Reporting suicide: how not to kill your readers

Yesterday, as I went to work, news broke that actor and comedian Robin Williams had been found dead in his flat in a suspected suicide. Today, as I woke up, the UK newspaper front pages were being released on Twitter.

The Sun and the Metro have decided to go with details of how Robin Williams killed himself, while the Mail and the Mirror focussed on the reasons why. (The Mail Online goes into excruciating detail on the methods Williams used, but does so in the body copy of an article.) All four are cheerfully ignoring the Samaritan’s guidelines on media reporting of suicide, which cite evidence that “Vulnerable individuals may be influenced to engage in imitative behaviours by reports of suicide, particularly if the coverage is extensive, prominent, sensationalist and/or explicitly describes the method of suicide.”

Let’s be clear, this is not a hypothetical danger: a review of almost 100 studies worldwide has found a strong, coherent and consistent association between certain types of media reporting and increased risk of suicide in vulnerable people, and the Bridgend suicides should be known by every UK journalist as an example of how the media can make things worse.

This is happening in the UK, where funding is being stripped from already-stretched mental health services at the same time as punitive welfare policies strip money from the poorest and force severely unwell people to attempt to work despite disabilities that make it impossible for them to do so safely. A population that is already incredibly vulnerable is being made more so by lack of access to treatment and to funds. The UK is currently in the grip of an acute mental health crisis. This context is important.

The reason the media isn’t supposed to talk about methods used is because that knowledge can turn someone who is passively suicidal into someone with an active plan. Knowing the distances dropped, the ligatures used, the medication taken, the blades employed, all of these things can give a suicidal person the knowledge of how to actually do the deed, how to go about taking their thoughts from the realm of the hypothetical into the realm of the real.

Of course, if they want, they can just Google that information, but that requires an act of will on their part; there’s a barrier that acts as another check, a moment where someone might look at what they are doing and consider other possibilities. Google also places helpline numbers prominently in its search results, which is more than some media manages in its reporting. (Side note: there is a story to be written about what changed in September 2010.) Plastering that knowledge all over every newspaper someone sees on their walk to work, in their local supermarket, in their train carriage, negates that barrier completely. It says: here is how you successfully kill yourself.

Even if they don’t contain step-by-step instructions on how to kill yourself, a wall of front pages tying suicide to a specific cause lends justification to a suicidal person’s internal logic that says suicide is a rational response. Suicidal thoughts are, for many people, a temporary problem; distracting yourself from them is a valid and sensible response, and sometimes the only way to stop yourself acting on them. It’s hard to maintain that distraction when a celebrity dies in this way; it’s harder still when the media seems to buy into the idea that money troubles, for example, are a reason for suicide. There is, inevitably, a search for meaning, and a desire to rationalise what’s happened, but reductionist and intrusive stories hurt the families of those who have died by telling them, in effect, that there might have been something they could have changed. They also tell suicidal readers that there are good reasons to die, sometimes; they reinforce the grim logic of acute depression. You can do this even with the most gentle, most well-meaning attempts to memorialise someone’s life.

The flip side of the media response is a slew of articles tying Robin Williams’ comedic genius inextricably to his depression and struggles with addiction. But he was brilliant despite his mental illness, not because of it. We search desperately in cases like this for a spark of hope, a positive spin, and find it in “divine madness”: the idea that his genius could only exist alongside his sadness. But without his brilliance, the madness would remain, and without his madness, the brilliance might have shone so much more brightly. You can be a genius without being depressed, and generally those without major chronic illnesses get a lot more done and have longer lives. There is a strange ambiguity about the “divine madness” narrative that feeds in, at lower levels, to anxieties about getting treatment. What if, without the depression, I am no longer me? What if I lose my creative spark? What if I lose the last of what makes life possible?

