I wrote in my post about babies and young children that before I lived with and loved babies of my own, I didn't really see them as full persons -- couldn't have, because I couldn't imagine that they had agency of their own. But of course, they do; their world may be limited, there are tools yet to be acquired -- but they can use the tools they have to shape their environment as much as they can according to their needs to respond to it.
(Even if that means building a toy double boiler to meet their need to imitate, all part of the drive to attach to a parent or other loving figure, itself a survival skill.)
I tossed off a little note at the end of that post about other "others" --
It's as if we are programmed to generalize about people, and not really to know in our depths the personhood -- the agency, the will, the decisionmaking capability -- of "that kind of people" when "that kind of people" is one we don't have direct experience with.
I'm sure this goes beyond young children, to every other kind of "other" there can be. Being surprised by people -- in the unpleasant sense, instead of the sense in which I discovered my own babies' innate abilities --sets this off vividly. Whenever we can't understand, really cannot understand, why someone does the thing they do, or when they act in a way we could not predict, and we write it off as senseless instead of trying to see the sense -- that's when we ought to see that we weren't seeing them as whole and real persons, but instead a caricature, a simpler story to tell, like swaddled plastic on TV.
I know of at least three really good posts out there that attempt to explain certain kinds of "otherness" from the inside, to people who don't understand it because they haven't had to deal with it, to people who might blithely say, "Well, if I was in that situation, I'd..."
First off, the "spoons theory of illness." A young woman living with lupus tries to explain to her friend what it's like to go through your day with a debilitating illness:
As I went to take some of my medicine with a snack as I usually did, she watched me with an awkward kind of stare, instead of continuing the conversation. She then asked me out of the blue what it felt like to have Lupus and be sick....
I quickly grabbed every spoon on the table; hell I grabbed spoons off of the other tables. I looked at her in the eyes and said “Here you go, you have Lupus”. She looked at me slightly confused, as anyone would when they are being handed a bouquet of spoons...
I explained that the difference in being sick and being healthy is having to make choices or to consciously think about things when the rest of the world doesn’t have to. The healthy have the luxury of a life without choices, a gift most people take for granted....
I asked her to count her spoons. She asked why, and I explained that when you are healthy you expect to have a never-ending supply of “spoons”. But when you have to now plan your day, you need to know exactly how many “spoons” you are starting with. It doesn’t guarantee that you might not lose some along the way, but at least it helps to know where you are starting. She counted out 12 spoons. She laughed and said she wanted more. I said no, and I knew right away that this little game would work, when she looked disappointed, and we hadn’t even started yet. I’ve wanted more “spoons” for years and haven’t found a way yet to get more, why should she?
...I asked her to list off the tasks of her day, including the most simple. As, she rattled off daily chores, or just fun things to do; I explained how each one would cost her a spoon.
The name of the website that I found this on is "But You Don't Look Sick." That's a great name for a general problem: If you don't understand that people may have obstacles or ensnarements that aren't apparent to you, you're going to have trouble developing empathy (or sympathy) for anyone.
"Be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle."
Next, Megan McArdle writes about poverty, and the folly of non-poor people saying, "If I was a poor kid" (actually in the piece she's responding to it was "if I was a poor black kid") "...I'd do this and that..." basically assuming that they could teleport themselves, with the skill set that they developed to adapt to middle- and upper-class society, into someone else's situation and use it to escape, so why doesn't everyone?
Yesterday, I was writing about an argument for an environmental intervention (more jobs) that was supposed to be a "silver bullet" for the problems of educating poor kids. And when people have proposed such silver bullets for obesity (menu labeling, sugar/calorie taxes, restrictions on fast food restaurants), I've made approximately the same argument as I did yesterday: heavy people are choosing to eat because they want to, not because there aren't enough carrots available at McDonalds.
But when people blithely say "They're fat because they're lazy/greedy/insert bad character trait here", I point out that the people making the accusation have a much easier time making "good choices". Their bodies are not insistently demanding food in the same way that obese bodies are, so of course it's easier to pass up that big helping of pasta.
I'd say the same thing about people who are poor. They could be middle class if they made a series of hard choices. But those choices are really hard--much harder than they are for the people who are already there. Chances are, you would also have a hard time making those choices.
Ms. McArdle then goes on to list 16 "constraints that strike [her] as powerful." I would urge you to read the whole thing. I think she argues very effectively that some of the "constraints" that keep people out of the middle class are difficult to root out not because of lack of values or poisoned culture, but because they are adaptations to life outside the middle class, or, ironically, because they come from strongly prized virtue (such as being unwilling to save money for college because of a felt need to be generous to others, or being unwilling to move away because of loyalty to friends and duty to family).
