Monday, May 01, 2017

BADD 2017- Six ways disablism makes it harder to live with chronic pain

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2017
Today is Blogging Againgst Disablism Day 2017. Please check out the main page to read other contributions or add yours to the archive.

[Content warning for abstract discussion of mental health stigma, skepticism about illness, pressure around exercise, drug addiction.]

Audio for this blog post is here:

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Last autumn, as has happened twice before in the twenty-one years since I got sick, my pain became suddenly and inexplicably worse. Since then, pain and pain management have become more dominant features of my day. Lately I've been thinking about the ways in which disablism makes life with chronic pain tougher than it needs to me.


1. Pain as suffering.

My love for Stephen, as well as my friends and family is the most fundamental fact about who I am. However, if I were to die in an especially strange or amusing way so to make headlines, news reports would not read, “The Goldfish loved her husband, friends and family.”

The would instead say, “Sources have said...” or “The Goldfish has been described as loving her husband, friends and family.”

This is because it's not something that strangers can know. I'm married, I know these various people and am related to that bunch, but for all anyone else knows I can't stand a single one of them.

Yet, in this hypothetical report about the fatal inflatable crocodile accident, I can guarantee that it would read, “The Goldfish suffered from chronic pain.” or “The Goldfish was a sufferer of chronic pain.”

This is something else a stranger cannot know. It's very unlikely that I would have enjoyed chronic pain, but suffering, and especially my identity as a sufferer, is a presumption.

I have chronic pain. I am in pain right now but I am not suffering. Sometimes I suffer, but this is not a fundamental part of who I am. I am not a sufferer.

I have become especially sensitive to this as pain has rendered the enjoyment of life a little more of a challenge. Several people, including myself, have been working very hard to ensure that I am not suffering most of the time. I just have pain. I am a person with chronic pain.


Of course, I am extremely fortunate (and I'm going to mention this a lot). Chronic pain can be a thousand different things and I am very lucky with the type I have; my pain is sometimes severe, but when I hear about other people's pain in different parts of their bodies, I always imagine I have things a bit easier.

Meanwhile, for many years, pain had a far more profound effect on my life because my circumstances were so much more difficult. This bad pain period has made me somewhat more isolated, but not as much as it once would have. It has not resulted in poor diet due to my inability to get food for myself. It does not make it harder to stay warm because I can afford to have the heating compensate for moving around less. It makes it harder to get clean and dressed, but I have help with that, various different ways of keeping clean and I am not going to be mocked if I look a little unkempt. I have even been offered carers to come in and help with getting dressed every day, but I don't really need or want that. As I pointed out to Social Services, I do have very nice pyjamas.

For a long time, I was in no position to manage my pain, received very little help and any deterioration of my health and mobility was met with an increase of anger and violence towards me from the person I lived with at the time.

All this is about circumstance, other people and culture rather than the pain itself, but it effected the way I framed my pain as a sort of punishment or my body's treachery. It helped me stay angry with my body and myself to some extent. There seemed no way of making things better.

As with all aspects of impairment, we experience pain in a context and there's always a danger of mistaking that context – almost always the product of our disablist culture – for the effects of pain itself.


2. Physical suffering as legitimacy

In the management of chronic pain (or indeed, any health condition), there are two strategies which will do us no good whatsoever. The first is to pretend it's just not happening. The second is to focus on exactly how bad it is, the way pain penetrates our thoughts, everything it stops us doing and how much worse it could be, how unliveable, if we were somehow forced to push harder.

Yet every year or two, the government sends me a form and asks me to do just that. Some of these forms are about my incapacity to perform full-time paid work. Pain contributes to this incapacity, but by far the biggest factors are fatigue and cognitive dysfunction. Often, I am simply not conscious for enough hours in a day to hold down a job.

The government are far more interested in my pain. Pain is physical, pain is suffering and pain is legitimate. The fact that pain prevents me walking or self-propelling a wheelchair more than a few metres is the reason I am found incapable of working. Someone with agoraphobia who might collapse, hyperventilating before they made it more than a few metres from their front door would not pass this test and they can't even hope to raise money for a piece of kit like a powerchair which might (partially) mitigate that limitation.

