The Cursus Publicus

Social Commentary Pt1: Groupthink and Social Media

In a previous version, everything got muddled and led to massive bloat that has now proven uncomfortably similar to an experience after sharing an entire “Little Italy” pizza from Pizza Hut with a roommate in college once.  It was an awful experience, much like reading uninteresting walls of rambling text.  So I’ve changed things up and am now parsing this into bits.  Another note, this is more of an all encompassing social commentary series that merely uses social media/networking as a starting spot with which to latch on to a couple things that have been bothering.  So, without further adieu, enjoy.

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In a recent Time Magazine article, Fareed Zakaria wrote the following when discussing the peculiar case of the now infamous former NSA Agent, Edward Snowden:

[“We are living with the consequences of two powerful, interrelated trends.  The first is digital life.  Your life today has a digital signature.  Where you eat, shop and travel; whom you call, e-mail and text; every website, café and museum you visit even once is all stored in the great digital cloud.  And you can’t delete anything, ever.

“The second is Big Data.  Americans were probably most shocked by the revelation that the U.S. government is collecting massive quantities of their digital signatures—billions of phone calls and e-mails and Internet searches.  The feds aren’t monitoring every last one.  But they easily could, and this is the essence of the age of Big Data. “]

Needless to say, I’ve thought a lot about social media/networkin, communication, and public discourse at large in this ever-changing digital age.  On the surface, that isn’t surprising.  I graduated from one of the best schools of journalism with an emphasis area that stressed multi-platform journalism.  .  Most of the work I did as an undergrad involved broadcast, print, and audio styles meant to be uploaded and viewed online.  That was my niche and I enjoyed it a lot.  I still do.  Recently, however, my thoughts about social media have changed, due in large part to recent things I’ve read and recent events in the world.  At the forefront is a book by Andrew Keen called, “Digital Vertigo.”  It is a critique detailing how social media is dividing, diminishing, and disorienting the populace.  While at times hyperbolic, it provides interesting points I think warrant discussion.  The first of which is what I’ll call “The Borg Collective.”

Another description is the “mob mentality.”  You can also call it “the hive mind.”  Orwell referred to it as “groupthink” in his dystopia, “1984.”  I wish I could take these as my own, since I can’t; I’ll use the coolest one, which is the Star Trek analogy.  I can’t help it! I’m a closet Trekkie!

In an age far gone, the “groupthink” sessions used to happen in town squares.  Now, more often than not, these take place online with little to no oversight.  In this corner of cyberspace, we routinely “stone” folks who have come under scrutiny, been charged with crimes, or said something callous that may have been taken out of context.  I see these all the time in political forums or the comment sections of news stories.  In places where you should well know which direction the bias needle points, you can often have people coming in droves to heckle, put down, and mock.  They are “casting the stone” without any regard for content, truth, or human decency.  I routinely saw this online during the high profile trial of George Zimmerman and the death of Trayvon Martin.  You’d be surprised at the mob gathering of legal experts and omniscient oracles that know all of what went down that tragic night.  They then latch on to any and all that agree and walk in-step because that person agrees with you.  I think social media has made that easier.  Finding people that agree with you that is.  We all enjoy it.  We enjoy being right.  So we seek out those people to make ourselves feel better.  This isn’t an inherent sin of social media by any means and it isn’t tied specifically to it.  No, social media/networking has merely made it easier to ignore the debate and counter-points of others.  In a way, it can perpetuate the hive mind or “Borg Collective” as I like to call it.  You don’t need to do any external thinking on your own.  What is, is, and that is all that matters.

I decided to put this theory to the test.  Rarely, if ever, do I post comments on news stories.  I’ve seen the comment section.  Never have I seen more perfect examples of adults who never grew up.  It is rather frightening and when I decided to post on an article about a recent McDonald’s fast food restaurant’s A/C failing and the employees walking out until it got fixed.  I posted a single sentence comment on how employees working for the bare minimum deserve more.  Within five minutes of such a posting, I was immediately attacked on all sides and labeled a “libtard.”  Surprised?  You shouldn’t be.  This tends to happen even more on controversial stories where the hive mind takes power and if someone dares to have a dissenting thought, they are thrown to the wolves.  What perpetuates this kind of behavior?  I must admit, I am at a total loss.  In part, I think it has to do with anonymity.  Perhaps it is their way of expressing their hate that they otherwise wouldn’t engage in, in a public arena.  Maybe they just grew-up engaging online and have no other way to interact with people, no way to quarantine or regulate their anger.  I don’t think this is an inherent flaw in social media and networking, it is everywhere.  At the same time, however, cyberspace seems to be the #1 go to location for such things.  The Borg Collective (all the angry, mean spirited folk) can plug-in together and do what they do best, “troll.” Hate. Anger. Callousness.  You name it and they’ll probably do it.  I don’t think I’ll ever understand the why behind it.

