Some Thoughts on Empathy and Combating Racism

I started writing this as a draft script for a video on New Zealand history, with the intention of creating a visually compelling and informative clip that might debunk some of the myths about New Zealand and Maori history. You know the sort of tired ideas I am talking about, beliefs like all Maori willingly signed away their rights and land or that they are ungrateful, greedy, or have special privileges, uninformed opinions regurgitated by the likes of Hobson’s Pledge. Our goal was to address in some small way our collective failure to understand history that is ultimately responsible for the ignorance we see too often today. But the more I looked into it, the more I realised, or remembered, that facts do little to change people’s minds, at least the more extreme cases. Too often we are ruled by how we feel and what we believe, and it is the myths that remain in people’s minds rather than the facts.

Of all the myths that persist, perhaps the most damaging is the idea that everybody has the same opportunities in this country. We hear it mainly from people who currently occupy the middle or upper classes rather than from lower class people. The belief that we are all equal is accompanied by the assumption that if you are struggling on the benefit, then it is because you are lazy and need to work harder. Stop having so many kids, some will say. Stop having so many kids or wasting your money on the pokies, other sages advise. Despite this wisdom, rarely do they ask why people in such desperate situations do things that clearly are not in their best interest. Clearly, some people lack the ability to empathise with others, if they even know what empathy is.

Empathy isn’t simply putting yourself in someone’s shoes and saying “If I were in this situation I would do this or that…”. That isn’t removing your biases or prejudices. That doesn’t even acknowledge that they are a different person to you with their own unique thoughts and values. All you are doing is forcing your own opinions and perspectives on them and basically demanding that they be just like you. No, empathy is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and genuinely trying to understand them. What experiences has this person had, or what sort of life have they led that has made them the person they are today? Why do they think the way they do, and how does that make them act? If you really want to know what makes someone tick, these are the sort of questions you need to ask. We are all shaped by the lessons we learn growing up, from our family, friends and school. We are the products of our environments, so what may seem like a logical decision to one person makes no sense to another.

Those who would say hurtful things about others should certainly bear this in mind, but those of us who (justifiably) call such people out for their bigotry and racism should also bear it in mind. It is easy to resort to anger when you see someone saying some racist crap. When I see someone say something like “If it wasn’t for Europeans you Maoris would still be wearing flax skirts killing each other” (someone told me that once), of course I am going to get pissed off. Feeling angry in a situation like that is only natural and shows your moral compass is correctly aligned, but when you step back and think about it, lashing out at them in anger isn’t productive.

Taking a step back requires you think about why someone thinks it is appropriate to say something so uninformed. Perhaps they grew up in a home full of people that thought this way. It could be they learnt nothing about New Zealand history at school and took what they knew from people around them who also knew nothing. Maybe they have never really gotten to know many Maori people and therefore never had to give much thought to the concerns of Maori in general. It could be a combination of these or something else, but like any other person in the world, their values and beliefs are shaped by their experiences and those around them.

Considering they haven’t been exposed to experiences that might teach them the same compassion or empathy that we might possess, is it really fair to attack them for it? I know it may seem absurd, excusing people who are often the walking definition of ‘privilege’ for racist speech or actions, but if they really don’t know any better, is it really so different from yelling at a child for not knowing math?

The privileged live in a bubble. Many have not known hardship because of their social status and the social status of those before them, granting them opportunities that are simply unattainable by others. To them, that privilege is invisible and a part of their life, making it difficult for them to understand why others struggle. Because of this they assume others simply do not work hard or bring misfortune on themselves. We might know better, but remember that although they are adults  they are so stuck in backwards ways of thinking that calling them racist will accomplish nothing other than make them angry and reduce what might be meaningful dialogue to a shit-throwing contest.

While such people may be privileged in the material sense, they are not worthy of our anger or envy. Instead, we should pity them. They might not have experienced hunger or discrimination, but they were also not taught what it means to care for people who are different to themselves, from different cultures or walks of life. They may think of themselves as compassionate or empathetic, but clearly that only applies to certain people in their lives and excludes others. That is their loss. There is beauty in each of the different cultures and worldviews that people in this country have to share, but appreciating them and their people only comes through understanding. Those who would make generalisations about others, try to exclude them or diminish their culture are missing a vital part of what it is to be human in our modern global society.