As the UK benefits system has become more ludicrous and cruel and disabled people have inevitably become more defensive, I see more people associating our political oppression with how much pain and suffering we experience. We're in agony - we shouldn't have to go through this! We're in agony - that's physical, that's suffering, that's legit!

We shouldn't go through what we do – the scrutiny and doubt, the trick questions, the sense of having to justify our existence. But nobody should go through this. Nobody should enter into any process under the working assumption that they are trying to commit fraud. There is nothing special about physical pain.

All games of legitimacy are disablist games which hurt other disabled people. But they can also effect our own relationship with pain and impairment. If we believe that any functional limitation we have – the inability to work, the need to use a wheelchair or any other kind of assistance – needs to be justified not just with difficulty but with suffering, it becomes extremely easy to start second-guessing ourselves. So we're in pain, but are we really in that much pain? Could we push ourselves a little harder? If we are enjoying life at all, does that mean we're not truly suffering and cannot ask for any accommodations?


3. Silence as stoicism

These days, I talk more about my pain than ever before. It's difficult and requires me to overcome significant programming. During years of domestic abuse, any mention of pain was met with an accusation of “milking it” but it's not just that. Our culture wants disabled people to suffer – and legitimises those who suffer in the right way – but it also wants us to do this suffering as quietly as possible. To be silent is to be stoic. Admiring voices often comment, especially after one of us has passed away, that “they never complained! They must have been having a terrible time, but they never said so!”

Which begs the question, did they actually have so very much to complain about? And if so, why celebrate the fact that a person was in so much distress and yet felt unable to talk about it with anyone? That sounds like a  really sad situation, not an admirable quality.

The pressure to stay quiet comes from the Tragedy or Charity Model of Disability. This is about showing courage or stoicism as a way of fighting against our supposed tragedy. A silent battle is particularly appealing to the dominant culture because it allows others to project whatever they need onto our story. They can have us suffering dreadfully, to be living symbols of their compassion towards those less fortunate than themselves, when of course our lives are more complicated than that. They can have us not wanting to cause a fuss, when perhaps really we're silenced by the fear of being seen to cause a fuss.

True stoicism is, of course, about making the best of what you've got, focusing on the positive and putting the negative in perspective. Seneca, granddaddy of Stoicism, advocated thinking through the very worst things that could happen to us, partly so we realise they're not all that bad (depends on your imagination), partly so we can prepare ourselves for disaster rather than hopelessly worrying about it, and  partly so we can appreciate it when these things do not transpire. Fingers crossed!

True stoicism is not about gritting one's teeth and denying reality – on the contrary – but too often we describe a person as “stoic” when we mean “they've got it bad, but they don't complain”. And as well as silencing us, this can impair our access to effective pain management. I've heard folk being described as stoic when they won't visit the doctor, when they take risks with injuries, when they refuse disability paraphernalia. Or indeed, when they refuse to take the drugs they might benefit from.


4.  Drugs and judgement.

Thing is, some people take drugs that do them more harm than good, or are a waste of time and money. Some doctors prescribe drugs because they feel that's what patients want and it's much cheaper and less bothersome than other options. People – especially older disabled people – can end up getting prescription drugs on repeat for years without proper review. People are on drugs for conditions which could be greatly improved with things like psychotherapy, physiotherapy or nutritional therapy. And of course drug companies are all about making money.

But none of this means that we get to pass judgement on a jam-packed dosset-box.

The fact not every drug prescribed may be the best solution to that particular problem is the price we pay for the vast majority of drugs which either save or transform lives. The fact almost all drugs have side effects and increase long-term risks of medical complications is the price individuals pay for staying alive or having a much more manageable life, even if it turns out to be a little shorter. The fact that non-drug therapies are massively underused in medicine doesn't mean that these are things people should be (or even could be) engaging with instead. These decisions are personal and often medically complex.