But the onus is still on us, the mentally ill, to seek treatment despite our (not always unfounded) fears that it might not work and might even harm us. We are told to talk about depression more, when talking is just about the last thing a depressed person wants to or feels able to do, and when most people aren’t interested in listening. We’re told to seek help, when in reality that help is often unavailable. The last time I needed serious therapy, it took 12 months for an appointment to become available; that was before the current crisis. I cannot imagine I would be able to negotiate the barriers to NHS assistance if I were suicidal in London this morning, even in my position of relative wealth, insight and access. But it’s entirely plausible that Robin Williams did manage to get the help he needed, and it just wasn’t enough. It isn’t enough for a lot of people. A lot of people die despite excellent care. We need more research, we need more treatment options, we need a revolution in mental healthcare. What we get are front pages that make our illnesses worse.

Fundamentally, the media doesn’t care about the guidelines. It doesn’t care about the people they’re meant to protect. Mentally ill people who die come in two types: the talented and brilliant, for whom death is an inevitable part of their brilliance, and the poor and underprivileged, whose deaths are irrelevant except where they interact with an existing story. The media doesn’t care about our deaths, unless we’re famous, and then it will pore over every gruesome detail regardless of how that might affect those of us still living, still struggling, still reading the news and still fighting for hope every day. What does it matter, after all, if a few more people succeed in killing themselves in the next few weeks? They were depressed. There was nothing anyone could have done.

Pocket Lint #19: make me a mandrake

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The American Room: “But for most of us life happens against a backdrop of intersecting off-white walls. Those are our homes, plain and a little grim. Our fantasy homes are busy with bright things yet old. Our pins and dreams are not beige. When we sleep we leave the computer behind and step out onto the widow’s walk, to wait for our sailors to come home from the sea.”

“I used to be a covered woman. I know what it’s like to be invisible.”

We are Sansa: “A Song of Ice and Fire is, in part, a series of books devoted to examining what happens when systems break down. Arya, who was never comfortable with the Westeros status quo to begin with, is slightly better set up to deal with immediate consequences of Ned’s execution and everything that follows. Sansa, on the other hand, becomes a prisoner of the chaos that develops around her. She has no coping mechanisms and no fallback position because she’s been raised to trust the system that is failing her.”

“If you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are.”

First night in Kyiv: “This was the third country in which I’d cried in a shower and checked my body for bruises as a by-product of trying to become a journalist.”

He’s still alive: Jenn Frank’s Game Journalism Prize-winning essay on That Dragon, Cancer.

Fish plays Pokemon, presumably in an attempt to update the infinite monkey theorem.

Turning postpartum depression into performance art.

I write this with a baseball bat by the bed.

BrbXOXO: live streams of sex webcam feeds when the performers are away.

Tumblr of the week: Manfeels Park, with apologies to Jane Austen and the BBC.

Poem of the week: Twickenham Garden, by John Donne.

Game of the week: One Chance.

Pocket Lint #18: mean meaning

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“We are still at a point that emoji semiotics are extremely malleable and where meaning can be actively created. This is especially true where the gaps between Japanese and Western culture have created a vacuum between original intent and subsequent interpretation, leading to a corral of seldom-used emojis, ready to have new meaning assigned to them.”

Here are some very small things Twitter could do to begin to address the problem of widespread abuse and harassment on its service.

The problems of understanding cunnilingus in the Middle Ages: “This constant emphasis on the male experience is all we have to try and see the full range of sexual experience.”

NOW THEN: an extraordinary piece by Adam Curtis on the history of surveillance, computing, AI, crime prediction and a great deal else. I’ve read it three times looking for a key quote and it’s too enmeshed to produce one. You should read it.

“The reason sickness is undesirable is not that it causes distress or discomfort but that it results in what is often called “lost productivity”. This is a sinister and absurd notion, predicated on the greedy fallacy of counting chickens before they have hatched. “Workplace absence through sickness was reported to cost British business £32bn a year,” the researcher claimed in Metro: a normal way of phrasing things today, but one with curious implications. The idea seems to be that business already has that money even though it hasn’t earned it yet and employees who fail to maintain “productivity” as a result of sickness or other reasons are, in effect, stealing this as yet entirely notional sum from their employers.”

