Oh no, not another article telling me I’m a bad person. There’s enough of those already. Don’t worry, this isn’t a guilt-trip... More of a gentle opening of the curtain, if you dare to look.
Our world is full of paradoxes. Without them, comedians would be short on material. One doesn’t have to think too hard to know that we are far from living in utopia, but there’s one in particular which I believe to be at the root of some of the most systemic failures of modern society and deserves pointing out: We see what we want to see, but we don’t see what’s in front of us, hidden in plain sight behind the rose-colored glasses many of us are lucky enough to wear.
Us humans are tribal creatures, but somewhere in the excitement of all our “advancement”, we’ve lost touch with our innate need to connect. Instead, we tend to see ourselves as separate from the rest of the world… as consumers of it rather than part of it.
It’s much easier to live our lives from a pedestal, so we become obsessed with the misfortune of others because it reminds us that even though we may be miserable, there are others out there who are miserable-er.
You may have heard the term “poverty porn,” which the reliable Wikipedia defines as “any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause.”
Think of those child sponsorship campaigns with beautiful celebrities holding fly-covered, dusty, bloated African children with protruding belly buttons and vacant distant gazes, begging for your devoted sponsorship for school supplies and clean drinking water. Hearts are wrenched, pockets out-turn and whatever happens behind the velvet curtain returns a postcard with a happily school-uniformed African child to adorn our fridges and prove to ourselves and our friends that we care about the state of the world so we can sleep at night in our warm, cozy, indoor beds knowing we did our part.
While this may not seem like that big of a deal (hey, at least they’re getting donations), the truth is, poverty porn is self-serving and exploitative. As people who want to help, it’s not our fault, it’s by design.
Though we may have the best intentions, blindly throwing money at things we don’t like to see is not an act of love, but an assertion of power.
Why, you ask? Here’s the thing about having money in our society — it makes us think (consciously or subconsciously) that we’re better than people without money. This arbitrary hierarchy of socio-economic status is so deeply ingrained in our social and mental framework that the only way to stop it is to acknowledge it with humility and be intentional about how we address issues where our privilege blinders may take over.
For us in the western world, “starving children in 3rd world countries” poverty porn may be easier to look at (it’s so far removed from our own reality that we can conveniently pretend it isn’t real at all), but it’s only one side of the coin. If we truly want to tackle the issue of poverty, we need to zoom out, erase the borders and examine how we look at our relationship with our own community’s most vulnerable members.
This was recently brought to my attention on a whole new level one sunny afternoon while I was walking through an open public park space in a more poverty-stricken neighborhood of Vancouver. I came across a guy with a camera standing in front of a bench, taking photos of a homeless man sleeping.
Despite my urge to just turn a blind eye to this blatantly nonconsensual intrusion of this vulnerable, unconscious man’s privacy (a luxury this dude clearly took for granted), I couldn’t morally continue without saying something. I walked up and said to the cameraman, “Excuse me, do you know this guy?”
“No,” he replied.
“Then why are you taking his picture? Did he give you permission?”
“No, I don’t need his permission. It’s art.”
OK, hold the phone. What? “It doesn’t matter that it’s art, you can’t just take pictures of people without their permission.”
“If you knew why I was taking the picture, you wouldn’t be acting this way.”
He went on to explain that he was just trying to show the world that there are people living in poverty and they can’t just ignore it. He said he was actually helping him by taking the picture. He said he doesn’t show their faces unless they’re smiling. I asked if he got permission when they were smiling. He said he didn’t need to because he wasn’t making money off of them.
We argued back and forth for about 10 minutes. This dude seriously couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that maybe people have reasons they don’t want their image shown to the world. He was so focused on the message he was trying to portray that he was ignoring the message entirely. It’s not about you or your art. It’s about basic human dignity.
There are two very important points here:
- What we assume is helpful may in fact not be.
- Doing “your part” to help does not give you a free karmic pass to disregard someone’s right to be treated with dignity and respect.
On the other, (and arguably worse) end of the spectrum of insensitivity is those who choose to look at homelessness and poverty through what I like to call the “Get A Job” lens. Perhaps these people work hard for their money. Perhaps they have never found themselves in a position of poverty or have never directly associated with anybody living in such a position, unable to work due to a physical or mental disability, criminal record, chronic injury or illness, addiction or myriad other reasons why someone may not be able to just walk into JC Penny, plop down their resume and be like “Hello, may I please speak with the manager?”