There's a stigma attached to pain medication. There are folk who refuse to take an aspirin when they have a headache and imagine that whatever noble principle they're exercising can and should be extended to others with different sorts of pain (which is anyone who doesn't have the exact same headache). I'm going to talk about opioids in a minute. However, by far the most stigmatised drugs are anti-depressants.

A counter-meme: "If you can't make your
own neurotransmitters, store-bought is fine"
I still see memes picturing a pile of multicoloured pills, contrasted with a beautiful scene of nature, stating that the former is garbage or poison or similar and the latter is a cure for depression. And again, it's not as if spending time outside in nature has not shown to be beneficial for people's mental health. Ditto meditation, spending time with animals or children, exercise, gardening, art and crafts, team sports, volunteering in projects that directly help other people and so forth. A more comprehensive health system would be able to point people with all kinds of chronic ill health, plus those at risk of future problems, towards some of these activities and it would reduce the number of drugs prescribed (although, of course, it would hardly cut costs).

Even if all non-drug therapies and activities were made more accessible and affordable, people would still need drug treatments. It would be much better if we lived in a world where these drugs were more often only part of a treatment that involved all kinds of other therapeutic goodies.

Apart from the should-be obvious facts that these pills and injections save our lives and make our lives more bearable, drug stigma and the idea that we should be doing other things, adds unnecessary pressure to people with chronic conditions.

Almost anything disabled people do is often framed by others as “therapeutic” which is irritating enough (maybe even more so for disabled people who are in perfect health). Bring in this idea that nature walks or art classes could eliminate our need for the drugs we depend on and it becomes harder to access all manner of activities without feeling that we need to be looking for some kind of significant healt outcome.

"Take the stairs!"
Exercise is probably the worst example of this. Exercise is very hard for a lot of people and downright scary for some – people with chronic pain are not alone in feeling some horror at the prospect of having to spend time focused on our bodies, the way they work and the way they feel.  People with mobility impairments are forever ignored in calls to Take the stairs! or even Take the train! given the poor state of accessibility on public transport. In our culture, exercise is often presented as highly goal-oriented (usually around size), and is often proposed as cure-all/ punishment; Get your arse down the gym! we are commanded on the grounds of any one of many diagnoses associated with poor mobility.

I exercise every day in such a way many people might fail to recognise as exercise. Even so, it takes a lot to overcome the sense that I should be building myself up to something, looking to increase what I can do, trying to lose weight (which, with the exercise I do, would take a very very long time) or indeed trying to reduce the drugs I'm taking. Sometimes my exercise might contribute to being able to drop a dose of one thing or another, but if I made that the point of exercise, I would meet with disappointment almost every day.



5. The high melodrama of opioid painkillers

In September, morphine moved from being a bad day drug to an everyday drug. Unlike all my other meds – including almost twenty years of different opioids - morphine is something people have heard of, it's something people associate with acute pain, but also abuse and addiction. It's a drug that comes up in song lyrics from time to time. Nobody ever sings about Movacol.

I was reluctant to take morphine at all and once I was taking it regularly, I was nervous that my GP might be alarmed at how much I was taking. Friends and family have expressed particular concern about it, as if being on morphine makes my pain a serious matter (like it wasn't before?).

More than once, my GP has assured me that I'm not that type of patient (the type whose drug use would concern her) and I realise that – as well as my GP being generally awesome - there's probably a large degree of privilege in coming across as sensible, responsible and self-aware enough to know if I was running into trouble.

I'm also very conscious of my good fortune living in a wealthier part of the world, where seeing a doctor is free. My prescriptions have always either been completely free (they are currently) or have cost around £100 a year on a pre-paid card. I have never had to make decisions about drugs as a consumer. Nobody has ever tried to advertise prescription drugs to me.

I'm aware that for friends in the US, anxiety over opioid addiction is making it very much more difficult for people to access appropriate pain control. As I understand it, a huge part of the problem there is around money; a minority of chronic pain patients sell prescription drugs on because being sick there is extraordinarily expensive. Some patients move onto heroin (entirely unregulated and unmonitored) because it is cheaper than getting a prescription. When both doctors and their prescriptions are expensive and patients are mistrusted, folks are forced to self-medicate. And if you can't afford regular daily painkillers – by far the best regime of managing chronic pain - it would be tempting to splash out on the occasional pain-free night when the cash is available. In such circumstances, even drugs of established provenance become extremely dangerous.

