Friday, November 4, 2016

Getting to Know You


You may remember John, the guy who sells used books near the West Hampstead railway station. I've photographed and written about him before. I always wave when I pass him, stationed on the sidewalk with his crates of books and his three-legged dog Sugar. I don't often buy books, though. (I'm surrounded by plenty of those every workday!)

The last few times I've talked to John he's come right out and asked me for money. As it happens I didn't have any on me at the time -- I rarely carry cash these days. But a few nights ago I finally stopped and gave him £4, and asked him how he was doing. We chatted and he gave me a hug when I left. I don't know anything about the guy, but he definitely hasn't had such an easy life.

Mr. Pudding wrote on his blog yesterday about the death of a man in his community who collected spare change from passersby. His description of the man made me think of John. Mr. Pudding pointed out that it's easy to unfairly demonize panhandlers as drug abusers and alcoholics without knowing anything about them.

I'm sure John has his problems. Don't we all? The point is, he's an individual, with a unique history -- as was Mr. P's Brett.

It seems to me we get into trouble whenever we generalize about any group of people. The homeless, or an ethnic or racial minority, or gays, or Republicans, or liberals, or Catholics, or Mormons or whatever. It's easy to speak in blanket terms about a large, amorphous, faceless group. But when I think of the Republicans (for example) that I know -- and I touched on this yesterday -- my hostility levels diminish because I see them as people, with names and histories that somehow align with my own. This is why opponents of gay rights soften their position when someone in their own family comes out as gay.

I suspect it's also why people in rural areas, generally speaking (and there I go, generalizing!) tend to be much more conservative than people in cities. They are exposed to fewer people of different backgrounds. Thus, for them, the "other" has no individual face or identity. They can't easily see the humanity of the men and women in that faceless group.

This is true all over the world. How many Muslim extremists hate "infidels" without ever having met one? (Or having only met "infidel" soldiers carrying guns -- not a circumstance that leads to cross-cultural awareness.)

The solution to becoming a more peaceful world is getting to know each other individually. That's why the Peace Corps, for example, works as a program -- it gives Americans a face in other parts of the world, and helps Americans see individuals of other nationalities more clearly. Rather than fighting off Mexicans or Syrians or Afghans, or passing laws against homeless people, or ranting about Republicans or liberals, we ought to find our common ground with them.

I don't mean to sing "Kumbaya" here. I'm not saying it's an easy process, and I am certainly not perfect myself. Humans are hard-wired with tribal instincts. But this is the only way forward. Don't you think?

(Photo: The view out the window from my desk in the library.)

18 comments:

Shooting Parrots said...

I agree with you entirely Steve. Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind makes the point that the polarisation in politics is at least partly due to the fact that politicians don't mix socially as much as they used to. They knew the opposition as people, ate the same places, went to the same parties, kids went to the same school etc. Now they stick to their own that reinforces their own views and breeds mistrust and an us and them attitude. I suppose the same is true of all of us to a greater or lesser degree.

Yorkshire Pudding said...

Bravo! (thunderous sound of hands clapping). I agree with you entirely.

Like you I am not perfect and in the past I have been guilty of generalising about the inhabitants of Lancashire - dismissing them as hotpot guzzling clog dancers with vowels so rounded they're like golf balls. From now on, I shall try to remind myself that Lancastrians are people too.

Yorkshire Pudding said...

Alphabet Soup left this comment on my illustrious blog:-

Please excuse me Mr Pudding for using your blog as a contact centre.
I want to ask Steve whether any other people have had problems leaving comments on his blog.

Maybe ( horrors!) he has banned me from commenting...

Alphie

Steve Reed said...

YP: Thanks for forwarding Alphie's comment. I responded to her on your blog. I have no idea why she's having trouble -- I haven't heard that from anyone else, so I hope it's not a widespread phenomenon! (She has NOT been banned! :) )

Marty Damon said...