I don’t know if you’ve ever found yourself in a rock-bottom situation, but if you know that heart-sinking feeling of despair, imagine having that feeling every day. OK, now drain your bank account and cut up your credit card. Family? Dead, living in poverty, the other side of the world, or you don’t talk anymore. Oh yeah, and you don’t have a home. Throw in some voices in your head, malnourishment, sleep deprivation, a terribly inaccessible mental health care system and a heroin addiction which could cause you to actually die if you don’t get your fix. Now go get a job you lazy piece of trash.
My point is, what a complete stranger does with their life is 100% their business and if it happens to also be someone else’s business, chances are it’s not you. Unless someone is in danger, you’re giving them food, clothing or money, or they’ve personally asked you to insert your nose into their personal life, butt out.
I get it. There’s a reason people are uncomfortable looking at others in their most raw, vulnerable state. It reminds us of our own mortality; that beneath all our money, clothes and personal maintenance, we’re all just kinda gross fleshy bodies wandering around on this weird planet, trying to make sense of life, consuming and expelling our waste in whatever way fits the reality we find ourselves in.
The thought that any one of us is just a loss of privilege, bad decision, freak accident, mental health crisis, addiction, identity theft, injury, illness, severe trauma, or criminal offense away from being that man sleeping on the bench is terrifying. Life is fragile, our system is broken and it’s way too easy for people to slip between the cracks.
This reality can feel discouraging and uncomfortable and it brings to light some major flaws in the way our system serves (or doesn’t serve) those who rely on it the most. Understanding and acknowledging these flaws stretches beyond the politics du jour and requires a closer look at the underlying systemic issues that allow these divides to exist in first place: inaccessibly expensive quality mental health treatment; the stigmatization and criminalization of drug use; the deadly combination of rapid gentrification (enthusiastically meeting the needs of the financially affluent) and lack of safe, accessible, affordable housing (passively disregarding the needs of lower-income communities)… just to name a few.
The hole in the dike is much bigger than one can single-handedly and heroically plug. The dike is full of holes and as it stands, it serves the system more to keep people busy and distracted by giving them the “job” of sticking their fingers in them rather than trying to fix them or, heaven forbid, harness and empower that cumulative energy to build a new dike that actually does its job. It doesn’t take a genius to see how unsustainable this is. Do we really need to wait for the thing to crumble on top of us before we can call it for what it is? — Weak, ineffective and broken. We have the brains, we have the technology, we have the tools, we have the resources and the collective ability to change the way we do things.
So why don’t we?
Depending who you ask, this will yield all sorts of defensive answers that likely stem from a socio-hierarchical narrative. We’ve gotten so used to looking out for our material “needs” that we’ve completely lost touch with ourselves and each other. We wander through life playing the game and avoiding, hating, covering up or just plain ignoring the things that remind us of the lie we’re living.
The thing is, blaming society or the system is not going to change anything because even though “we” created it, blaming it only thrusts the responsibility onto “anyone but me” and we don’t want to be held accountable for something that isn’t our fault.
I’m no expert, but I will say that if our system’s willful ignorance and lack of compassion is what has failed so many people, it’s our responsibility as members of the community to correct that system if we want to make any kind of difference. The fact that we leave it up to nonprofits and charities to clean up the mess is an appalling reflection of how our society values its members: based on their ability to stimulate the economy. As soon as someone’s value decreases, they become a “burden”. Welfare, tax benefits, and other income assistance programs are sterile, impossible to live comfortably on, perpetuate the same “throw money at the problem” mentality and are difficult to access for many who face some of the aforementioned barriers. Conveniently, these social systems, nonprofits, and charities are also great for creating more jobs for people to help the people who we refuse to give jobs to… and the gap widens.
To be fair, this all makes perfect sense from a sociological and psychological perspective if we look at society as the sum of its parts: human beings. We are all flawed creatures and the system we’ve created in our image reflects that. Like its founding members, it is egotistical, superficial, afraid, biased and defensive, thinly veiled under the blanket of being “for the greater good”. But what is the greater good? Who decides? And who is anyone to claim to know what’s best for anybody else?
Tackling issues of this nature is a delicate matter, and while it may feel hopeless, I like to think it isn’t. I certainly don’t know the answers, but maybe there is something we can do. Maybe the way we think shapes the way we see the world, and maybe if we start to think about our fellow human beings as actual human beings, we’ll start giving them a voice of their own. Then maybe we can shape a world that works for everyone. That sounds like a good place to start.