Law of unintended consequences: Key-copying apps, designed to help you out by storing backups of your keys in case you get locked out, are also a potential boon for burglars.

The Darkness, an excellent comic drawn in 24 hours.

Pathfinder’s new iconic shaman is a badass trans dwarf woman.

The simple ways in which Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is more progressive than most AAA games.

“what tech-focused people often see of the games industry is the ugly side — for example, the rampant misogyny of mainstreams game developers, thoroughly illustrated by Anita Sarkeesian’s series Feminist Frequency. In response, there are frequent calls for better representation (of women, people of color, queer people, etc) in games — but what we often miss is that these people are, themselves, making games, which usually do include such representations — but which all too often go ignored or financially unsupported” – the missed connections between tech feminism and videogame zinesters

Tumblr of the week: Annals of Nope

Poem of the week: not one of my choosing, this week; instead I’m going to direct you to Ars Poetica, a new twice-weekly email of hand-picked poetry by a friend of mine.

Game of the week: Nested, because of reasons.

Pocket Lint #15: fear and loathing

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Ghosts of the tsunami.

“Even in dire situations, optimism can fuel innovation and lead to new tools to eliminate suffering. But if you never really see the people who are suffering, your optimism can’t help them. You will never change their world.

What can “Leaning In” do for us when once we do succeed by its metrics, unending public abuse awaits us? What happens when we finally establish ourselves on platforms, and then are chased from them? When success means needing security? When we are punished mercilessly for the very representation we are told to seek? When “representation” is what we need, but “visibility” destroys us?”

Prey is an astonishing, brutal, beautiful piece of writing about one woman’s experience of rape, her reactions and the subsequent trials where she was a witness.

No one is coming to take away your shitty toys: “The rise of mature games that don’t feature shitty characters and situations does not diminish your supply of immature shit in any way. It caters to a growing market of consumers who have just as much of a right to play a fucking videogame as you do, and doesn’t harm you at all.”

As flies to wanton boys are we to Facebook.

“If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.

This place is not a place of honour: how to keep people away from nuclear waste in 10,000 years’ time.

Tumblr of the week: Postapocalyptia.

Poem of the week: Emptying Town, Nick Flynn, with thanks to Leigh.

Game of the week: The End, a game about philosophy and death.

Assassin’s Creed: women in games are not a technology problem

Assassin’s Creed: Unity is not going to have playable female characters in multiplayer, because it’s too much work. As per Polygon:

“It’s double the animations, it’s double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets,” Amancio said. “Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work.”

Here is an incomplete list of things that Ubisoft decided, as a company, were less work than playable female avatars in multiplayer:

  • Two special missions, only available as pre-order bonuses.
  • The ability to render AI crowds of 5,000 people.
  • Customisable assassins, but only male ones.
  • A 1:1 replica of Notre Dame cathedral.
  • A crouch button.

This is a tongue-in-cheek list, of course, because the allocation of resources doesn’t work like this, and if it was the multiplayer team’s job to make multiplayer on a budget then it’s their budget from which multiplayer assets must come. The idea behind the four-player co-op mode seems to be that everyone sees themselves as the main character from the single-player game – Arno, who is male, obviously, because it’s not like playing a female assassin in the French Revolution would be an excellent and historically-relevant choice - and their three friends are his male buddies.

Which leaves open the question of why, exactly, two of those friends couldn’t be female, if the team had decided that was a priority? Or why all of them couldn’t be female? Why not cut Arno from multiplayer, or design a multiplayer system that works without him? Why not, if you have to, take the FemShep approach and make masculine women, acknowledge the problems with their animations, and say that you thought it was more important that the game had playable women than that the jiggle physics was perfect? And, most importantly, why wasn’t making it possible to play as a woman in the game a core goal for the multiplayer team, instead of a nice-to-have extra that got dropped?