It seems counterintuitive that the people we would normally call disempowered are the ones with the power to change things, but I think it’s true. People who have lived experience with discrimination have the power to show others a better way of treating each other, and in this sense are privileged. It is our role to help the ignorant overcome their fear of other people and show them some compassion for their fellow man and woman, and it by listening to their concerns and then talking.

There have been articles posted recently saying old white men need to shut up. This kind of nonsense does more harm than good. It assumes based on age and skin colour that they have all experienced privilege and power in their lives. Blaming all men for being overpowering or sexually abusive as some ‘feminists’ (not actual feminists) do assumes men have never been in similar positions. Whether we call ourselves liberal or conservative, left-wing or right-wing, we make some awful generalisations about others that risk making enemies of those who might have supported our cause, but because we insulted and made generalisations about them, now no longer will. I say this because the tactics of some animal rights and ‘feminist’ activists have had this effect on me, making me resent them rather than wanting to listen to what they have to say. Attacking me for eating meat or simply being a man assumes that I am not a good person or that I don’t care about those issues, and their cause loses my support because they pissed me off.

Consider some of the stereotypes we make about old, white and wealthy mean. The general assumption is that they must be conservative, don’t care too much about the environment and probably are a little bit racist. No one would say that about David Attenborough, but they would about Trump. They belong to the same demographic yet represent vastly different ideas and values. Some say white men have held all the power for too long, yet many old white men throughout history have also lived in poverty and without power. On the other hand, some of those old white men who hold positions of power and influence have progressive ideas and are trying to make the world a better place for everyone. Within any demographic there is a spectrum of beliefs and experiences, and while it is true that certain demographics as whole have worse experiences than others, generalising a group of people dismisses both the struggles and contributions of individuals.

Not everyone has the patience to deal with recalcitrant people and that is fair enough. There is also only so long you can try understand someone before you accept they may be a lost cause, but it is important that we try, and equally important that we move away from painting everyone with the same brush. If we are to change people’s minds, we need to understand who they are, what drives them and treat them like we would treat anyone else.

 

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Why Some People Seem to Hate The Poor

Labour’s plans to address child poverty offer hope for positive change after decades of successive governments ignoring the issue and allowing it to grow out of control. While the bold proposals outlined are a bit vague, they seem genuine in their intentions. On the other hand, National pay lip service to the importance of addressing the issue while obscuring the causes and potential solutions for the issue. While they seem so concerned about the importance of targets, if National and their supporters actually cared for those living in poverty the social policies of the last nine years would have demonstrated just a little bit of compassion. Instead, they showed a willingness to do nothing but appear to address the issue.

Maybe people are simply unaware of what causes poverty, but that seems unlikely. There is enough evidence and information out there, but instead we only seem to hear the same old myths, half-truths and excuses repeated over and over again. “People are just lazy, and if they worked harder they could escape poverty”. “If they didn’t spend all their money on ciggies and booze, they could afford proper food”. “They’re dole bludgers that don’t want to get a real job”. I could go on, but you get the picture. Understanding why people buy into these myths helps us understand why such negative attitudes towards those in poverty prevail.

Myth 1: The poor need to work harder

Critics of compassionate social policies love to frame their opposition in economic terms, citing fears of potential impacts on national debt and GDP to justify their stance. The fixation on money trumps any concern for their fellow people, and such uncritical perspectives on the economy prevent them from acknowledging the role the financial system plays in perpetuating poverty. Suitable housing, electricity, food, water and transport are essential human rights everyone except hardcore libertarians can surely agree on, so when people are struggling to afford such basic rights, clearly things are not right with the way wealth is distributed, because there is certainly enough money to meet everyone’s needs as evidenced by recent reports on the state of economic inequality.

The important question to ask here is why have we allowed things to become so unfair? As mentioned earlier, one of the great myths we hold to is that if you work hard, you will be rewarded fairly. This belief drives us to perform to higher standards in our workplaces and fuels our ambitions to climb the ladder and gain new positions and responsibilities, which of course come with appropriate financial compensation. What this myth doesn’t do is define what “hard work” actually is. Some people can work their butts off for 40+ hours at a factory and still stay on the minimum wage or thereabouts for years, sacrificing quality time at home simply to make ends meet and provide for their families. That is hard work, yet those people will likely never by millionaires unless they win Lotto.