The US saw 50,000 opioid-related poisoning deaths in 2015. The US population is only five times bigger than the UK, yet all our poisoning deaths, involving every kind of drug or substance, totaled under 3700.

The danger of a drug – any drug - is highly contextual. Morphine is almost certainly less addictive than alcohol and yet we still cling onto the (disputed) idea that a glass of wine every day might be good for you.  There's also a huge difference between chemical and psychological addiction. I am  chemically addicted to dihydrocodeine, another opioid – its sustained release, so there's no buzz to be had, I just get really sick if I miss a dose. However, if I didn't need it any more, I would cut down in increments and suffer minimally. People do that all the time. Many people take strong opioids after injury or surgery for a few weeks or months, but others come off these drugs after a period of years; my Granny has weaned herself from morphine twice in the last decade. My father-in-law went practically cold turkey from morphine following an operation to fix his back.

Psychological addiction is an illness in its own right. It doesn't start with a drug so much as the problems a person has which the drug (or gambling, shopping or any other compelling behaviour) allows some temporary escape from. Drugs, their effects and the cost of acquisition then play a role, escalating a significant problem to a cataclysmic problem as money, work, health and relationships fall under. Sudden withdrawal from opioids is horrible, and with emotional distress in the mix I have great sympathy for folk who feel utterly desperate.

Having chronic pain doesn't magically protect a person from emotional pain or psychological addiction stemming from it. But this risk is not mitigated by suspicion and restriction of essential pain meds. The thing that makes my drug use particularly safe is my trust relationship with my doctors; I trust them and I feel trusted. If something did go wrong, I would be in the best possible position for getting appropriate help. I know way too many people who are not so fortunate.



6. The physical/ psychological false dichotomy

Yawn! (A yawning alpaca)
Most of us can deceive our brains at least a little bit about what's going on in our bodies. I think I'm more suggestible than most. I have this problem with empathy whereby I violently flinch and sometimes cry out when I witness realistic injuries on TV and in movies. If I watch or read something set in a cold climate, I start shivering and if conversation should turn to the subject of fleas, headlice or similar, I'm going to have to sit on my hands. Oddly enough, I do not catch yawning off other people despite living with fatigue. I think my yawn mechanism is broken, but I still have the power to make others yawn by talking or writing about it. Open wide!

All this stuff doesn't mean that hunger, extremes of hot and cold, fatigue, itchiness, pain and the rest is all in our imagination, or that feeling any of these discomforts, we can trick our brains into imagining our bodies are comfortable. Discomfort indicates a problem, and evolution has rendered us incapable of ignoring it altogether. But psychology is a really useful tool in chronic pain management. Anything which can help distract from the pain, make the pain less frightening, less mysterious, or feel less like a punishment or a betrayal will make pain less painful and make us more capable of looking after ourselves.

Unfortunately, many people with chronic pain have very good reasons to feel terrifically defensive about psychological influences on pain. The gentle tool of psychology has been broken in two, with one end carved into a very sharp point and nails hammered into the other.

Most pain has a physical origin. It is possible for emotional distress to manifest in physical pain and of course, emotional distress often triggers bodily events (raised blood pressure in the head, muscle tension in the neck, reduced blood flow to the digestive system etc.) which can result in or contribute to pain. However, psychosomatic pain occurs only in people in considerable emotional distress and even when they know that's the nature of their pain, it cannot be reasoned away.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture which persists with this dichtomy between ill health or injury which is physical, real and therefore legitimate and health problems which are psychological, imaginary and therefore basically non-existent. These ideas are not restricted to the pub loud-mouth; this dichotomy is highly profitable. Insurance companies, government agencies and the companies they employ are heavily invested in a bastardised biopsychosocial model
of all impairment which uses mental health stigma to allow discrimination against as many disabled people as they can possibly cast some doubt upon.