To be fair, we don’t know yet whether any modern-day assassin elements are going to star a woman. But the fact that Ubisoft has cheerfully announce beard-filled multiplayer without mentioning the possibility suggests either the modern-day office-wandering secretarial bit isn’t finished yet – in which case there might be a sudden reverse ferret and a female avatar might suddenly appear, rendering all excuses about the difficulties of rendering women completely null and void – or that it’s not going to hold many surprises on that score. Or that they’re dripfeeding PR to provoke, of course, which I guess we can’t rule out, because that’s one of the more unpleasant ways the games PR machine works.

Meanwhile, apparently Far Cry 4 came “within inches” of a playable female character. Which is not good enough; the dev says they “did their best” but that older assets, studio culture, planning and technology got in the way. Goddamn technological women, with our complicated hips and our weird walks and the way we’re just so difficult to model that a 1987 NES game has better gender representation than this next-gen console one can apparently manage.

Look, technology is not the problem here. Thinking of male characters as “default” and female characters as “extra” is the problem, as is a history of poor representation in games meaning there are fewer existing assets that can be reused. You fix that by recognising that it’s not a tech issue. You fix it with planning, with remedial work so that you have as many stock female assets as stock male ones, with processes that don’t place the ability to fiddle with a character’s weapon loadout ahead of their gender. You can’t fix that with polygons. You fix that with people.

The nature of madness

A lot’s been said about the killing of six people by a man, possibly mentally ill, certainly with a gun, certainly with a deep hatred of women and a deep anger over what he sees as their rejection. I don’t want to go over old ground; here are a few excellent pieces that are worth reading on this whole sorry mess.

What is worth saying, though, and what I’ve not seen said elsewhere, is a little about the nature of madness, and how it might apply here. It is pointless to go over whether the killer had a diagnosis, as that diagnosis cannot hope to explain his actions, any more than a diagnosis of OCD can hope to explain why a particular person might scrub their hands raw rather than compulsively locking doors, or a diagnosis of schizophrenia can explain why a person believes they have magical powers that control the weather rather than believing the NSA is stalking their every move. The differences have their genesis outside a person’s brain chemistry, in their society, their upbringing, their present situations, the elements of their obsessions that are permitted space to grow unchecked.

The specifics of madness are not so closely linked to diagnoses as most people would like to believe. One cannot simply write off all delusions as madness, nor all violence, nor even all shooting sprees, because madness is not a sufficient explanation. Even if we know for certain that a shooter is diagnosed as mentally ill, what we do not necessarily know – and what we must ask – is why their illness has taken that particular form. Why women? Why people of colour? Why sex? Why entitlement?

Madness is born in sanity. It is born from society. It does not spring, fully formed, from the brain in isolation: it is defined socially, it is constructed socially, it is through the establishment of social norms that abnormality is recognised and regulated. Mental illnesses grow like weeds; the nature of the weed is dependent on the soil, the light, the water. Sometimes the only thing that makes a weed a weed is the fact it is appearing in a neatly manicured bed of some other flower.

The California killer’s mental illness was not madness, when it was limited to posting on forums about how much he hated women. It was not madness when he spoke online about his fantasies. It was not madness when he suggested women deserved to die for rejecting him. If he had only killed one woman, an ex-girlfriend or a prospective partner who said no, a great deal of evidence suggests it would still not be judged as madness; this happens every day, and society rarely says it is insane.

Sanity and insanity are two ends of a spectrum, not distinct states, and there is a great deal in the middle that is murky. It is frightening that such hatred, such aggression towards women, such entitlement and anger, is only murky.

Why does society call angry, threatening young misogynists mad only after they have pulled the trigger?

Pocket Lint #9: outsiders

Back after a short break: here’s a pick of the most interesting things I read this week. If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as a regular-ish weekly email on Fridays you can sign up here or using the form below.

