are a privilege generously bestowed by a big-hearted country upon those who deserve them, and that withdrawing them from anyone who doesn’t is nothing more than justice.
By being very careful about how we discuss unemployment, we can maintain that fantasy. As long as we keep the discussion firmly in the realm of who deserves what, we never have to admit the truth: the dole is how people live. Literally: it’s how they stay alive.
It’s not a difficult point to grasp: people need food and shelter to live; people need money to get food and shelter; people without jobs need the dole to get money.
It’s self-evident, which is why we all have to put so much effort into pretending it’s not true. Admitting that it’s true would be to admit that taking the dole away is unspeakably cruel. And it is: taking the dole away can mean taking everything away. It can mean destroying someone.
And the amazing thing about destroying someone is that even if they “deserve it”…they’re still destroyed.
If we spoke honestly about the dole, we would confront ourselves with some awkward questions. Like, for example, at what point do we believe a human being should have no means of support whatsoever?
How lazy does a dole bludger have to be for us to starve them?
It’s no wonder we make sure never to speak honestly about the dole, when to do so would be to concede that “That person does not deserve the dole” effectively means “That person does not deserve to live”.
How comfortable and superior would we feel if we admitted to ourselves that we’re comfortable with the death penalty for laziness?
But what if we did? What if Centrelink put up posters declaring that people who don’t look for a job a day should die? What if politicians announced policy by saying, “We believe that anyone unwilling to engage in Work For The Dole should starve to death”?
What if columnists wrote think-pieces about “mutual obligation” that included the words “some people deserve to be homeless”? What if the government and opposition debated each other furiously on how a citizen should prove that they have a right to exist?
If all that happened, it could lead to dire consequences, like considering the unemployed to be human beings.
For all of our sakes, it’s better that we continue speaking about the dole only in terms of who does or doesn’t deserve it. As long as we all agree that we should grant the ability to stay alive only to those who deserve it (as defined by us), rather than those who need it, we can keep on taking the moral high ground as we put the boot ever harder into unemployed people.
Language is a funny thing. If we use it just right, we can treat our fellow human beings as cruelly as we like, and we’ll still believe we’re the good guys.