For a long time now I have been pointing out to anyone who will listen that community is broken in this country. At least where I live, in California. I think we are seeing the consequences of that brokenness all around us; in our crazy political environment, our high homeless population, the ridiculous numbers of people in prisons and jails, even in the wide wealth disparity. Our rising suicide rate, our daily mass shootings, the mind-boggling amounts of money we spend on health care – the list of symptoms of our broken community just seem to go on and on. Oh, our lowering life expectancy too.
Since I work with people who are homeless, I do a lot of reading specific to the field. Street Roots published an article about the cognitive reasons why housed people struggle to feel empathy for people who are homeless. Not only is the article relevant to homelessness, I think it’s relevant to every aspect of our civic culture today. The italicized portions below are from that article.
“People aren’t being seen,” (Harris) said. “If I’m a busy person, going through a city where there are tons of homeless people, and I have to stop and consider the minds of all of these people, that might make me feel very uncomfortable. Moreover, if I don’t feel like I have the resources to help, there’s nothing I can do to alleviate that suffering. That feeling stays with you. Our brain says, instead, if I take a second to stop and think about your suffering, it’s going to make me feel bad. So, dehumanization becomes a kind of emotion regulation strategy.”
Online, with social media, we have all faced a time where we were forced to consider the mind of someone who clearly has wildly different views than we do. How much easier is it to tune those people out than is it to actually think about what they are saying? How much easier is it to, then, just write off people who share those views and de-friend them or block them out entirely? How hard is it to have your ideas challenged online and to refrain from yelling or letting the conversation devolve into insults?
“We readily help kids and cute animals, in part because we know that whatever trouble they’re in, they can’t really be held accountable,” (Zak) said. “We’re less likely to be so understanding and forgiving when it comes to homeless adults or drug addicts. This tendency to judge rather than help is partly the result of a spot in the prefrontal cortex called the subgenual cortex. It’s full of oxytocin receptors, and it appears to modulate the degree of empathy by regulating the release of dopamine. No dopamine means no reward from engaging with the other person, which makes it less likely that we’ll reach out empathically.”
In America, there seems to be a very strong desire to withhold services from people who don’t “deserve” them. This makes sense if, when we feel powerless, we dehumanize the people in our communities who need help. Since they are still suffering, they are living proof of our failures….
I’ve been wrestling with the idea that humans have an innate desire to help other humans. That commerce is based on contribution. What do people pay for? They pay to be contributed to. Whether it’s food, housing, entertainment, interaction. We pay for other people to contribute to us, and we want to contribute to other people. When we see people who are homeless, most of us see people we can’t contribute to. Most of us see that we have failed to help them.
Is it easier to blame the homeless than to take responsibility, as a community? I would guess that most of us don’t even think in terms of our community. We don’t think about what services we want to be sure that our community members have access to. We don’t think about what we as a community are doing to alleviate suffering in our midst. Is it easy to say “they made their choices,” “they are addicts,” “they are getting what they deserve?” Maybe the people who say those things felt the powerlessness of dealing with someone who’s choices were chaotic and out of control. Maybe they had to detach from a loved one to maintain their sanity and control over their own lives. A real community has each other’s backs. What’s it going to take to start thinking like that?
“If we design interventions to help people meet members of such stigmatized groups and get beyond the stereotype and see the person behind the social category, they tone down their judgments and feelings,” (Hewstone) said.
Hewstone is literally saying that if we get people from different social groups to meet and interact, then we will ratchet down the judgement, the yelling, and the divisiveness.
WHAT A THOUGHT
So then, if we had strong communities, maybe we wouldn’t be having this problem in the first place?
Now I’m going to talk about politics. I think that the level of division in our country is a security threat. It is a threat to our democracy. It appears that multiple foreign countries have figured out how to manipulate our elections and political process for their own gain. Almost exclusively, they are preying on our own divisions to do so.
Is it an incorrect conclusion then, that the best way to fight for and save our democracy is to get to know our neighbors? To meet and get to know people in our community who don’t think or live like us? To talk with the homeless, the middle class, and the rich? To talk with brown, black, white? To talk with young, middle-aged, and old? With men, women, and everyone in between?
That seems like a logical conclusion to me. It seems to me that it is time to do our patriotic duty. It seems like, all it’s going to take to stand up for the principles that our country are founded upon, is for you and I to go out and bridge the gaps in our own lives.
Bridge the gaps, instead of fighting for our point of view. No one is going to do it for us.