Many friends with chronic pain and other physically-manifesting symptoms have had doctors struggle to find a physical cause, only to hold up their hands and say, “Well, it must be all in your head, nothing I can do. Just go away, get over it and get on with your life.”

Gratefully, this stuff is much less common these days – I get the impression the generation of doctors who just couldn't cope with someone whose condition was not easily identified and swiftly cured are fast fading away. But what these folk experienced wasn't misdiagnosis – it was dismissal. They were rarely sent to any kind of mental health professional, despite their dramatic and (in psychiatric terms) atypical symptoms.

What happens more often today is a little more subtle. My father-in-law was sent to a back pain support group before he had even received a diagnosis for his by-then chronic problem. This was – as was agreed among everyone present, some of whom were unable to stand up straight or walk – a holding pattern, a humiliatingly pointless exercise to slow down the flow of traffic to the various clinics these people needed to attend. Some folk would almost certainly drop out at this point – their condition might improve on its own or they might spend the rest of their life in unnecessary mysterious pain – but at least that would be a few off the waiting lists.

The idea of an NHS-run chronic pain support group is great, but not before an attempt at diagnosis. I know others who have been sent to similar NHS-run support groups at the wrong time, when they've been seeking some other kind of help, and instead of thinking “Well, this group will help me gain knowledge and get perspective about my pain condition,” they have, quite reasonably, felt fobbed off, as if they were being asked to simply think positive thoughts to wish their pain away.

Even though we don't always understand what is happening to us, we are experts in our own experience. To feel doubted or dismissed about such a profound experience as chronic pain is deeply traumatic. And if you begin to doubt your own chronic pain, therein lies a whole world of trouble; it is very much more difficult to look after your physical health, to not push yourself too hard, to medicate or sooth your body when things are bad. But most of all, of course, if you are conjuring up this kind of pain while feeling otherwise okay, what does that say about you? If you think you are in reasonable mental health, but are in fact in so much distress you are manifesting pain, how can you trust anything you think or feel?

So when folk are defensive about the purely physical nature of their pain, this isn't pride, stubbornness or scientific ignorance – this stuff is borne out of trauma.

And yet as I said before, all games of legitimacy are disablist gamesThe more we play into the idea of this fixed physical/ psychological binary, the more mental health stigma can be used to hurt everyone living with chronic subjective symptoms.

This stuff also promotes a culture which makes it difficult for people with pain conditions to recognise and seek help for mental ill health, as well as denying us potential avenues of pain management. We need to be able to discover that fussing a dog, painting our nails or watching the falling blossom eases our pain without any sense that this throws the reality of our experience into doubt.



Image descriptions and credits:

The first image is the black and white Blogging Against Disablism Day logo. A banner across the top reads "Blogging Against Disablism" below which is a 5 x 4 grid. In each square is a stick person. The twenty stick people include one wheelchair-using stick person and one stick-person using a tool which might be interpreted as a white cane or walking cane.

The second image is a cartoon pill pot containing green and white capsules which also appear to be tiny kittens. A label on the pot reads "If you can't make your won neurotransmitters, store-bought is fine."

This image is entilted "Purrozac", is the work of Megan Fabbri and was originally found on her tumblr. Apparently you can buy items of  apparel and accessories with this image on via Redbubble


The third image is a photograph of a bright green sign with white writing on the mesh wall of what might be carpark. The sign features a stick person ascending the stairs above which reads "Burn calories, not electricity. Underheath the illustration it reads, "Take the stairs!" and in much smaller writing, "Walking up the stairs just two minutes a day helps prevent weight gain. It also helps the environment."

This photograph was taken by Ludovic Bertron, was found on Wikimedia and is used under a Creative Commons license.

The forth image is a photograph portrait of a creamy-coloured alpaca, who is yawning and showing its impressive teeth. The background is rather blurred but suggests a field on a sunny day.

This photoraph was taking by Rob Faulkner, was found on Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The myth of prejudice, fear and ignorance.

Audio for this blog post is here:



I grew up with the idea that at the origin of all prejudice was ignorance and the fear of difference. Something like,

Those people look different, they act different, I don't understand them and so I am afraid!