Nate Silver and the diversity problem
“What happens when formerly excluded groups gain more power, like techies? They don’t just let go of their old forms of cultural capital. Yet they may be blind to how their old ways of identifying and accepting each other are exclusionary to others. They still interpret the world through their sense of status when they were “basically, outsiders.””

Do psychiatrists think everyone is crazy?
“Though many object to psychiatry’s perceived encroachment into normality, we rarely hear such complaints about the rest of medicine. Few lament that nearly all of us, at some point in our lives, seek care from a physician and take all manner of medications, most without need of a prescription, for one physical ailment or another. If we can accept that it is completely normal to be medically sick, not only with transient conditions such as coughs and colds, but also chronic disorders such as farsightedness, lower back pain, high blood pressure or diabetes, why can’t we accept that it might also be normal to be psychiatrically ill at various points in our lives?”

Why personal change does not equal political change
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.”

The era of Facebook is an anomaly. The idea of everybody going to one site is just weird. Give me one other part of history where everybody shows up to the same social space.

5 myths about how we use the internet

An illustrated book of bad arguments

A preliminary phenomenology of the self-checkout

Frog Fractions 2 has a Kickstarter, which promises not to give you the game until someone works out what it’s called.

Tumblr of the week: Animals Sucking At Jumping

Poem of the week: Shrinking Women

Free game of the week: 2048, which is essentially Threes, only more so.

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Trigger warnings: a broken system with good intentions

This is an interesting thing: a New Review post that looks at the history and present of trigger warnings, and how they’ve moved out of communities online and into public life and spaces. If you don’t know what a trigger warning is, it’s essentially a note indicating that you might be about to encounter something upsetting, something that could negatively affect your psychological wellbeing; they’ve grown out of supportive communities in which people needed to carefully negotiate conversations about subjects that need to be spoken about, but that also could prove detrimental to readers’ health. The roots, however, aren’t quite as simple as the New Review piece paints it them:

Initially, trigger warnings were used in self-help and feminist forums to help readers who might have post traumatic stress disorder to avoid graphic content that might cause painful memories, flashbacks, or panic attacks. Some websites, like Bodies Under Siege, a self-injury support message board, developed systems of adding abbreviated topic tags—from SI (self injury) to ED (eating disorders)—to particularly explicit posts. As the Internet grew, warnings became more popular, and critics began to question their use.

It’s rare to see an article on trigger warnings mentioning Bodies Under Siege, despite its early adoption of warnings as a way for its users to safeguard themselves. It’s a shame, then, that the piece skips over the ways trigger warnings were used there in the late 90s, when I was an active user. They were not a way for users with PTSD specifically to avoid harm; they were for all users – including those without mental health issues – to avoid subjects that could trigger them into unsafe behaviour, or that they didn’t have the mental energy to tackle. They were carefully considered and carefully enforced alongside a list of verboten things that mods would delete on sight: discussions of weights, calorie counts, numbers of self-inflicted wounds, images. Those things were not done lightly. Bodies Under Siege was a community of vulnerable people struggling with mental illnesses of various degrees, and it was built entirely around recovery and support. Trigger warnings and removal of things that could prompt ‘competitive’ behaviour were not courtesies. They were absolutely integral to the community’s existence.

I used a couple of other forums for people who self-harmed, in my teens. BUS was the one that did not make me worse. There’s a direct analogy between one of those forums and pro-anorexia communities; at its worst, it provided encouragement to hurt yourself, and at best it was simply reinforcing the behaviour, a reassurance that self-injury was an OK thing to do. It was not a healthy space. The second, though, tried to be about recovery, but allowed images and discussions of self-injury particulars. It was a deeply conflicted space, as a result: if you were feeling OK, you could quite easily end up feeling worse after a visit. If you were already feeling bad, you went there knowing it would most likely spiral downwards, playing Russian roulette with your feelings. You would, almost without doubt, stumble across something that would likely tip you from ‘maybe I could hurt myself’ into the act.

