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.)