Before I retired, I was the coordinator for the International Baccalaureate program at my high school. IB was originally created years ago with the pragmatic plan of providing an accredited education for students whose families are in far-flung areas (e.g. diplomatic roles). The curriculum really is international - and idealistic - the focus being to learn about other cultures and thus create a more peaceful world.
I still think it's one of the best educations around.

Ms. Moon said...

It used to be that the children of a certain class were expected to finish up their educations with travel. I wish that we could all do that- send our kids off to explore the world a bit, get to see what it's like for others in different cultures, classes, countries. I know that going to Europe (on the cheap!) when I was seventeen/eighteen, opened my eyes in a big way and gave me a much wider view of life. I literally remember thinking, "Well, just because this is the way WE'VE always done it doesn't make it the only way."
I'm so grateful for that experience, that knowledge.
It has served me well in life and allowed me to be more empathetic towards others even right here in my own community.

ellen abbott said...

I agree completely.

Sharon Anck said...

Well said! I totally agree!

jenny_o said...

An excellent point, and well stated. People are individuals, not "they."

Lesley UK said...

It's very easy to generalise. I've lived in the US and also S Africa, and I've seen the race relations in these very different countries, and quite frankly I don't know which was the worst. In the US, when I lived there, in the late sixties and early seventies, race equality was the big issue, and the US was at least giving lip service to equality, but I didn't see much of it in action. I saw heartrending attitudes and violence that I will never forget. Ten years later apartheid was accepted and enforced in S Africa, but at least they were not hypocritical about it. Please don't take this as being any way approval of the system. It was wrong, wrong., wrong But at least the native Africans were not told that they were equal and everything was AOK, which is what happened in the US. As a black colleague in the States once remarked, it was a case of the bus driver saying, there are no blacks or whites any more, everyone is green. And when he attempted to sit in the front of the bus the driver told him, 'dark greens at the back, light greens at the front'. I've seen racial prejudice all over the world, and it's always vindictive, vicious and impossible to accept rationally. And now, I'm having trouble understanding what's going on in Syria...at what point did we change sides? I'm totally confused as to who the 'good guys' are here. Am I just getting old and confused? Or is there no definitive 'good' or 'evil' left in the world?

Red said...

Amen! You hit the nail on the head. I had to learn this when I taught in aboriginal schools. Each kid was an individual. If we know someone we're looking at them as an individual. However, I can be caught looking at the group rather than the individual.

Sabine said...

I am with you here, totally. Moving away from home, from my country of birth was a huge eye opener. But living, working and travelling in Africa and India made me humble and allowed me to drop my superiority complex, that inbuilt arrogance of the know-it-all world I came from. And I pushed my child out to see and experience the world beyond her comforts and if there is one thing I am proud of it is that.

N2 said...

Good for you for taking the time to stop and talk to the bookseller. How about giving him the books you are clearing out from the library? Donating directly to him instead of some charity group/cutting out the middle men and women? x0 N2

The Bug said...

I totally agree! After I came home from Zambia & kept telling people that we all needed to live at least one year outside the U.S. so that we could see that we weren't the only game in town - and that the other games were pretty good too.

Nasreen Iqbal said...

Nothing dispels stereotypes like actually meeting someone from a certain background, does it?

Some people would call that sort of statement political correctness, but still, it it is line with what I have experienced.

I get along with most people I meet one-on-one.

It's mostly people online or people in state capitals who seem to be satisfied with hating me from afar, although we've never met.

Alphie Soup said...

It's oh so easy to generalise and it sometimes requires effort and a change of view to see how it is for other people.

Another post absolutley worth reading.

Now to see if this comment will be make it through the error system

Alphie

Alphie Soup said...

I'm soooo pleased. I think it must be mandatory to have at least one spelling error before my comment will be posted!
I've tried so many ways, and the one that works (at the moment) is to ignore all the steps and go straight to publish.

Yay!!

Alphie

Catalyst said...

A very good post, Steve. I shall try to be more understanding of the Republicans who surround me.