Socially Constructed - On the Margins of Society
I’ve just finished reading A History of British Serial Killing by David Wilson. Despite the sensational subtitle (“The Shocking Account of Jack the Ripper, Harold Shipman and Beyond”), this isn’t a book about the killers but one about the victims and, specifically, the way society allows them to fall through the gaps and be targeted by serial killers. It analyses five distinct groups: prostitutes, runaways, children, gay men and the elderly.
As generally happens at the moment, my mind took off along a side alley and applied Wilson’s theories to the coronavirus pandemic. Wilson’s chapter on the elderly focuses primarily on Harold Shipman as Britain’s most prolific serial killer and it reiterates the vulnerability of his victims which often incorporated more than one vulnerability factor - more of his victims were women, for example, and working-class women who were more likely to trust in the authority of a medical professional.
The conditions Wilson describes are reflected in the conversations around coronavirus victims - the disposable elderly, the people who are waiting to die anyway. I’ve seen far too many “hot takes” on the lockdown being too severe because it’s protecting the lives of a minority, but isn’t that what society is all about? If you only protect the lives of the majority, you’re condemning the minority to misery and, worse, death.
As I write this, protests are taking place across the US and UK in response to the murder of a black man by a police officer - another type of socially constructed vulnerability that is more prevalent here in the UK than people like to admit. Yet it’s perfectly reasonable (I think) to support the protests while still being terrified about the potential results in terms of the ongoing spread of coronavirus. A vulnerable group (the elderly) may be disproportionately impacted by the virus, but another vulnerable group (BAME communities) are also being disproportionately affected too. There aren’t any easy answers which protect everybody and highlight the ongoing injustices experienced by black people and others.
I was going through the paperback proofs of Amy yesterday, re-reading sections as I went. I came across this altercation between protagonist Valerie Smythe and her colleague John Foster who’s hoping to become prime minister:
John clenched his jaw. ‘You think you’re so damn righteous, don’t you? Living your life just like you all do, all your type.’
‘What’s my type?’ she shot back.
‘Marginals,’ he spat.
‘All right – out. I’ve had enough of this. If you don’t go, I’ll call security, and that’ll be your leadership bid down the toilet. Get out now and this’ll go no further.’
It’s a small moment, but it resonates with me today because all people want is the ability to live their lives freely, no matter their sexuality, ethnicity or age. The margins of society are bigger than we like to think, and it isn’t just that they expose vulnerable people to neglect and violence. Until we value every life and treat them as more than a commodity or something to be disposed of once they’ve served their purpose, the margins won’t shrink and they certainly won’t be eliminated.
Stay safe, everyone.
P.S: This isn’t intended to be some kind of All Lives Matter rubbish. Black Lives Matter now and those communities need support. I’m reading and I’m learning as best I can.