For Their Own Good? Contempt, Compassion, and the Conceits of Class Status

I’ve always been wary of those who insisted they were doing something — especially something harsh and perhaps hurtful — for the good of the person who has to bear the potential injury. When a parent swears to their child that the spanking they intend to shortly administer is “going to hurt me more than it hurts you,” and that it’s for the child’s own good, they are lying in the first instance and almost always terribly wrong in the latter. Likewise, when politicians say we should cut or eliminate various safety net protections for the nation’s poor “for their own good,” you can bet they haven’t a clue as to what would be in the best interest of such persons, seeing as how they’ve never gotten to know them or anything about the lives they lead, beyond the media-induced stereotypes and their own well-nurtured classist bigotries.

I found myself thinking about the fundamental absurdity of the “for their own good” mantra again recently, while in Boston, after being approached by an apparently homeless man on the street, who asked me for change. My general rule has always been that if I have a few bucks on me, I’ll give it to someone who asks, without much hesitation. After all, begging for money must be incredibly draining and emotionally difficult for most everyone who does it, especially given the contempt with which this culture views people who are poor and struggling (and/or mentally ill, as many on the streets are). So if someone has reached a place where they are desperate enough to endure the possible (and even likely) sneers of passersby and those to whom they make their usually unrequited entreaties for spare change, I’ve always felt as though a little kindness — though it will hardly ameliorate their economic condition — will at least compensate somewhat for the terse comments and side-eyed looks of others.

Not to mention, I’ve always figured that if my Christian friends are right about Jesus returning, he’s a hell of a lot more likely to return as a homeless man, looking for signs of compassion on the street than as a conquering avenger or two-bit evangelical preacher begging for millions on television, and so perhaps it would be advisable to hedge one’s bet, so to speak.

It has always appeared to me that those who profess an unwillingness to give money to the homeless, out of a stated concern for the well-being of such street-bound beggars are deluding themselves as to the real motivations for their financial apostasy. To insist, as many would, that giving cash in such cases only enables alcohol or drug abuse — even if it turns out to be true — is still a somewhat bizarre position upon which to rest one’s refusal to assist those in need. After all, if you were an employer who knew that one of your employees had a drug problem, or drank too much, you would hardly refuse to pay them their weekly wages out of such a concern for where they might spend the money. You would pay them, regardless of what you supected they might do with the proceeds, because you felt you owed it to them; they had earned it. But with the homeless, the real sticking point for those who refuse to give such folks money is a sense that they haven’t. They are not morally deserving of assistance, or so the assumption goes. Likewise, if you offered a homeless person $100, but only on the condition that they came and cleaned out your gutters for you, or raked the leaves in your yard, you would never then refuse to uphold your part of the bargain, simply because you had come to the conclusion that the person who just performed chores for you might buy a half-pint of cheap whiskey with your cash. And you would pay them as promised, not merely because you had a contract, be it written or verbal, to which you felt tethered, but because of the presumption that they had morally earned the payoff. Even in a society without enforcement of such legal contracts as might obligate you to pay up, you would likely do so because of your own sense of propriety.

In other words, to suggest that one is withholding money from homeless people or beggars “for their own good” is a dishonest and preposterous conceit. If you feel that the poor don’t deserve your support because of their presumed moral failings, so be it. But at least be honest enough to admit that it is this — and not some ecumenical, altruistic and downright social-work-oriented rationale — that animates your decision. Your choice in these cases is about moral judgment: the idea that the poor have not done enough for you to justify the receipt of even your spare change. If they would just take out your garbage, they might be entitled to your dollar in alms, and the hooch that said dollar might help them obtain. But if they merely beg for it, without first performing some labor, then whether or not they have a drug or alcohol problem you will be free to presume they have both and refuse to aid them, all in the name of a self-righteous contempt with which you won’t even be confronted by most, so quick are they to take the same stance.

Again, this is not to say whether it be good or bad, on balance, to give cash to the homeless. I know that for some, they would prefer to limit their contributions to social service agencies that serve the homeless, in the hopes that those in need will receive assistance in a concerted and institutional way. Fine. But let’s not pretend that such contributions are truly palliative for the problems faced by those on the street. Such agencies often separate families (because shelters are typically sex-segregated), and have very little proven success at helping those with addiction issues get clean.

For others, they would prefer to give money only to those individuals who will offer them a product in return, such as the Contributor, which is the highly successful and genuinely well-done, twice-a month-paper produced and sold by homeless folks across the city of Nashville, where I live. And if that’s your thing — only giving to those who give you something back — so be it. It’s a good paper and the folks who sell it are deserving of our support. But let’s not pretend that those who sell street papers, either in Nashville or elsewhere, might not spend at least some of the proceeds on a drink from time to time. They well might, just like you or I might have spent some of our earned income on alcohol (or, I dare say, stronger drugs) at some point.

And frankly, I don’t care, nor can I understand why you should either. This idea, so common in the modern era, which holds that the poor should enjoy no indulgence, exhibit no vice, and partake in no pleasurable diversion whatsoever — be it a drink, a cigarette, color television or a cell phone — while still expecting our sympathy, comes very near the definition of sadism, or so it seems to me. Are we really suggesting that the poor should be so miserable, so benighted, so prostrated before we, their presumed betters, that their only happiness should be an occasional blast of warm air from a steam grate in the winter? Must we demand of the poor every last shred of dignity? Of normalcy? Are we really so petty that we begrudge the homeless an occasional Bud Light or Boone’s Farm, or candy bar, or pack of Marlboros, because somehow that amounts to taking advantage of our charity? Really? Are we so cruel as to suggest that unless we can have all that we desire, neither should the poor have even one thing that they covet?

The only person who would endorse such a vicious worldview is one who had decided that the poor and destitute are poor and destitute not because of local, national or global economic conditions, but because of their own moral failings and these quite alone; and that our own successes are likewise not due to inherited advantages, luck, connections, or other factors beyond our control, but are instead the predictable outcomes of our superior character. For if we didn’t believe this — if we didn’t believe at some level that we were simply better, and quite incapable of ever finding ourselves in the position of the beggar — we would never take the chance of adopting such a cavalier outlook on those who reside in that space presently, nor would we allow ourselves to believe that those who might refuse us their quarters outside Starbucks (where they just spent $3 for an overpriced espresso with steamed milk) were doing so for our own good.

They would be doing it — and so many of us are in the here and now — not for the benefit of those to whom they insist they would be teaching a lesson (or those to whom we believe ourselves teachers in the present) but rather, out of a sense of moral and ethical superiority, which the society — and not only its poor — can no longer afford, if we ever could.

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