Trigger warnings on BUS made it safe from that concern. It was a place you could go while feeling awful to try to be strong. It had thread after thread of distraction games, little time-wasting things you could do to stave off the need to self-injure. It had questionnaires to fill in before you did it, drawn up by users and psych professionals, and questionnaires to fill in afterwards. It had resources for asking for treatment, for dealing with emergency care, for supporting others. It had safe spaces for parents, partners, carers to socialise. It had diary threads you could post in and read, if you were well enough, and those diaries came by convention with warnings about the content. If you didn’t want to engage with the illnesses of others, for fear of worsening your own, you did not have to.

Words cannot express how valuable trigger warnings were to me, or to many of the other users on BUS. Not just those with PTSD, or anxiety disorders, or specific trauma-related illnesses; not even just those who self-harmed or those with eating disorders; all of us who used that space benefitted from its policies on keeping us safe.

Trigger warnings on the web were born in communities trying to balance the need to speak with the need not to hear. Those communities were closed, or at least only partially open; LiveJournal communities where membership rules could be enforced, forums and BBs where mods had control over members’ posts. Trigger warnings do not translate well to public spaces – Tumblr tags, Twitter, even Facebook groups, or some of the real-life scenarios mentioned in the New Review article – because those needs are different for the wider community. Interestingly, some Tumblr tags do take content warnings well – conventions have grown up around those tags, and those who transgress those conventions are essentially moderated out by the existing users. But there’s no system to support that, nothing to stop a sustained invasion, no way to organise that space to support that use.

But just as it is inadvisable to add trigger warnings to everything based on the possibility of harm, it’s just as inadvisable to remove them from everything based on disbelief in their effectiveness. In communities focussed on mental health and recovery, trigger warnings are absolutely necessary for users. Whether college classes, campuses or the Huffington Post need the same level of consideration is a valid question, for sure, but it’s one worth asking. If you want people with disabilities to be able to participate fully in your spaces, you’d better be thinking about accessibility in terms of triggers and mental wellbeing as well as wheelchair ramps and sign language. And that doesn’t always need to be in formal language: sometimes it’s as simple as editing a tweeted headline to include the word ‘distressing’, to give your followers the choice about what they click on.

The New Review piece concludes:

Trigger warnings are presented as a gesture of empathy, but the irony is they lead only to more solipsism, an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole. Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.

There is no way to stop every vulnerable person from coming across things that will make them more vulnerable. There is, however, courtesy and consideration, and a need for equal access for those with mental health issues. Those are not small things. There is a valuable, important baby being thrown out with this bathwater.

Pocket Lint #8: things that live under bridges

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Where have all the workers gone?
“Whether as victim, demon, or hero, the industrial worker of the past century filled the public imagination in books, movies, news stories, and even popular songs, putting a grimy human face on capitalism while dramatizing the social changes and conflicts it brought… With work increasingly invisible, it’s much harder to grasp the human effects, the social contours, of the Internet economy.”

Netrunner as life hacking for perfectionism
“It was Netrunner that crystallized for me the uncomfortable fact that in real life I’ve always run away from any space I couldn’t see completely, from any challenge I might not be able to win, and from any situation where I struggled to succeed.”

The Blood Harvest
“Each year, half a million horseshoe crabs are captured and bled alive to create an unparalleled biomedical technology.”

Do invertebrates feel pain?
“We know next to nothing about whether or not these animals – or invertebrates in general – actually suffer. In Elwood’s experience, researchers are either certain they feel pain or certain they don’t. “Very few people say we need to know,” he says.”

The internet is fucked (but we can fix it)
Forensic look at what’s wrong with the internet in the US.

Partners as patrons
“I am essentially “sponsored” by this very loving man who shows up at the end of the day, asks me how the writing went, pours me a glass of wine, then takes me out to eat. He accompanies me when I travel 500 miles to do a 75-minute reading, manages my finances, and never complains that my dark, heady little books have resulted in low advances and rather modest sales.”