 

The Hive-Mind and Politics

Perhaps the more troubling misuse of social media and networking lies with political movements and the complex network of what George Orwell referred to as “groupthink.”  The biggest examples of digital groupthink occurred in 2011, as Keen also pointed out in “Digital Vertigo.”  We saw the rise of the Arab Spring and new revolutions sweeping across the Middle East, particularly Egypt and Libya.  Stateside in the US, we had our very own mass gathering known as the “Occupy Wall Street Movement.”  Now, there is some merit behind these gatherings and what social media technology contributed to bring the citizenry out and demand change.  At the surface, there was change.  The abusive, corrupt, and oppressive governments of Egypt and Libya were overthrown.  The Occupy Movement brought more attention to the “99%” and the economic troubles countless Americans face.  There are surface changes, surface progress.  Beneath all that, however, it has accomplished little.  The military has staged a coupe over democratically elected officials in Egypt.  The Occupy Movement simmered out and disappeared.  The hive-mind collapsed without any central queen bee to run everything.  I think people mistakenly thought that using social media to get the attention they wanted and the change they needed, was all that was necessary.  That using the technology would help solve the ills in their particular society.  That hasn’t been the case, mainly due to poor leadership.

There was plenty of “rah, rah, rah, we want democracy and rah, rah, rah, Wall Street must suffer, the 99% demand equality!”  And that’s great.  It is a nice starting point.  The real world, however, isn’t so simple.  Many of the occupiers joined the cause to get on TV I imagine.  Many more joined because “hey, we’re of the 99% too! Why not!?”  The youth in the Middle East fighting for democracy, fought for something they didn’t truly understand.  They wanted all the institutions that even sniffed of corruption and oppression removed.  They wanted it all gone.  For the occupiers you have to ask, what did they really want?  For the youth wanting democracy, you have to ask what form?  The most intriguing and effective power social media has is to bring people together under a common cause in a physical location.  However, you need more than that.  The power lies in connecting and then meeting together face-to-face, to hammer out what goals there should be and how to go about them.  All these movements, I’m afraid, had no organized structure to them.  What did the Egyptians expect when the institutions that governed them in the past fell?  What did they expect once revolution proved successful?  What did they want?  Wanting something is easy.  Sharing collective thoughts is easy.  Doing something with it, however, proves to be the far more difficult action.  Hence, my thoughts on our “social society” being like the Borg Collective.  They mindlessly follow an ideal, with no thought on future gains, losses, or what to do after the fact.

In a more recent Time Magazine article by Karl Vick titled, “Street Rule (Egypt’s Elected President is Felled By Mass Demonstrations. Can a Democracy Be Run by Protest?”), Vick dissects how the protestor has come to dominate Egyptian politics.  Vick writes that, “Popular as it was, the coup sets a precedent for transferring power not by the ballot box but by the mob.  And it broadcast a clear signal to Islamists everywhere that elections are exactly what the extreme among them have always warned: pointless.”  This is where I step away from social media, just slightly so.  The protests began, in a sense, online and then transferred to the streets, where it has become a singularly powerful force in dictating the wants of Egyptians.  “The precedent is street politics now…It’s not the best thing.”  Vick goes on to write that the street has become the Egyptian ballot box, “the crucible of power.”  I find myself wondering, what now?  If the Egyptians get want they want, a democratically elected government that oversees the well-being and safety of the populace, will that be enough?  If the public doesn’t like something, however small, will they take to the streets again and ask the military to intervene and oust the government?  Will future party officials always tiptoe the line of power for fear of uprisings and potential death?  Do Egyptians even understand democracy to develop it when all they have been successful at so far has been protests?  It is an interesting conundrum.  While detailing the support that Morsi received prior to being removed, Vick details how Egypt’s version of the “Blue Angels” sketched the national flag over Cairo and helicopter gunships dropped flags on the anti-Morsi demonstrators in the square.  Vick put it succinctly when he later wrote, “a revolution announced on Facebook and sustained through Twitter had developed to semaphore and smoke signals.  That’s another problem with the street: it’s not that easy to make things out.”  I would add to that, that like social media, it is not that easy to make things out.  It surely isn’t all that easy to nurture change either.