Finally, Ta-Nehisi Coates (like Ms. McArdle, writing for the Atlantic's blog) responds to Megan's piece, adding some more points of comparison to the struggle against obesity, and finishes up:
Culture is a set of practices which people adopt to make sense of their environment. I was raised in a house where the memory of going hungry had not faded. I never went hungry, but I was raised around people who'd grown up with that. Moreover, all of my friends and relatives were raised the same way. Everyone I knew for the formative years of my life was raised in the culture of "Finish Your plate." And given the environment our parents had come up in, it made perfect sense. As Megan says, I didn't know anything different. Moreover my peer group didn't know anything different. I would actually go further then Megan and say that there wasn't even a sense that we were making "bad decisions"--even if objectively we were.
"Culture of Poverty" is a poisonous phrase, mostly because it's employed be people who are being glib and attempting to duck a difficult conversation. But, as I've maintained, surely there are practices which may save you on the block, but could also keep you from getting a job. And then there are practices which are, in fact, neither, which time and circumstance have rendered irrelevant.
The point here isn't that rich white people are culturally superior. It's that there was something in a particular set of practices which I found valuable. (I assure you that there are many elements in the culture I was raised which they would also find valuable.) And that value is not an Absolute Good. It's something that worked (and continues to work) for me in a specific context. It is not a Great Moral Truth. It is set of practices which yield great results in one context, but could yield disastrous ones in another.
I find all of these points very thought-provoking. I think it's important to note that the tendency to "If I were in your shoes, I'd..." is not endemic to one side of the political spectrum or the other. Some social conservatives might identify the failure to raise oneself out of poverty as a "values problem" and blame a bad culture of values, or blame individuals for being lazy or sexually promiscuous or otherwise morally shallow. This is inadequate. Is it a moral failure to have trouble saving because you're always spending your money helping out family members? Is it a moral failure to choose caring for your own baby over using government child care so you can hold down a job that pays enough? Is it a moral failure to buy a car you can afford, but that keeps breaking down and requires constant maintenance?
Some progressives might fall into an equally inadequate error on the other side, imagining that individuals are merely passive victims of their environment, or assert that government intervention in the form of education is the ultimate solution such that, if it's not working well enough, what's needed is always more of it.
(As Ms. McArdle put it in her fourteenth point, "Not everyone likes school,"
...the mania to get more and more people into college is the brain child of people who think that school is fun, and that anyone who doesn't go is being deprived of something like a trip to Disneyland packaged with a job guarantee.
Lots of people think school is rather miserable, and they wish to leave as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the "school is fun" crowd has made an education a virtual pre-requisite for a stable and well paying job in this century. If you don't like school, and aren't good at it, what do you do? Spend the rest of your life popping chicken tenders into the deep fry at Popeye's? Or deal drugs?)
A better step towards dealing with poverty is to assume that people in general are, in most cases, acting in their own best interests given the situation that they live in and have lived in -- sometimes not only their own best interests, but the best interests of those around them. That the "bizarre" or "anti-social" behaviors of people who live "somewhere else" are adaptations to an environment. The occasional rare individual excepted, human beings neither pull themselves up by their own bootstraps nor submit passively to the culture around us. Culture and environment shape us and we respond and shape it to the best of our ability.
The obesity comparison rings true to me. There is this constant false dichotomy between "dieting and exercise don't work, so don't bother, just learn to be happy with yourself as you are" and "why don't those greedy fat people just take a daily walk and lay off the chips." The reality is that it's possible to permanently lose weight, but it's very, very difficult. And there's also this weird assumption you find from time to time, that fat people are only fat because they don't know it's bad for their health or because they don't know that vegetables are good and cheeseburgers are bad (this is the "more education will solve everything" theory).
If you really distill the "education solves everything" theory down, I fear you will find an assumption of "those people are different from me because they don't know as much as I do, and if they only knew more, they would choose to be more like me."
You don't honor a struggle by denying that it should be a struggle and suggesting that only moral failure keeps the strugglers from success. Nor do you honor a struggle by denying that there's any point in struggling. Reality is so much more complicated that I would even oversimplify by stating "Reality is somewhere in between those two extremes." It's on a whole different plane.
But we are so addicted to simple stories we can tell about others.