This machine kills trolls
Anti-vandalism bots on Wikipedia: complex tech solutions to complex human problems.

Remember the human
“Try to be courteous to others. See someone having a bad day? Give them a compliment or ask them a thoughtful question, and it might make their day better. Did someone reply to your comment with valuable insights or something that cheered you up? Send them a quick thanks letting them know you appreciate their comment.”

Tumblr of the week: Things Called Jazz That Are Not Jazz

Free game of the week: Into The Box

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The generosity of governments

It’s not possible to make an infallible system.

If you support the death penalty in practice, on some level, you have to decide that a certain number of innocent lives are a price worth paying for the state to kill guilty people. You can support the principle but oppose the practice – as some do – because it is impossible in practice to create a system which only, ever, executes the guilty and spares the innocent. The more you try to ensure the innocent are spared, the more guilty people also avoid punishment. A perfect system of perfect judgements is impossible in the real world.

No system can sort with 100% accuracy between the deserving and undeserving, either for assistance or for punishment. There will always be borderline cases, those attempting to cheat the system, those whose circumstances are not neat or clean. Most systems are set up to assume a certain leeway, with the exception of those systems set up by states to help their people – or those wanting to become their people.

In the UK, the government has decided that no level of assistance should be given to anyone who does not fit increasingly strict criteria of need. It does not matter how many people with genuine needs are hurt in the pursuit of its desire; if one person who might just about be able to cope without benefits receives benefits, that is one too many. No matter that by tightening the system the government is actively hurting many, many times more people than it’s justifiably excluding from assistance – that is, fundamentally, the point. And the war of words in the popular imagination is won by convincing people that there are so many more undeserving than deserving welfare recipients, and that the pain is therefore proportionate.

But of course it is not. In striving to ensure that only people who most desperately need help ever receive it, the government cuts programs that help everyone. It sees the extra help given to disadvantaged people as an unequal and unnecessary expense, and so guts programs designed to ensure equality of opportunity. It is OK to hurt people who need help, the reasoning goes, so long as you don’t accidentally help anyone.

In Australia, the war is over asylum seekers. On one hand, there are supposedly queues of people waiting to get into Australia; asylum seekers with the proper documentation, who board planes and wait patiently for their chance to come here. On the other, there are people so desperate that they board unseaworthy boats run by people smugglers in the belief it would be better to drown than stay where they are. We are meant to believe that by punishing the latter, the former will benefit. We are meant to believe that it is not worth helping a single person who has come by boat. We are meant to believe that state assistance is a zero sum game, that what’s mine is mine and asylum seekers are Others. We are meant to believe that the country is giving something away when it takes in those desperate enough to risk drowning to live here, not gaining something. We are meant to believe that the only choice is between deaths at sea and deaths in detention, as though stopping the boats is more important than stopping the suffering, the desperation, the human misery that lies behind every journey to these shores.

I don’t think I am useless to Australia. Australia doesn’t think so either; I’m one of the good ones. I’m a temporary economic migrant, not a permanent refugee. I have knowledge skills that this country thinks are worth the cost of my admittance. I don’t really need to live in Australia. So the government has made it remarkably easy for me to choose to do so. It makes sure I can have my husband with me. It offers me healthcare arrangements, because my home country would do the same thing. As long as I am working and do not need further help, Australia is very happy to have me.

Of course it is, because I don’t need help. There is no room in this equation for political solutions that admit the possibility that it might be OK to help a few people who are two degrees above the breadline, if it ensures that a greater number of those below the breadline get that help too. There’s no room for generosity or for compassion, no room for the idea that it is better to make it easy for those who need help to get it than to make it hard for those who do not. And so, slowly but surely, governments act more and more like banks offering loans. They offer assistance only to those who can prove they do not need it, and leave those who need it most to drown.