It is natural to fear strangers, people would say, but as civilised educated people who know we have nothing to fear, we overcome it. People who fail at this and hate people who don't look, dress or behave like themselves are simply ignorant and more easily afraid.

I had some doubts about this even as a child because as a British white non-disabled child, I was not in the slightest bit afraid of people of colour, people with foreign accents or disabled people. I met people at school – a family of Bangladeshi sisters with albinism, a teacher with cerebral palsy - who looked, dressed, walked and/ or talked very differently from anyone I had ever seen before, even on television or in books. I didn't feel afraid of them in any way. Nobody did.

Meanwhile, the children I saw picking on their black, Asian, fat, skinny or bespectacled classmates did not seem to be afraid, they did not lack information about the children they bullied, nor had they missed out on any of the lessons about tolerance than I had received.

And yet the idea that prejudice was a natural impulse we must learn to overcome held a rather romantic message; for example, as a white person who felt no animosity towards non-white people, I must be a particularly good person. I watched movies where characters who looked a bit like me – although admittedly usually men – were able to rescue groups of black, Asian, Native American or Jewish people from their white or gentile oppressors, occasionally even from one another. In such stories, the villains usually looked a little like me, but the heroes looked and thought like me. These days, there are even versions of this movie, such as Avatar, John Carter and Game of Thrones, where a white hero saves an entirely fictional, fantastic non-white people because this is the way it works.

The idea of a world divided into the good guys, the bad guys, and the helplessly haplessly oppressed in need of my rescue appealed to my childish mind. It was an idea that gave me power.



Every now and again, a disabled friend will be shouted at in the street. Very often (although not always) the assailant is drunk in the middle of the day. Usually, the words shouted are about benefits, accusing the disabled person of being a scrounger, lazy, faking or some variation on this theme.

The victim will post about this experience on Twitter or Facebook. Folks are entirely sympathetic, but there are almost always comments along these lines:

“People just don't understand.”
“People believe everything they read in the papers.”
“People need to be educated about invisible disabilities.”
"People are afraid of what they don't understand."
“People need to spend a day in a wheelchair and see what it feels like.”
“People fear us because disability reminds them of their own mortality.” (Really.)

Street harassment of disabled people has risen steeply in the UK since the Welfare Reform Act of 2011. Political rhetoric sought to justify removing benefits from thousands of people with the idea that a whole load of people were either pretending to be disabled or at least exaggerating their conditions for cash. Hate crime and political rhetoric are undeniably connected.

But this is not because a bully on the street has come to the conclusion that the next person he sees in a wheelchair almost certainly doesn't need it. Nor does a bully look at a passing wheelchair user and feel a cool chill of existential angst as he realises that one day his own beleaguered body will fail and die.

A bully sees a disabled person and he sees a mark. He sees someone who appears physically vulnerable and socially isolated (folk rarely have these experiences in company). All that crap in the papers about scroungers doesn't give this guy a motive to abuse us; it gives him permission. People who shout at us in the street almost certainly have a lot of fear in their lives. But they don't need to be shown stats about benefit fraud. Their fear has nothing to do with us.

In the aftermath of the EU referendum, there was a massive increase in racist and homophobic hate crime in the UK. Nobody became more ignorant and these crimes were not being carried out by people - like EU migrants resident in the UK - who suddenly had something to fear. As a Brit, one of the most painful aspects of the unfortunate US election result was knowing that the same and worse was about to happen over there. Not that the election result made people more racist or homophobic (and the rest), but it made them believe that prejudiced sentiments were more socially acceptable to express in public. This perception literally shifted over night.

This is because prejudice is primarily about power.



We have a limited capacity to know and understand all those who are different from us but such knowledge and understanding are not necessary for respect and compassion. We know that all other people are as human as we are, that they have their strengths and weakness, loves and hates, fears and their desires and that members of any given group – even one brought together by a shared political belief – are not all the same. We know this but applying this at all times is a challenge.

