Sunday, 31 January 2016

Shifting Responsibility

I used to give money to street beggars as a matter of course, but lately I’ve started being selective. I’ve observed over the years that genuinely homeless people have a look about them that is different from those who are playing the game. They have a different pallor to the skin, they hold themselves differently, and they have a look in their eyes betraying desperation or resignation. They wear their depleted status where it is most visible, and it’s a form of dress that can’t be manufactured at will.

But maybe I shouldn’t differentiate; maybe I should go back to giving money to all of them. That way, responsibility for the ethical dilemma – if such there be – is all theirs and my conscience is clear. Karma would be better served, I think.

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And on a related tack, I often think about those people who organise food, warmth and shelter for homeless people at Christmas. They mean well, obviously, and I applaud them for it. But there’s a problem. The relief lasts a few days and then the victims get turned out into the cold again. How awful must that be for them, and isn’t it adding a further blow to an already injured spirit? I don’t know the answer to that one, but I suppose it does at least highlight the fact that there’s something very wrong with a system which permits destitution in a society where such vast wealth is held securely in the bulging pockets of so few.


Madeline said...

In the 19th century, many people made a distinction between the "worthy" and the "unworthy" poor. The worthy poor were those who were unable to work due to disability, illness, age, etc. The unworthy poor were those who were fully capable of working but refused to do so or rendered themselves incapable by intemperance. The early almshouses were constructed with the intention to differentiate between classes of poor. The worthy poor would be treated well and kept in accommodations separate from the unsavory influence of the unworthy poor, whereas the unworthy poor would be subjected to a strict regime of moral discipline and harsh labor that would teach them how to be good citizens.

Of course, in practice this distinction quickly fell away, due to lack of funding and organization on the one hand, and the difficulty of distinguishing between classes of poor on the other. As a result, poor people of both "types" were subject to the same program of moral management and bore the same mantle of disgrace.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I think your differentiation between types of beggars seems to reflect a widespread ideology surrounding the moral worth of the poor that traces its origins to the 19th century. I hope you don't take this as an accusation, as I am guilty of it myself. From an individual standpoint, the desire to distinguish between types of poor people is less of a condemnation of those who are "unworthy" than a recognition that some degree of "triage" is necessary in dealing out a limited resource to a large number of needy people. That isn't so much about the ideology of capitalism as it is about basic prioritization. If you saw someone who was two days away from death at the same time as you saw someone who was one hour away from death, you'd help the latter person first. But that doesn't mean the former isn't deserving of help.

This is why I like history. I like to see things happening in the present and imagine where the roots lead to. But I'm less certain about what we're supposed to plan for the future.

JJ Beazley said...

I take your point, but I suspect that the need to differentiate, both now and in the 19th century, has its roots rightly or wrongly somewhere in the human psyche and its value system. Whether that system is conditioned or genetic, I don't know. It's interesting, however, to see how differently beggars are regarded in India (but only, as far as I know, if they're holy men.)

As for the future, excuse the personal angle but I'm hoping to live long enough to see you become a fire breathing professor bent on making America a better place.

What I like about history is that it seems to show that, while attitudes and practices change, basic human nature doesn't seem to. I'm then led to suspect that our modern habit of self-congratulation is delusional because it fails to recognise the existence and shallowness of the veneer. It's why I don't blame the German people in isolation for the Holocaust, and why I don't believe that all the remembrance ceremonies in the world will make much difference to the possibility of it happening again should the right combination of circumstances arise. You and I might learn the lessons of history, Mad, but I doubt that the majority do, and that includes the power-hungry people who are running the show. Sorry for getting a bit big on this one.