The problem with social media and networking, I think, is that people believe it is more than what it is: a tool.  It is merely another form of communication, only developed through little 1s and 0s.  It is a great tool, a fantastic one, to bring people together.  It can get the ball rolling.  However, it cannot end there.  I hope the people of Egypt are learning that and the Occupy Movement learned it as well.  Connecting virtually is great, but augmenting that with the most important element of all, face-to-face interaction, planning, strategizing, and communicating, is what tops it all of.  There has been no central leadership in any of these movements from what I can tell.  They aren’t quite sure what they want only that they want “something.”  Mindlessly following an ideal, whether online or in the real world, accomplishes little.  Developing the hive-mind to gain notoriety and world attention does little as well.  In the grand scheme of things, what I think social media and networking did in these examples, was gloss over the difficulty of change.  Social media is the “now.”  It happens instantaneously.  You send something out and it is immediately viewable by all.  That’s great.  Knock yourself out.  However, real change doesn’t move that quickly or easily.  You need plans, contingencies, and negotiations.  You need give-and-take elements.  I hope people realize this, as I think the people hearts of the Egyptian people are in the right place as were the Occupy Movement folks.  However, they need to tread carefully.  What they thought easy in the digital world can as surely blow up in the their faces in the real world as it can in an online cesspool of hate and disinterest.

Infographics

It has been way too long since my last post, but I’ve been fairly busy.  Meetings with folks and learning a new skill: infographics.  It is a nice change of pace that also allows me to use my creative juices.  So far, I’ve just started and have been following along with Lynda.com tutorials.

 

I can’t take credit for this, just that I followed along with the tutorial.  But, it was pretty darn fun.

 

Renewable Energy

 

Now.  Time to work on my own little infographic.

 

In the meantime, my thoughts about social media is next.

 

 

 

 

What Journalism “Should” Do

When it came time to decide what I wanted to study in college several years ago, most of my thought processes flowed around the written word.  Writing was what I was good at.  As a kid I remember writing a twist on “The Three Little Pigs” story which I would dub, “The Three Little Cats.”  Since finishing that story, I haven’t stopped.  When middle school rolled around, my parents thought I hated school.  I think, at some point, every kid dislikes the traditional classroom.  In our younger days, we reveled in our freedoms, at least before the new technological wave of video games hit.  We played outside, explored, and became artists at role-playing and acting before we even really understood what those things really were.  I didn’t like being trapped inside.  So what happened?  My parents put me through a few tests to see what the problem was.

One of things they discovered was that I had the ability to express myself using the written word to an advanced degree.  I can’t remember the specific tests, though I do remember them telling me that had I showed abilities that weren’t necessarily quantifiable. The gist of their discovery was that I had the innate ability of expression through writing far beyond my age.  I was closer to a college student in that regard.  Now, having been through college and graduated, I think that’s debatable and not all that impressive when it comes right down to it, but that’s not important.  That discovery has remained true throughout my life.  I simply communicate more strongly when I write something down.  It has been something that comes easy to me.  My language and thought processes increase drastically.  Now, you’re probably asking yourself, what does this have to do with journalism?

Well, when it came time to decide what to study in college, all my thoughts naturally swayed toward the writing world.  That meant journalism as a strong option.  At the same time, however, I didn’t want to be pigeonholed to one area of journalism so I chose what the University of Missouri calls “convergence.”  This is just a fancy word that only MU seems to use.  You can just call it multimedia journalism: TV, print, radio, web, and photography.  It’s a smattering of everything all rolled into one and at one point or another, I’ve done it all.

