Barefoot Harsh Mander

A lesson in indifference

Teaching inequality.

Teaching inequality.

Kim Hopper, a much-loved professor of anthropology in Columbia University, has for many years asked his students an intriguing question. Do they recall how their parents introduced them as children to homeless people visible on New York streets? “Ragged people rooting through garbage bins; fallen faces mutely petitioning passers-by with signs retailing misfortune; a near-naked man cavorting in the sodium light of a street construction site; a many-layered woman sobbing on church steps.” What did their parents say to a child who first noticed something really wrong here?

For some students, Hopper says, “homelessness was simply part of the urban ‘landscape’ — inevitable or irreparable.” Many recall parents urging avoidance without saying why, or puzzling allusions to “external and internal evils”. When an explanation was offered, a double message of harrowing misfortune and stalwart reassurance was standard fare: “She’s lost everything, that poor soul, and now has no one to take care of her. But don’t worry: that could never happen to you.”

Nearly as common, he continues, “at least among U.S.-raised students, was some combination of menace and morality. A close encounter with a beggar’s outstretched hand provokes a sudden move to protect the child from some unspecified harm. Then, as if to justify what had been done reflexively, a post-hoc rationale is coughed up: alarming risks of disease, the unpredictable violence of the drunk, addict or mentally ill (which are also used to explain their homelessness). On occasion, the optics alone sufficed for an object lesson in misspent youth: “See that guy over there? He got Bs in school” (or, “never did his homework”, “got no education”).

A young social worker tried to be more sensitive, assuring her eight-year-old daughter that the ragged man going through the trash was just another human being like us; just one who was going through a very difficult time. “But seeing the ripple of fear cross her face, she rushed to assure her daughter that no, this could never happen to you. We’re . . . well, different . . . we have each other.”

Hopper spoke of this when we shared a platform in New York University speaking to students about homelessness. He set me thinking about how we — middle-class urban Indians in India — teach our children about homelessness, especially homeless children. The homeless child is ubiquitous in our cities, impossible to escape from a child’s earliest days. A child will encounter children often just his/her age, begging at traffic lights, in torn begrimed clothes barely sufficient to hold out the cold, serving tea at wayside stalls, searching in waste dumps, sleeping alone on pavements.

Seeing other children in such dramatic and visible distress can be expected to cause much trauma and worry in a child. But when I asked my undergraduate students the same question as Hopper — how their parents taught them about homeless children — few had specific memories.

This set me thinking. I concluded that most of us probably teach our children the lesson of indifference very early: how to see suffering and want among others, and to simply turn away. This became a central theme of my new book Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference , where I describe this as the exile of the poor from our conscience and our consciousness.  

Hopper recalls the words of John Berger, who wrote that our “consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.” And of John Stuart Mill who said it was civilisation’s job to camouflage (if not alleviate) the “spectacle of pain”. The “civilisation” of new India has accomplished this lethal combination of amnesia and camouflage with especial adroitness.

The ease with which we are able to turn our faces away from suffering and injustice and our absence of outrage is built on lessons we learn from early childhood: about how we treat our domestic helps as lesser humans, respected, seated and fed differently from ‘people like us’; that it is all right for an accident of birth to determine a child’s life — whether he/she will have a roof over her head, clean water to drink, a toilet to visit, be able to go to school, the kind of schooling he/she will receive, the work he/she will be allowed to do — and not his/her character, capabilities and industry. It is indeed time for middle-class Indians to reflect on the conversations we have with our children. And more importantly, those we do not.

The views expressed in this column are that of the author’s and do not represent those of the newspaper.

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Printable version | Aug 12, 2022 3:03:42 pm |