The truth is that it is not always about having a great work ethic, but about having an often single-minded ambition to accumulate as much wealth as possible, one of the sociopathic core tenets of capitalism. For those on top of the ladder, the “hard work” myth creates compliant and diligent employees that are willing to do more for less in the hopes of advancement, thereby maximising their profits. Whether it is running a company or investing in stocks and the housing market, simply having money allows one to make more money. As the ultra-rich continue to hoard the means of producing more wealth, the working poor are deprived of such opportunities to escape poverty because money flows up, but it doesn’t trickle down despite what many right-wingers would have us believe. For example, earlier generations snapped up property when houses were affordable and continue to make money today by renting or flipping properties, a luxury not shared by the poor and later generations because the market was made unaffordable by this drive to build absurd “property portfolios”. Disregarding the moral argument that housing is a human right that should not be commodified anyway, everyone in my generation should be outraged simply because the ladder into the housing market was pulled up by those who had already accumulated property to service their greed.

To be clear, none of the points raised above signal a flaw in the capitalist system, rather, they are simply the embodiment of its core intentions. This system has thrived by convincing many of us that the problems are of our own making, which is why blame is laid on the individual’s choices and actions rather than the system that created the poverty in the first place. That is why tales of “sacrifice” in order to buy a house are forced upon us (See Exhibits A, B, C and D), to show us that we need to change our behaviour and stop being so lazy, a narrative that favours the wealthy and the status quo.

Myth 2: We all have the same opportunities

There exists another similarly damaging myth, which is the idea that everyone in New Zealand has the same experiences and opportunities as everyone else. This construction of New Zealand as an egalitarian society has long been a source of pride for patriotic Kiwis, albeit one with little basis in fact. As discussed above, economic disparities exist by design and have done so for years, growing worse during the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s of which New Zealand is considered one of the more aggressive adopters. However, there are also wider social factors that influence poverty which are often overlooked by the privileged. Consider education for example. Formal education has long been considered a pathway out of poverty, however, jobs that pay well often require high levels of literacy and knowledge in math and science, things which can be difficult for those who are struggling with poverty to gain. As a result, they are often forced to turn to low-skilled labour like retail and factory work, jobs that do not normally pay very well and keep people trapped in poverty.  

There are perfectly explainable reasons why attaining education can be difficult for those living in poverty. The first, is that our Western education system often fails to facilitate learning in a way that is appropriate to those from other cultures. It assumes a homogeneous capacity and desire for learning, and although our national curriculum is progressive and encourages flexible teaching for students of diverse backgrounds, it’s application has not gone far enough to genuinely include and accommodate everyone yet. This is compounded by recent reports of racism directed towards students that denigrated them and made them feel like they can’t succeed, attitudes shared by many Maori and Pasifika students, the same demographics who unfortunately bear the brunt of poverty. Such reports are not hyperbole; as a former educator I have spoken to young people who can articulate all too clearly how the racist sentiments of middle-class New Zealanders make them feel like they can’t do well in life and forces them to question why they should even bother with school. If you were those young people, why would you want to be part of a society that treats you that way, that looks down on you and makes jokes about you for being poor? Because of this, is it a surprise that Maori and Pasifika have lower levels of educational achievement?

For argument’s sake, let us again assume that the unseen issue, in this case racism, is not a problem. What other barriers are there to education? For one, poverty usually means a lack of food. Strangely enough, children find it hard to pay attention in class when their stomach is rumbling because they haven’t eaten all day, which again is a reality and not hyperbole. You can’t learn if you can’t eat, and sometimes those who are eating are not eating the right food. Healthier foods like fruit, vegetables and nuts improve brain health, but because they are expensive compared to processed foods, such benefits are experienced by those who can afford it and the detriments by those who cannot. Poor nutrition also leads to sickness, which when combined with ongoing illnesses stemming from substandard housing, leads to time off school and results in students being left even further behind. It is at this point in the discussion that condescending remarks about budgeting and food planning are raised, but when the decision is between quantity and quality, opting for a higher quantity of food and the expense of nutritional value is understandable when you and your family are hungry.

Beyond physical struggles, pressure from others affect an individual’s attitude towards education and society. Schools, like the wider geographic areas in which people reside and spend their time, provide countless opportunities for people to be influenced by those around them. We make friends with people we relate to and who share similar values and beliefs, so when people who share disdain for education and a discontent with society itself form bonds with each other, they are less likely to conform to the conventional idea of ‘success’ that is forced upon them. Processes like gentrification that displace the poor and essentially segregate suburbs according to socioeconomic class exacerbate both inequality and the levels and nature of influence different groups experience. The adage “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” becomes more truthful as one gets older and enters the workforce, and it is certainly more advantageous to reside in affluent and connected neighbourhoods than those plagued by crime, gang-related activity and poverty.

