Shaming the Poor
One of the things that I’ve come to expect whenever I write about poverty here in the US is that there will inevitably be people in the comment threads who are under the impression that the best thing to do with the poor, if we must be obliged not to let them starve, is to larder the assistance we provide them with an additional heaping helping of shame; the idea being that social opprobation of their condition will inspire them to be poor no longer. It popped up again in yesterday’s comments about the kids who pass up on lunch rather than let it be seen that they get free lunch.
Needless to say, I think this is a position that is pretty damn stupid to hold, and here are some of the various reasons why.
1. It’s not like poor people — particularly poor children — aren’t made to feel quite enough shame already. Indeed, the whole point of the article yesterday is that kids would rather go hungry (and in doing so, jeopardize their futures because it’s harder to concentrate on your classes when you are concentrating on the fact your stomach is empty) than to be identified as qualifying for a free lunch. They already know they’re being judged, thanks much. And the hoops society makes the poor jump through for assistance add more shame, albeit in a largely unintentional way. Adding another official, intentional layer of shame isn’t going to help.
2. In the case of children in poverty, their being poor is generally not their fault. Shaming the children of poor people for daring to receive a free lunch is tantamount to saying to them, well, if you had been smart, you wouldn’t have been born to poor people in the first place. And, you know. That sort of thinking makes you an asshole. Even if one were to cede there was any sort of benefit to shaming people in poverty, there’s not much benefit in shaming children, whose ability either to understand or control the role of poverty in their lives is limited.
3. Shaming people for their poverty generally assumes that the only reason for poverty is that people are poor for reasons they can be shamed out of — i.e., poor people are poor because they are lazy and shiftless no good spongers who prefer to be poor, because really, it’s just less work. This is a nice little fantasy, which like most fantasies sort of falls apart when it meets up with the real world. People are poor and sometimes become poor for lots of reasons. The number of poor who are poor because they like it is, as anyone who thinks about it for more than half a minute may imagine, rather small. Most people would prefer not to be poor, as it happens, and would be willing to work to escape it.
4. Shaming as a motivational technique to get people out of poverty is a bit like torturing as a motivational technique to get people to tell you something: It works better in fiction than it does in real life. Shaming, like torture, appeals to some minds because it feels like a tough, no-bullshit approach to dealing with something, and everybody’s seen it work in movies, so it’s got to work in real life. But the reason that shame (and torture) work in the movies is that someone’s writing a script; the real word is unscripted. In the real world, attempting to shame people for their poverty isn’t going to motivate them much, what it’s going to do is create resentment. And quite properly so, because per points 1-3 here, in the real world poverty isn’t a single-cause, socially acceptable condition.
Which is not to say on occasion shaming might not work on a particular individual, but I think you’d have to look at what the end result there would be. You know, the people who claim to have been poor at some point in their lives and who advocate shame as a useful tool for dealing with poverty come across as people who themselves were shamed about their poverty. These folks have indeed appeared to learn a lesson from the shaming, but what the lesson seems to be is that they should look at those who are poor now with contempt, and say fuck you, I got mine. I don’t think that’s a particularly good lesson.
In the science fiction world, among writers and fans, there’s an idea, popularized by Robert Heinlein: “Pay it Forward.” Which is to say, you help those who need help, as you can help them, without expectation of personal recompense; what you hope for, and what you expect, is that when those you were able to help prosper, that they will help along the next guy. I’m pretty sure that when Heinlein helped out his fellow writers, he didn’t go out of his way to make them feel ashamed that he reached down to help pull them up. That would defeat the purpose of doing it at all.
“Pay it Forward” of course has many antecedents, including both the Golden Rule and the idea of reaping what you sow and, to my mind, the Sermon on the Mount as well. In none of these, it should be noted, is the idea of shame as a useful motivator. There’s a good reason for that, although I will leave it to others to deduce what that might be.
However, I will say this. When I was poor, there were people who tried to shame me for it, and people who tried to help me out of it. The names and faces of those who helped me spring to mind without bidding; they are the people whose kindness and generosity let me see how good people can be, and how I should try to be when it was my turn to help, through personal action and through my influence on my government, and how it uses what I pay into it. The names and faces of those who tried to shame me? Gone from me, save for the memory of the smallness of their being, and the poverty of their understanding of how to treat others. I was inspired to lift myself out of poverty, not shamed into doing so.
When we help those in poverty, the way to look at it — the way I look at it — is that we’re paying it forward. Those I’m helping now will be those who will help others. I know this because I was helped myself. I’m not interested in adding shame to the mix; what I am interested in is adding the idea of responsibility to help those who need help, as you have been helped yourself. You won’t get that through shame.
I’ve come to expect the people who see shame as useful every time I talk about poverty, but I never stop being amazed that they can’t seem to understand why it won’t work. All one can do is hope they never have to reap what they’re attempting to sow.