November 29, 2006

The Under Class


This article from Salon is an exploration of an individual's descent into the underclass- from the perspective of his adoptive mother. It takes the complex lives of a group of people who might be termed scroungers or the lumpenproletariate, who seem incapable of aiding themselves and who treat with resentment those who aid them, and it makes them comprehensible. It renders them human- not the anonymous beasts of both rightwing and leftwing polemic to be treated or mistreated according to some theory.

That's not to say that theory and policy have their uses- they do and will do much more than any heedless emoting in helping these people. I found this article enlightening though because it eschews the major policy debates and instead brings us closer into the people. I found the most illuminating moment, where the mother of the boy in question offers his girlfriend the possibility of an abortion: the girl reacts neither with indignation that she wants the baby and would never have an abortion, nor by saying that she wants an abortion, but with passivity. Like an object, she merely accepts her course in life and proactively is passive. Such an outlook makes policy to help her very difficult to conceive of, it also makes sympathising with her hard because passivity naturally equates to absense- the absense of intiative on which so much of the positive qualities about human beings rely.

I do think that it is important that we sympathise or more appropriately empathise with her, which is why this article is so important. It is important because in empathising with her, even if we do not beleive that government should do anything to help her, we demonstrate that we respect her as another consciousness investigating the world. We do not relegate her to the position of an object. We treat her as an autonomous agent- that principle in my view goes beyond politics into the realm of morality- and it is a principle reinforced by reading such a subtle and thoughtful evocation of the mind of those who are hard to sympathise with.

2 comments:

james higham said...

...the absense of initiative on which so many of the positive qualities of human beings rely...

So, after we sympathise, [for until we find ourselves there we can't exactly empathize], what comes next, Tiberius? One must always look forward if she's to be afforded the chance to break out of this. Or do you see no chance of this?

Gracchi said...

I think the point about human dignity is important James.

But I agree with you there are deep issues about how you releive the lives of people who don't bounce out of poverty having been provided with a safety net. Quite waht the problem they face is I'm not expert enough to say- from this instance it seems psychological- in some circumstances it may be a problem of capacity, a single mother or a blind person has difficulties in obtaining work that a participant in a nuclear family or sighted person doesn't. But I'm not qualified- and I don't think a small blog article is enough to say. When I come up against interesting research on this I'll publish it because I agree it is important.