It seems we forget that the people we are, including the values and beliefs that define us and guide our actions, are shaped by our experiences and influences. I come from a family heavily involved in the education sector, and clearly those shared values rubbed off on me. I’m sure many others could also say their interests and values were influenced by those around them. With that in mind, it helps explain why those who have never experienced poverty like to blame those who live in poverty for their own misfortunes. They cannot comprehend that the pressures and struggles people face were different to their own, and empathy is difficult we fail to acknowledge that people think and see the world differently to us.

A context in which this mentality is apparent is when dealing with drug and gambling addictions. If you are poor, some ask, why are you wasting your money on pokies when you could buy food? If people understood the nature of addiction, they would know that merely berating people does nothing to cure their state of mind, if anything, they will become more resistant. More than that, addiction to gambling among the poorer parts of society is no accident, for gambling machines are placed deliberately in poorer communities where they make more money, with little regard given for the social costs. This uncaring attitude towards addiction is also demonstrated in our views on substance abuse, and again we ignore why liquor stores are more often than not placed in less affluent neighbourhoods. This is made worse by the twisted desire held primarily by older generations to simply incarcerate drug users rather than dedicate funding to proper rehabilitation and the lack of discourse about why drugs are so appealing to the poor; chiefly because it offers an escape from the unpleasant realities of their lives.  

These cold attitudes suggest that perhaps blame is warranted after all, but it should not be directed at those who are struggling but at those who throw stones from their seats of privilege. Those that say people should stop making bad decisions or blame them for their situations are part of the problem. Voicing disdain for the poor might offer momentary satisfaction and vindication of one’s life choices, but what good does that accomplish, apart from showing everyone else how out of touch and ignorant you are? To truly understand what people go through, we need to step out of our bubbles, shed our preconceived ideas of how others should live their lives and learn to listen and understand what people go through.

 

The Importance of Speaking Your Mind

I’ve been trying to get this blogging thing started for a long time now but my tendency to procrastinate and criticize my own work has tanked every effort so far. Being too self-conscious to expose my writing to criticism hasn’t helped either. However, I am back at it again, and in this first post, I think it is necessary to first explain why I am doing this. Perhaps it is a habit from my brief teaching career, but I believe that to appreciate any task or piece of work you must first understand what it is trying to accomplish. I intend to do just that in this post by putting my cards on the table and trying to explain, without rambling too long, why I decided to do this. This post will be rather personal and idealistic, but hopefully it gives the reader an understanding of what makes me tick and offers an occasional nugget of wisdom or advice.

So why am I starting a blog? As those who know me are aware, I can be somewhat opinionated about social and political issues like economic inequality and climate change. Particularly in recent years, I have come to appreciate the power social media gives us to share, discuss and debate ideas, something I noticed when I wrote about child poverty and taxes. It was heartening to see people around New Zealand talking about what I had said and since I received positive feedback, I figured I should keep writing about issues that matter and hope others either relate to what I say or consider things from a different perspective.

Silence isn’t always easy.

Part of why I have become more vocal recently is because I am tired of feeling like it was wrong to speak up, which is how I felt a lot of my life. I have always thought there were so many things wrong with the world, like how so many people lived in poverty and struggled through life while others had it so easy. It was especially difficult growing up and seeing that it was mainly Maori like me who struggled, at least in the Far North where I lived, with poverty, substance abuse and incarceration. It was even harder not understanding why this was the case. Worse, it seemed to me like no one cared, because if people really cared for others, wouldn’t something have been done about it? Or is this just how the world works; some are poor, some are rich, and that’s life? If that was the case, it wasn’t a world that I was proud to be part of. I felt helpless because I had no answers and didn’t know what I could do to make things better, so I bottled my emotions, put my head down and carried on with life.  

I knew even then that things only get better once we start talking about our problems, but I wasn’t comfortable talking to many people about how I felt for fear of being seen as different or weak. When you question the fundamental structure of society, or dare to suggest that things are wrong with the way we live, people will think you’re crazy or naive. For years, I thought that there was something wrong with me for always feeling sorry for the plights of others, strangers I would never meet or know, and I was given the impression that I would grow older, ‘become an adult’ and accept that injustices like poverty and inequality are just part of life and there is nothing we can do about them.