Complaints about “people who...” do annoying, hypocritical or awkward things are common conversational currency – folk unite against a common outsider, however superficially they are defined. I enjoy the BBC TV show Room 101 where celebrity guests talk about their pet hates (rather reduced from Orwell's original), which are very often “people who...”. It's fun and funny because it is playing with this power; part of the joke is to ridicule a certain kind of person but the other part of the joke is the righteous indignation of the celebrity guest about a rather petty subject. It is a safe way for someone to say to a crowd, “Let's wipe people who eat noisily in the cinema from the face of the Earth!” and for that crowd to cheer their assent, united in their faux-loathing. And anyone present who knows that they eat noisily in the cinema can laugh along (or rustle their toffee-wrappers) and has absolutely nothing to fear.

Only usually, we're not joking. Sometimes we're half-joking, but other times we enjoy our righteous indignation with a totally straight face. Sometimes we complain about people who have done or do something wrong - rude, hurtful or harmful - but very often not.

When I first heard discussions about people wearing pyjamas at the supermarket, even I had a taste of smugness about the whole thing. Most days I struggle to get dressed, but only a medical emergency would draw me out of my home in my pyjamas. And thus I had a moment where I enjoyed a warm glow of superiority over people who shop in their sleepwear. Am I offended by this behaviour? Not one iota, but it made me feel good to think that I have risen above those uncouth wastrels by rarely ever leaving the house.

Now that's an ugly confession. We're not supposed to show our pleasure in feeling superior to other people – we're not supposed to admit to a world-view where some people are better than others. So instead we pretend to ourselves and others that we have other motives. It's a scandal! It's very disrespectful! And then we can build on this using our rich arsenal of cultural prejudices.

Okay, so many of the discussions about pyjamas in supermarkets had some humour mixed in, but not nearly enough. Very quickly you could see and hear folk reaching for sexism (this is about women shopping in their pyjamas, women breaking the rules!), fatphobia (these are probably fat and lazy women!), sexism against mothers in particular (these women set a dreadful example to their children!) and social class (these fat crap mothers are undoubtedly chav scum!).

When this January, one Tesco shopper published a picture of two women wearing sleepwear in a store on the Tesco Facebook page, the subjects of that photograph later said they felt they had been targeted as travellers. That's very likely the case; prejudice against travellers is rife and it would have provided yet another reason for some twerp to feel superior to them.

None of this is about the question of whether wearing sleepwear in a supermarket is disrespectful to the people who work there – a question worth asking, but hardly worthy of national debate. This is about taking pleasure in passing judgement on folk who are seen to have transgressed.

So let's imagine if Philip Hammond, our Chancellor of the Exchequer, was seen shopping in the supermarket in his pyjamas. We could criticise his arrogance, but we'd struggle to find much to say besides that. Being very powerful and a millionaire doesn't mean (I hope) that you or I could not consider ourselves Hammond's moral superior, we just don't have the language to back that up. We don't have the language to bring a rich straight cisgender gentile non-disabled white man down without casting aspersions on one of those identities. This is why even someone who is as morally repugnant and personally tragic as Donald Trump is mocked as having small hands or a small penis (not manly), drawn kissing Putin (not straight) or described as mentally ill (not non-disabled).

The pyjamas thing may seem like a trivial example, but when the aforementioned Tesco shopper posted that picture of two traveller women wearing sleepwear in a store on the Tesco Facebook page, he asked the supermarket to stop serving “such people”, adding that, “It's bloody disgusting!”

By which he meant, “I feel so superior to these people that I think I might single-handedly stop them being able to use a supermarket at all. It's bloody amazing!”

But that doesn't mean he wasn't genuinely angry about it. The anger that accompanies righteous indignation is absolutely real. I'm sure this chap felt that he was trying to correct some great wrong in the world and that his actions were public-spirited. He's probably a perfectly nice bloke the rest of the time and may well regret a deed which took just a few moments of excitement.



This is a big problem. We would like people to be on one side of this or the other; good guys and bad guys. Not just because it's simple, but because you and I can be on the right side. As I say, it's a romantic idea, and I believe it is more romantic the more detached you are from the realities of prejudice (which, as a young non-disabled girl who imagined she could grow up to be Indiana Jones, I once was).