As things progress, however, things naturally begin to change.  When I first settled on journalism, it was a legitimate interest.  In high school, I loved reading Fahreed Zakaria’s pieces in the magazine formerly known as Newsweek, which has been fundamentally and radically changed in the years since.  Naturally, I fell in love with Zakaria’s specialty: international news.  It spoke to me.  It didn’t have the drudgery American news often had with the emphasis placed on entertainment.  Suddenly, I wanted to be an international correspondent, which is one of the most difficult journalistic paths out there.  I was pumped.  Ready to go.  Then interest began to wane a bit in journalism as a whole.  I suppose I fell into the idealistic trap many people in the profession do as they first begin.  I wanted to do something that mattered, to bring insight, action, and progress into an unsteady world.  I wanted to have a hand in changing things.  I was overly optimistic.

What I learned was that journalists shouldn’t get involved directly in the things they report on.  That there is a line they shouldn’t cross.  This fed into my distaste for the collective whole of mainstream news, whether its slant is conservative or liberal.  They preach not getting involved and not picking sides, yet many of them do so all the time.  They love to pander.  They often fall into the trap of over reporting natural disasters, terrorism plots, death, and even celebrities, to the point you can be desensitized to news general.  It is the curse of the twenty-four hour news network.  It’s “breaking news” when someone cheats on someone else or an athlete got busted for drugs and so on and so forth.  This went against all my idealistic notions of what journalism is and what it should do.  So here I sit, wondering.  What happened?  I don’t know.  That’s not the purpose of this particular blog post.  The purpose of this post is that finally, I’m gaining a renewed hope in the practice of journalistic integrity.  There still are journalists out there who treat the profession with respect.  They strive to inform.  Unbiased.  Fair.  They want to expose corruption, abuse, and crime.

I first felt this with Steven Brill’s “Bitter Pill” article several weeks ago in Time Magazine.  Brill set out to investigate the problems of our healthcare system centered on incomprehensible billing process patients suffer from hospital visits.  It was eye-opening stuff and made me proud.  THAT was journalism at its finest.

Then, about a week or two ago I came across an interesting TED presentation.

See below.

 

The presentation was by journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas who has broken numerous stories of crime and corruption in Ghana without revealing his identity.  I was intrigued to say the least.  This, I thought, was what journalism really is, what it should be about:  a vehicle to inform the public and bring about change for the betterment of society.  Admittedly, Anas is going one step beyond the role of investigative journalist.  He has taken the role of undercover journalist as well, or as he also calls it, immersion journalism.  Some may argue, however, that his form of reporting can be construed as vigilante journalism.  There is a point there.  Anas’s self stated goal is to  “name, shame, and jail” the people involved in crime and corruption.  He actively sets out to ensnare them, sometimes by catching their bribes on tape.  For Anas, journalism is about results.  I can’t really argue.

When I was studying at Mizzou, it kept being hammered home that journalists are a nation’s–heck, the world’s– watchdogs.  It is our job, no duty, to expose crime and corruption and acts or law that infringe upon the rights of the people.  Yet, many journalists have gone away from that.  They are the watchdogs that get snookered by a criminal’s offer of a rib-eye steak.  Or worse, they laze around while the criminal steals everything in sight.  In this analogy, the reporter is the guard dog and the streak are the menial and unimportant things reporters focus so much on in our daily life: celebrities and adultery and marriages and on and on in a never-ending cycle. They ignore the burglar at the door, the stories the public needs to and should know.  We’re perfectly content giving them what they want, no matter how small the impact is on their actual lives.  I wish we had more people like Anas, journalists who strive for the truth for the betterment of society.  I want journalists who do what needs to be done, not because they want to make a name for themselves, but because certain things need to see the light of day.  Journalists who understand what quality reporting means, reporting that isn’t bogged down by the public’s fleeting interests in the entertainment world.

I don’t presume to know how to go about that; only that it is change I wish to happen.

And as for me?  I just want to be able to be in a position to make a direct impact.  Journalism in the US these days is often beholden to the corporations that own them.  My fear is if I stick with what I like to call “straight journalism” I’ll be held back.  I want to make a difference.  I want to be directly involved in communication beyond what journalism can do.

