Saturday, November 30, 2013

Why Do We Hate Poor People (or What Kind of People Are These?)

Nicholas Kristof
Nicholas Kristof writes a very insightful, and to me, disturbing column calling for 'a conversation about empathy for fellow humans in distress.'

I'm normally an optimistic person. But I don't think what Kristof is suggesting will work. I think the problem is far more troublesome that simply training people to think sympathetically or empathetically about the poor. 

Kristof's examples are troubling...

"A reader named Keith reflected a coruscating chorus when he protested: “If kids are going hungry, it is because of the parents not upholding their responsibilities.”
"A reader in Washington bluntly suggested taking children from parents and putting them in orphanages.
"Jim asked: “Why should I have to subsidize someone else’s child? How about personal responsibility? If you procreate, you provide.”
"After a recent column about an uninsured man who delayed seeing a doctor about a condition that turned out to be colon cancer, many readers noted that he is a lifelong smoker and said he had it coming.
"“What kind of a lame brain doofus is this guy?” one reader asked. “And like it’s our fault that he couldn’t afford to have himself checked out?”
"Such scorn seems widespread, based on the comments I geton my blog and Facebook page — as well as on polling and on government policy. At root, these attitudes reflect a profound lack of empathy.
"A Princeton University psychology professor, Susan Fiske, has found that when research subjects hooked up to neuro-imaging machines look at photos of the poor and homeless, their brains often react as if they are seeing things, not people. Her analysis suggests that Americans sometimes react to poverty not with sympathy but with revulsion."

About five years ago, I wrote a blog post on this same issue asking, 'Do We Hate the Poor', I have long since come to the conclusion that there are an alarming number of people who do. 

These people tend to make me angry. They tend to respond to human tragedy as if they are immune to any of the vicissitudes to which many of the poor have fallen heir: the arrest, based on mistaken identity; the death of a spouse that can send one into an emotional tailspin; the loss of a job when one is too old and one's savings dry up; an illness that comes out of nowhere; a natural catastrophe that causes one to lose all that one has.

I remember after Katrina, an interview with an evacuee (we were still calling them 'refugees' then!), who said, 'Yesterday I was rich!'. Then there were the stories in the wake of the Great Recession, which, happened a week or so after my post was written...the families who lost their homes, their jobs, the suicides of people who's wealth was obliterated. 

The people whose gross insensitivity and unadulterated meanness in the face of poverty, are people who fear becoming like the people they loathe. They are people who have so locked down their hearts that they no longer believe they have room for compassion. They believe that the poor are impeding their ascendancy to the 1 percent (and as our Urban Engagement Book Club reviewer, Randy Mayeaux has reminded us, 'There can only be '1 percent' in the 1 percent'.  They are painfully afraid that they will be called upon to care. And worse, to act. And so they castigate the poor. They call them names. 

Maybe we just know more about them now because of social media. Maybe people say what they feel because they don't have to use their real names. They can post 'anonymously'. Their friends, neighbors, or co-workers don't know how they feel. Their neighbors who volunteer to help the less fortunate, don't realize that they live next door to someone who harbors rancor towards someone who can't find a job because they just got out of jail, or another neighbor who happens to be a single parent on food stamps. 

Kristof says, "John Rawls, the brilliant 20th-century philosopher, argued for a society that seems fair if we consider it from behind a “veil of ignorance” — meaning we don’t know whether we’ll be born to an investment banker or a teenage mom, in a leafy suburb or a gang-ridden inner city, healthy or disabled, smart or struggling, privileged or disadvantaged. That’s a shrewd analytical tool — and who among us would argue for food stamp cuts if we thought we might be among the hungry children?"

The poor are problems. 

Of course, that is, until they or someone they know and love, becomes one of them. 

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