Now that I am older and I understand the world somewhat, I know that believing something is right simply because it’s “just the way things are” is the craziest perspective one can have. There is nothing mature or ‘adult’ about blind conformity, and while others may understandably prefer the comforts of willful ignorance or apathy, I realised that I can and will never be like that. I know that I may be ridiculed for being such a “bleeding-heart”, but compassion is a strength not a weakness, and worrying about people’s perception of you seems silly when real people out there face such daunting challenges. It is important to speak because when we choose to be silent, we support the status quo and condemn those less fortunate and the environment to continual struggle and exploitation. Therefore, I plan to write to stay true to my myself and to promote empathy and compassion as it is my way of contributing to the better society I know we can be.

It is important to act…but how?

Now you might ask: “is being another keyboard/ social justice warrior really accomplishing anything?” I will try to explain how it can in the next half of this post. As I write, I hope I don’t come across as some holier-than-thou activist judging people for their decisions and for not doing their fair share because in all honesty, I don’t have a leg to stand on. I talk the talk, but my actions haven’t always reflected my values. Yeah, I’ve donated to a couple of charities over the years, but I haven’t gone down to the mission to help those less fortunate. My record of recycling properly has been patchy at best and I have contributed more waste than I care to admit. My food choices leave much to work on, and while I have no intention of going vegan, I can still make better decisions in regards to food miles and ethical considerations. I would like to imagine myself as a more conscientious and socially active citizen, but I have indulged my vices like laziness and far too often. I have lived a relatively privileged life, a position which obliges me to do more, so why haven’t I?

The problem is knowing where to start. If the actions you take will make no tangible difference, it’s easy to see them as pointless and just give up. Donating to charities like UNICEF was a noble gesture, but because the same systems and practices responsible for creating that poverty remained unchanged, the poverty would remain. My donation would offer temporary alleviation and little more. Yes, I could have volunteered to feed the homeless, but they would still be homeless after they ate because no radical social welfare policy to prevent further homelessness has  been discussed. We can take certain actions as individuals, but things will only truly change when we address the cause of issues, rather than tinkering at the edges. The neoliberal doctrine would have us believe that the onus is on us as individuals to change, but it takes more than that. People need to have a shared understanding of the causes of problems and what solutions there are for those changes to have a noticeable impact. With issues like economic inequality, you have to convince part of the public that they are wealthy at the expense of many other people, and perhaps they should share some of their wealth via taxes so everyone can lead a comfortable life, which is a fair request. But because this requires sacrifice and lifestyles to change, people will resist the idea that things even need to change and that the problem is not the system but the laziness and greed of others.  

Whether it is outspoken resistance to facts or the more subtle traits of indifference and apathy, trying to convince people to care about others and the environment is an incredibly difficult task. Values like greed, competition and the love of money have been ingrained in us through the education system, the influence of mass media and the heavy rule of public opinion, so to want to change the way we live is to challenge perceptions we have had all our lives. Because it is often like talking to a brick wall and invites such infuriating resistance, I have wanted to just give up so many times. However, that despair faded as I came to accept the fact that progress is hard. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and changing people’s minds is especially slow. It may be that we never see the change we hope for in our lifetimes or get recognition for doing the right thing, and that is hard to accept. Tiresome, draining arguments and ridicule are an unavoidable part of it all. But what gets me through is the reminder that it is not just about me, or even my generation, but it is about the generations that follow. It is making sure that our children and grandchildren do not inherit a world plagued by issues affects their ability to live long, happy lives. 

Finally…the point.

I am no expert on the issues I discuss and I don’t know for certain what the right solutions are, but you don’t need to be a genius or celebrity to feel like you can speak up. Too often, the media and influential individuals shape the narrative, which further entrenches power imbalances in support of the status quo. All our voices have power, and simply participating in conversation is the first step towards positive change. While I intend to work on my personal contributions, individual actions alone do not inspire others to act differently unless we are having conversations with each other about our values and aspirations and why these ideas and actions are important. To create a better tomorrow, we need to work past our differences and understand that we are all in this together, and I hope that by writing, I may plant even just a couple of seeds that help make that happen.