I want to be involved, to help an idea grow.  To help a cause or organization garner the attention it deserves.  I want to foster communication that journalism seems to often lack these days.  I want to guide media projects, utilizing the creative abilities of highly talented individuals to produce stunning works.  That is what I believe will make me happiest. In a sense, it’d be journalism, yet, not journalism.  I want communication without chains; a form of communication that does what it can to inform, inspire, and uncover.  Lofty? Yes.  Dripping with idealism?  Yes, of course.  As the tired, old, clichéd, but no less true saying goes, what dream at all if you don’t dream big?

That’s all for now.

A New Way to Build

A few days ago I watched more of the more intriguing presentations from an idea standpoint in quite some time.  The presentation was a TED Talk by designer Alastair Parvin called “Architecture for the people, by the people.”  I’ll focus on the key things that sparked my thinking juices.

One of Parvin’s overarching ideas on architecture was that the profession and the notion of building in general, has come to cater most frequently to the top 1-1.95% of the population.  If you take time to think about it, it isn’t all that surprising.  All around the world countries invest in large skyscrapers and what I’ll call “corporate wonder offices.” In major sports markets, many cities fund large stadium projects through tax dollars.  These stadiums are tailored to a wide array of sporting venues and levels: from high school football to professional football and everywhere in between.

Parvin said that there have been times when the 1% did build for the other 99%, whether through communism or philanthropy, or the welfare state.  Now we’ve fallen back to catering to the design needs of the 1% again.

The problem here, Parvin notes, is that such strategies can be harmful to the growth of democracy.  I tend to agree and the reason why shouldn’t be hard to figure out.  If you are catering to the design needs of a small portion of the population, who is formulating strategies for the other 99%, many of who live in substandard housing developments or worse, not only in the United States, but also around the world?  Do we truly believe in raising people out of poverty if we neglect the architectural needs of the needy?  It seems almost painfully obvious that if you increase the living conditions of the people, their contribution to society will improve as their level of happiness improves.

One of the examples of wasteful architecture Parvin brought up has to do with a school. The problem the school had was that its hallways were too small. In between classes, the bullying is like wildfire and is hard to contain.  Naturally, the schools wanted larger hallways, which would cost them millions of dollars.  The design team instead suggested the school ditch their school bell and instead implement multiple bells spaced out that would ring at intervals. Essentially, a sort of rudimentary stoplight system would control the congestion.  Silence is stop and the bell is go.  You might be thinking that would people architects out of work.  Parvin noted the same trouble.  As he explained, however, architects are good at this sense of resourcefulness.

And so we come to the more interesting aspect of Parvin’s presentation and thrust behind the title “Architecture of the people, by the people.”  One idea he has floated around and even seen through is using the new technology of 3D printers as architecture by the people.  This idea, called Wikihouse, is a conglomeration of housing blueprints that can be shared online.  You can take a blueprint, download it, and send it to the 3D printer, which then creates the basic building blocks you need to create a basic house.  The skeleton requires no special tools as the pieces are cut in such a way it is like putting together an IKEA set.  Then you can have professionals for insulation, wiring, etc come in to finish the project.  It is a fascinating idea.  Citizens involved in the process of their own projects, particularly housing projects.  Now, the idea isn’t perfect by any means in my opinion.  Parvin’s Wikihouse uses plywood, which I tend to think of as not the built or even desirable building material for a home.  Plywood is cheap, susceptible to rot, and structurally unsound.  There is also the problem of the amount of plywood necessary and the fact the house made from those materials is more of a temporary solution.  Furthermore, those materials are not renewable or energy efficient. There is also the problem of space.  Homes require land and land is at a premium with an ever-increasing population.  The fundamental idea behind it and the goal, however, is sound.  You want to provide affordable housing.  But you also want to provide a certain standard of living to all that share this planet.  I think the citizenry having some say in the formation of architectural plans is an intriguing idea, one furthered by an article recently released in Time Magazine about, of all things, the game Minecraft.

If you don’t know what Minecraft is, you could count me in that group several weeks ago.  Think of it like the Sims, only, without the ridiculous plot, the sex, and everything else.  It’s more than that.  You make your own tools in order to build something.  You go from trees to axe to hammer to forge to iron ingot to house and beyond.  It is fascinating.  What’s even better is that people are modeling real or fictional places using the game with surprising results.

