Lately I’ve been thinking about the rhetoric that is ‘being a burden on society.’ It’s a phrase that gets thrown around at many things, resulting in some form of self-righteous judgement and de-humanisation of those accused of being a burden.
Who is a burden on society? Well, that’s easy, society tells us. It’s those fat people, obviously, who refuse to just eat healthily and exercise enough and so have all sorts of health problems that make them a burden on the rest of society. It’s those migrants who can’t speak English properly and need special help to get up to speed with how Australia works. It’s those disabled people, who expect the government to just fork out money for fancy wheelchairs just so that they can be mobile – the nerve! It’s those dole-bludgers on Newstart allowance, who just lounge around all day living off the money Centrelink throws at them, and those single mothers sitting at home and refusing to go back to proper work. Those Aboriginal families who are affected by more levels of disadvantage than you can even comprehend.
So the rhetoric goes. If you are classed as one of these burdens on society, it is assumed that you take and take and take and give nothing back. You are a drain on resources, you are not worth the money the government spends on you. You are reduced to an economic bottom line, you are commodified, you are scorned and sometimes pitied. But in the rhetoric of being a burden on society, there is no space for actual compassion, only a sense of entitlement, where other people don’t deserve support because you happen to be in the privileged position of not needing that support yourself.
We saw this in the recent media furor about the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which will expect everyone to chip in a little more so that the government can provide support for people with disabilities and their specific needs. Or in the comments on ever news story about Centrelink payments ever. Or in any given discussion on the ‘obesity crisis’ and how fat people are killing our healthcare system. Or in the ‘debate’ about asylum seekers. There is a culture of terror – played up by the media and politicians – about anything that challenges our idea of what people are meant to be like: thin, able-bodied, healthy, comfortably middle class, white, cis-gendered (I could go on). Too often this masks what is really needed – for everyone to step back, realise that they know next to nothing about the lives of other people around them, and stop making some sort of snap judgement based on what they think someone else’s life is like.
Our government is there to ensure that all people have access to the same quality of life, in line with their particular needs. Disability insurance schemes, scholarships for Aboriginal students in higher education, support for single parents – they aren’t unfair advantages to some people which drain our country’s resources. They’re trying to put everyone on equal footing. And that is never a waste of money. I don’t believe that relying on government support to pay your bills makes you a burden on society, or less valuable as an individual, or less worthwhile as a human being. People are not burdens on our society, people are our society. They are more than an economic bottom line.