Concepts Underpinning GRIPP’s Approach
How do we sustain the growth of a social movement that replaces poverty with rights? What role does language play in the process of how we perceive, understand, interpret and communicate as we try to change our lived realities? Can GRIPP’s processes work to develop a new language from below?
We use language to describe and explain what is happening to us, both to ourselves through our ‘inner speech’ (the talking that goes on our heads and that we are aware of when we are awake), and through the words that we say out loud or write down when we are trying to communicate with the people around us. However, when we communicate with other people it is not automatically the case that everyone involved in the communication is sharing the same meaning for the words that are being used, even though the words being used sound and spell the same. This is because of three factors:
- Meanings of the words may change if a dominant meaning has already been applied to the word or phrase being used
- Social, economic and cultural position of the person who is speaking or writing interacts with its meaning
- Circumstances under which the words are uttered or written can transform their meaning in practice
The diagram below is a representation of the relationship between our inner speech, what happens when we speak out loud with other people in our attempts to develop shared meaning, how those shared meanings are ‘contested’ or discussed or argued about by the people in the dialogue, and also how their meanings are affected by the wider society, beyond the specific or particular communication. The diagram is copied from an article that was published in 2003 and so the phrase it is using to demonstrate how the meanings of language develop is ‘asylum seeker’ – but any word or phrase can be applied.
In the material world, the dominant views about asylum seeking (the outer circle) are circulating via a range of public fora: newspapers, television, radio, advertising, and the internet. These views interrelate with the experience of asylum that is communicated between people, both asylum seekers and the people around them, as they use dialogue to work out what meanings they share about seeking asylum and how and why their meanings may differ (the middle circle). In turn, this dialogical or communicative act interrelates with their internal speech, the words that they form in their own heads that make up their ideas about the meaning of seeking asylum and that is derived from their personal experience of the phenomenon (the inner circle). The bi-directional action/language arrow extending from the inner speech circle to the super-ordinate view represents the social movement activity with potential to transform meaning in practice.
At this historical and political juncture in the UK, the practical application of human rights means that the gap between rhetoric and implementation is yawning and growing. The powers that control the dominant meanings for the words that we use, e.g. what ‘Poverty’, ‘Documented’ or Undocumented’ or ‘Human Rights’ mean (this can be described as the context within which the words are being interpreted, or the interpretive context of the words) are also controlling our access to resources in any given context. At this time, the dominant meanings or characteristics being ascribed to the phrase poor people, whether they are indigenous or displaced from somewhere else into the UK, with or without legal status, is that they should be ‘grateful’ for whatever does come their way in terms of that ‘relief’; that they are intrinsically dependent, lacking agency, largely bereft of creative imagination and; that they must be, ultimately, proscribed from setting the parameters around any work to ‘relieve’ poverty or define what their human rights are or should be.
GRIPP is working to build a social movement where people in the UK whose direct experiences of poverty impact upon their access to economic, social and cultural rights – the people who are the reason for the formation of GRIPP – define, describe and assert their own meanings for:
- ‘Un/Documented’ lives, experiences and stories
- ‘Human Rights’: socially, economically and culturally
- The root, systemic and daily realities responsible for direct experiences of poverty
- The root, systemic and daily realties that un/document the lives, experiences and stories of some people living in poverty
- The root, systemic and daily realities inhibiting human access to economic, social and cultural rights
- How un/documented poverty impacts human access to economic, social, cultural rights
- What people do, systemically, collectively and individually within these realities
- What works for people – and why
- What doesn’t work for people – and why actions
- What needs to happen to end direct experiences of poverty and their impacts upon access to economic, social and cultural rights
Considering the historical development of the concept of ‘the poor’
In England, the Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1597 created ‘Overseers of the Poor’ who would estimate how much poor relief money was needed in order to set the poor rate accordingly; collect the poor rate; distribute poor relief; and supervise the poorhouse. The fact that Overseer was the name given to poverty officials within the first infrastructure introduced in England indicates a potential interrelationship between the socio-economic organisation imposed upon the indigenous poor and British imperialist expansion which coincides with this time, when the first British colony was formed in Ireland and the Transatlantic trade developed that enslaved and sold people for profit.
Dating from this period (bearing in mind that Ireland, including what is now Northern Ireland became the site of the first British plantations in 1603, while Wales and Scotland were formally incorporated into Great Britain in 1707) and extending up to and beyond the creation of the Welfare State at the end of World War Two, particular discussions and characterisations of ‘the poor’ have dominated public dialogical spaces (party political, policy making, service delivery and media settings) across the UK. These discussions and characterisations have pathologized poor people. They have promoted the idea that poverty is an eternal truth, that the impoverished are their own obstacles and that the parameters of any work around poverty can only be set by bodies who are themselves apart from the direct experience of poverty.
Currently, beginning with the emergence of the COVID19 syndemic this idea that the development of the British Empire and the Welfare State are intertwined is beginning to become publicly articulated.
Considering the historical development of being ‘Un/Documented’
The dominant meaning of being Un/Documented is bound up with the legal status of the individual: Most basically: do you have the documentation which confirms your legal right to live and work in the UK?; or some level of documentation which means that you can be here pending the resolution of your legal status? or; are you denied the right to work and access otherwise ‘universal’ benefits?
However, irrespective of legal status, in order to survive people living in poverty also have experiences and skills that remain undocumented because certain activities to secure access to food, shelter and/or money do not currently command legal status. This renders the knowledge holders silent. Anecdotally, we know that this dynamic may be exacerbated when organisations involved in human rights violation cases sign Non Disclosure Agreements or give over their control around exposure/disclosure of violations through the conditions of their funding streams.
The net effect is that we do not know the content of the poor person’s ‘canon’, as in their works that are positive and vital in human survival terms. This needs to be captured and understood so that its intelligence may be incorporated in our social movement. Further, we do not know how far the content of this ‘canon’ continues to move orally (rather than being written down) within and between communities and generations who are living in poverty. Our work aspires to find ways to tell the un/documented stories that need telling so that solutions are evolved whereby these un/documented experiences become redundant.
Considering the historical development of the concept ‘human rights’
At the time of writing the UK Government has only just submitted its State Party Report which explains to the United Nations Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights how it is achieving rights in the Covenant. Devolved Governments have already submitted their reports to the UK Government and, from within Scotland, a Freedom of Information request was made to establish the current state of play at the UK level. With the UK report submitted one of the earlier acts of GRIPP may need to be to make that report highly publicly accessible.
Arguably, the fact that the UK report is so tardy is symptomatic of the power being wielded by the dominant grouping in our society. They are making unilateral decisions about what such a report needs to be about, whether and when it will be finalised and what will be in it. Their inertia in this matter, coupled with the lack of accountability and transparency that the continued failure to publish demonstrates, prompts us to want to interrogate who it is that has developed dominant definitions of what ’human rights’ are – and aren’t. We are conscious of the presence of experts in this field within our partnership and would welcome further dialogue about this question.
Written by Rhetta Moran and Susanna Hunter-Darch