Now, back to the topic at hand.  One interesting thing mentioned in the Time’s article was using Minecraft to improve the design of your community.  The example used was a skate park.  Say you wanted to add a skate park to your local community.  You aren’t sure of the logistics or how it would look and feel.  Enter Mincraft.  You build a replica of the specific area, modify it to contain the skate park, and see what you have.  The brilliance behind this is that ANYONE can do it.  Imagine the ideas.  Improving your local community and society at large can become a hands-on approach.  No longer are ideas just for the professionals or expects.  You can propose ideas whether you are a kid with a way to improve recreation around your school or in your neighborhood, or an adult looking to solve traffic problems.

I’ll admit first hand these are still early ideas on how to change how the world looks at architecture and just who it should and needs to cater to.  The important thing to do is letting great ideas die and stagnate.  That is part of the problem with politics.  Many great ideas are killed off before they have a chance to flourish.  If we can’t get things done politically, however, maybe we can start doing it socially as a group.  There is a power in that and sometimes people forget about that when faced with challenges and naysayers.

Till next time.

 

The Forgotten People

I’ve been thinking about this post since last year when I had sort of a volunteer internship last year at a Church in downtown Cincinnati.  The kind of work I did mainly centered around the Food Bank the Church hosted.  What I did isn’t necessarily important so much as the people and  I’ll get to that in a moment.

First, I need to explain the inspiration for finally getting this piece pulled out of my head.  Think Harry Potter when Dumbledore touches his want to his heads and lifts out a memory.

I’ve made a deal with myself that I hope others will follow.  Learn something unique everyday through a TED Talk presentation.  You may not always agree with the subject matter, theme, or the point that the speaker is making, but you’ll be introduced to new ways of thinking about things each time.

Now, I saw a few in college, but I never really had the time or inclination to get invested with the TED platform until now.  I don’t have a reason why I’ve picked this moment to begin, only that I have decided to begin.

The first video I chose was a presentation by Alain de Botton, about a “kinder, gentler philosophy of success.”  As I listened to his presentation, I decided this would be the perfect segue into this post, the title being, “The Forgotten People.”

When I think “Forgotten People” I mean the members that society has dubbed unsuccessful, losers, poor, or unfortunate.  These are the people who because, for one reason or another, cannot provide for themselves and must rely on the help of Food Banks so that they can continue living.  Many people, namely conservatives, label these people as “moochers.”  They are the so-called, “people looking for handouts.” There are the people that politicians and well-off citizens alike blame for eating up our tax dollars and the food stamp program because they are lazy and don’t want a job.

In Botton’s presentation, he utilizes a term known as “meritocracy.”  Generally speaking, his premise is that the modern society has decided to measure things related to success with “merits.”  We have moved away from the ideal in the Middle Ages where there were “fortunates” and “unfortunates” and that everything was controlled by the will of the gods.  Nowadays, Botton says, that responsibility is with us, not the gods.

If you’ve done well, you have merited a gift, a promotion, or a material good.  “We’re in the driving seat.”  People are their own success, but also their own failure.  As Botton notes, however, this idea is “exhilarating if you’re doing well, and very crushing if you’re not.”

Meritocracy has its problems because it is a system that society can never truly utilize fairly.  To grade everyone on the good and the bad is impossible because of things outside of one’s control: death, disease, accidents, etc.  The idea that everybody “deserves to get where they get to . . . is a crazy idea.”

And this is where my point comes in.  I’ve known a few people who have railed against those struggling in the United States.  If they aren’t “pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps” it is their problem.  They believe that those on the food stamp program are doing so because they enjoy it.  They like government assisted plans so they don’t have to be contributing members of society.  They ask, “Why should my tax dollars help them?”  In the worst case, they deem these people’s level of value without having known them.

About halfway through his presentation, Botton uses a lovely quote and related to this line of thinking and I’ll provide it in full.

‘I’m drawn to a lovely quote by St. Augustine in the “The City of God,” where he says, “It’s a sin to judge any man by his post.”  In modern English that would mean it’s a sin to come to any view of who you should talk to dependent on their business card.  It’s not the post that should count.  According to St. Augustine, it’s only God who can really put everybody in their place.  And he’s going to do that on the Day of Judgment with angels and trumpets, and the skies will open.  Insane idea if you’re a secular person, like me. But something very valuable in that idea, nevertheless.’