We are very social animals and we are constantly concerned with our place around other people. We all have access to a variety of strategies for interacting successfully with other human beings, including very nice things - like sharing our resources, making ourselves useful, making others feel good – then mutual self-interest and the exertion of power; deceiving folk, threatening folk, undermining folk etc.. There are also strategies we employ not as individuals, but as groups. Groups of people bond over common causes and goals, shared experiences, shared jokes, but also belittling, hating and fearing outsiders. Human beings are so very social that we far surpass all other animals in our capacity for destruction and cruelty - but only when our friends are looking on.

Like other primates and many other mammals, we have access to all these strategies, and – when successful, however fleetingly – all of these things feel good. Obviously not all of us use all of them. We make choices based not only on what we've got (if you're very small, physical intimidation may not be your thing), but also on what makes us feel comfortable and good about ourselves.

But just as almost everybody will have felt a violent impulse from time to time, almost all of us have it in us to wish to exert power over others. And when we do so – especially when we're angry or insecure (because fear does play a role in this), it is easy to slip into the patterns our culture has dictated. On the rare occasion I feel a real loathing for someone, I find myself thinking of really insulting and often amusing ways to describe their physical appearance. This despite the fact about half of everything I've ever written might be vaguely summarised as “Don't judge people by their appearance.”

Debbie Cameron wrote recently about the tendency for egalitarian folk to pull apart the grammar and spelling of bigots. I understand and share this impulse; it's funny and satisfying, but it reinforces some of the very cultural hierarchies we are attempting to dismantle. There's a lot of this sort of thing within egalitarian politics, where folks who wish to end prejudice of all kinds nevertheless employ prejudicial language (most often disablist slurs) to insult their political enemies.

This is a point we keep missing again and again. I think folk are afraid of this truth partly because it is unflattering to almost all of us. But mainly, I think, because it makes bigoted behaviour even scarier when you understand that folk take pleasure in placing others as inferior; people and groups enjoy feeling powerful. People and groups enjoy exerting power.



There are other things I want to write about power and prejudice, but I will conclude this post with a very positive example of how this stuff can get better.

Among straight people in my social circle, the short ten years between Civil Partnership and same sex marriage revolutionised attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people (even though trans* people cannot be said to have full marriage equality even now). A wedding is an occasion of collective joy, usually involving many more people that just the brides and grooms. It is a really big deal to refuse a wedding invitation, whether it is for your only son, an old college friend or your great-niece twice removed – people notice, people know about it, people wonder how anyone can be so pig-headed. It is a really big deal to put a dampener on a wedding – not just for the couple but for any member of a wedding party – by making foul jokes about it or insisting it shouldn't be allowed. Even if you are so far removed from things that it's just your colleague that's the mother-of-a-bride, you are socially obliged to smile and coo at her new hat, and afterwards look at the photos and agree that the couple look incredibly beautiful and happy. Anything else is a potential bridge-burner.

Marriage was not a priority for all LGBTQ+ people – some folk object to the whole institution - but it caused the ground to shift. Straight people got to truly celebrate same-sex relationships, to take them seriously (no more of this “Johnny's special friend” to mean Johnny's spouse), to associate these relationships with the formation of family and the consumption of cake, while homophobes increasingly looked like killjoys and bigots. This did not happen overnight and it was not magic – we've not nearly begun to see the end of homophobia, transphobia and the rest. But I've had conversations with folk since 2014 which would have been inconceivable in 2004 and vice versa, because queer people started getting married. 

This happened not merely because people's minds were changed by reasonable argument (although that's part of this), but because of both positive and negative social pressure; it's nice to be participate in other people's good news, fewer people were going to laugh at those jokes or nod sagely at those bigoted remarks and more people were prepared to object. All this can work, not just to silence increasingly unpopular views, but to change people's minds, to knock the wind out of the sails of their prejudice and bring them around.

People will hold onto prejudice when it gives them power. Remove that power, all of it, and folks do let go.