To See the World Clearly, You Have to See People Equally
We told the privileged they are better than the poor, and we told the poor they are worse than the privileged. Sadly, both sides believe it.
There has recently been an explosion of books, shows, and podcasts that use data and science to reveal our misconceptions about the world around us. Shows like Adam Ruins Everything, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, Freakonomics, Hidden Brain, Stuff to Blow Your Mind, etc. (feel free to share your favorite in the comments), seem to have an endless list of topics they can cover. How is it humanity is so bad at discerning the truth of the world around us?
I propose there is one lie, one misconception, so great and so pervasive that it births almost all others. This lie is the belief that those who “have” are somehow different than those who “have not.” This belief is so toxic that it infects just about every other way we perceive the world. It paralyzes the well-meaning privileged from doing anything effective to help others, and it keeps the poor in a state of shame and hopelessness.
EXAMPLE: People Don’t Need to Improve to Get Homes, They Need Homes to Improve.
For over a century, homeless programs are founded on the idea that if someone is homeless, they must be “messed up.” Therefore, the well-intentioned privileged have been running programs to try to “change” homeless people so they can “earn” a home… someday. The idea is that if they get off drugs, get a job, get an education, then they will be able to get a house.
In reality, overcoming homelessness works best the other way around. If you give someone a house or a steady place to stay, they have the stability they need to get off drugs, get a job, get an education, etc. Current housing programs are proving that this approach works, and is ultimately less costly than any other program to help the homeless. Here are a couple of resources on the subject:
The evidence is so clear and obvious; it makes one ask, “Why do we get this so wrong?” The answer is that we think homeless people are worse people than those with homes. We believe that those of us with housing have it solely from our own great choices and hard work. While it’s true we all work to pay for our housing, whatever form that takes, we don’t even consider that we have had opportunities that make it more possible for us than others.
If, on the other hand, you believe that homeless people are just like everyone else, then understanding how giving them a home leads to dramatic improvement is self-evident. Looking at all people as equal, but having different challenges and opportunities means we stop judging people and start looking at larger systems and external causes. In other words, if you went through what they did, you would be homeless too.
Blaming the Poor for Their Poverty is a Lie that Hurts Everyone
Kurt Vonnegut said it best in Slaughterhouse-Five:
“Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.”
Chances are, dear reader, that you yourself feel you have failed at some level in achieving the success expected of yourself, or from others. Maybe you have crushing student debt or medical bills, or you’re just trying to make ends meet without burning out on work, late-nights, and multiple jobs. Whatever your situation, chances are you feel that somehow you failed or missed an opportunity somewhere. Well, that’s just how those in power want you to feel: It’s all your fault.
This sense of shame comes from first from how we judge others worst off than us. We are terrified of ending up like them, we judge ourselves by those better off than us, and we see everyone around us as competition to beat in order to rise above the madness. We built a world were we all claw over each other to get to the top, and then look down on the pile of human suffering we stand on with judgment… if we are lucky enough to make it there at all. It’s a cruel machine of human misery, we built it, and we all participate in it.
We’re All in This Together… Hell… We’re All in Hell, Together
We made this world, and we can make a better one. The greatest threat to our lives isn’t the rich and powerful, it’s the rest of us who consent and participate in a world where they can feel virtuous for their wealth, and we feel shame for our lack of it. If we stop judging the poor, stop shaming ourselves, and stop giving virtue to the wealthy, then everything that needs to be fixed becomes clear.
The ineffective programs we have been running to “help” the homeless, the corruption of college admissions, the mass-jailing of minorities, the hostility towards immigrants and all other injustice comes down to public perception as some people “deserve” their underprivileged status and those of us with privilege “earned” it. So, next time you see someone worse off than you, see them as yourself in different circumstances.