I’ve found this to be very true.  You cannot come to judgments about people’s situation right out of the gates.  You especially cannot make broad, sweeping generalizations about a collective group of people with similar levels of economic struggle, assuming all are alike.  As Botton says and I agree, “You don’t necessarily know what someone’s true value is.  That is an unknown part of them.  And we shouldn’t behave as though it is known.”

I’ve always been bothered by those who do make those judgments and it was hammered home when I helped at the Food Bank last year.  People assume that those struggling in life enjoy being on food stamps, that they enjoy a lower standard of living simply because they don’t have to work for it.  Let me tell you something, I’ve spoken and interacted with these people.  They are NOT content in their situation.  They don’t enjoy living on food stamps.  And really, food stamps don’t provide them much anyway.  Most of the people who frequent the Food Bank are on food stamps, do have jobs (menial, low paying, minimum wage jobs with horrible hours I might add), yet are forced to ask for the help and generosity of others.  They don’t’ enjoy their situation.  They would change it if they could.  However, many of them have made mistakes that prevent them from doing so.  They have a record preventing them from obtaining a job.  They made mistakes in their personal lives (they didn’t use protection and are now saddled with children with no father).  Their parents were poor and they couldn’t quite lift themselves out of the poverty they were born in to.

Not everyone is blessed with someone always in his or her corner and willing to do what needs to be done to see them succeed.  Yet, politicians and citizens alike both tend to blame them for their situation because it is the easy thing to do.  They don’t have to get to know them.  They can just look at a set of statistics and formulate their own interpretations of why such and such is happening and that such and such isn’t do this or that or help themselves.

This goes back to the sense of meritocracy.  Through no fault of their own, we’ve come to believe they’ve merited their situation and that this is the greatest sense of value they’ll ever achieve.  And that’s a damn shame as this thought is still prevalent throughout the world, but particularly in the US.

The Church who hosts this Food Bank I interned/volunteered with provided free meals on Sunday afternoons for those in need.  Those in the local area were welcome to come.  You may think this people just came, ate, and left, but they didn’t.  Many who have walked through the Church’s doors have felt they didn’t “earn” the meal.  Scratch that.  A better explanation is that they felt they needed to provide something in return for the hospitality.  Without being forced or made to feel guilty, they’d pick up a broom or a dishrag and help clean the area up after the meal.  They would take the time to wash dishes.  They would converse.

Now, did some try to cheat the Food Bank system?  Yes.  They did.  But cheating the system is prevalent in every facet of life and I find it hard to vault someone just trying to provide for themselves and the children they are tasked with providing for.

Furthermore, if you knew the quality of food the Food Bank often has to have, you wouldn’t be bemoaning the use of food stamps so much.  Or that people like having to rely on food stamps, but the stamps only take you so far in a month.  The meats are generally frozen and past what normal, well off people would even CONSIDER putting in their mouths.  Moreover, most of the foods are sweets from your local Kroger’s or Walmart that weren’t used or sold.  Cakes, candies, sugar drinks, soda, you name it.  All the unhealthy things you can imagine.

It helps to have perspective, which is what that internship gave me.  A heavy, reality-based dose of perspective dipped in all manner of hardships that the people who have to rely on Food Banks & Food Stamps, go through.  As Botton says, “what we fear is the judgment and ridicule of others.” This is particularly true when we fail at a task.  It is more widely true when we fail at life under the tight microscope of social media, which spreads our failures like wildfire for all to see.

I’ll end it with this last quote from Botton’s presentation.

“Let’s accept the strangeness of some of our ideas.  Let’s probe away at our notions of success.  Let’s make sure our ideas of success are truly our own.”

And, I’ll add to that, let us not sure success and the notion of meritocracy to come to generalizations and assumptions about the value of people who have not had the same opportunities as us.  We can’t presume to know the lives and situations of those on the severe edge of poverty, the people who use Food Stamps or Food Banks or both to survive.  I often wish politicians, after election and before their appointments begin, could spend a month in poverty.  To truly live as many in the US have live.  Maybe living what they live, often year in and year out, would provide perspective. Or maybe it won’t.  I’ll say this though, you can’t get perspective unless you try and actively seek it out.  Embrace it.

To see Botton’s full TED presentation, click below.

 

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