Monday, April 29, 2013

Teaching The Opposite Lesson

Sometimes an event will just sit in the back of my mind forever, irritating me whenever I recall it. Such things can't be good for the disposition.  That I can do nothing to fix it must be some of the hold it has on me, but that can't be all of it.  There are a thousand other regrets I also can't do over.

A woman came to speak about values at Grand Rounds about ten years ago.  Her general point was that the poor have different values because they have to, and we upper-middle-class people are being unfair and insensitive to them when we expect them to conform to our norms.  One example she gave was the frequency of physical fighting to solve problems among the poor.  "Nicer" neighborhoods weren't really nicer, they just had people who could manipulate systems better and didn't have to resort to shoving and smacking.  That bothered me a fair bit, but I can at least find some truth buried in it. 

I lived in both kinds of neighborhood as a child, so I believe I have some grounds for an opinion.  If her point had simply been that norms vary, and people might conform temporarily to the values of their environment because they hadn't really thought about it much, and we shouldn't be quick to judge permanent character on that basis, I think I would generally agree.  But that wasn't where she was going.

Her other example was from her own life.  When she was a single mother with little money, she would bring her children to the shoe store, have them try on sneakers, and walk out wearing them.  She was completely unapologetic about this.  She insisted it was not only a necessity, it was a positive good, because it showed how people were more important than possessions.

I wasn't there, but was sorry I missed it, because the idea deserved pushback.  She actually taught that possessions, such as nice new sneakers, were really important - more important than character. It wasn't food or medicine, it was style.

First, I should give what credit I can.  She was willing to risk embarrassment, and even legal trouble for her children's sake, and that does have a sort of generosity to it. Actually, it doesn't, for three or four reasons, but I'm trying to see as far down that road as I can.  I get it that when people are poor they might break rules in desperation, and those of us who don't have those temptations should be grateful to be spared the trial, and humble about our own probable actions.  When I was six, my mother tried to rehearse me to say I was five so I could ride the Mount Washington for free.  Same thing.  The difference, I suspect, is that my mother did not, after years of reflection, get paid to give talks to professional audiences applauding herself for that.

One person reportedly pressed the speaker on the approval of theft - pretty mildly, from what I was told, but it was at least something.  The woman giving the lecture was put out by that, but rather than argue was airily dismissive of the criticism with the line "Well, I think the whole system should be changed."  Yes, I imagine you do. I think we can predict on what lines you would change the system, too. Invisible owners of shoe stores are unlikely to come out well in the new order.

She was still in business as of three years ago, as I heard a department member mention having heard the talk at another facility.  Why I should be unable to shake this eludes me.  But she taught the opposite of her stated value.


Sam L. said...

Obviously, it rankled. And continues to rankle. And you understand why it rankles, but you are unable to do anything positive about it. That'll be one (1) penny for the analysis, and having put in my two (2) cents, use the other one (1) as you like.

SJ said...

Two things I ask of you, Lord;
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.

Proverbs 30:7-9

Even that man, if he became poor, would not be likely to boast of theft in that state of poverty. Either theft of shoes, or theft of bread for hungry children.

But this woman was teaching something other than pause-before-judgement of people who live in harsh conditions. She was teaching that the poor were justified in doing whatever they did...because they were harmed by Those Other People, who were wealthier.

bs king said...

I'm sort of curious how she would have reacted if someone had turned around and stolen the shoes from her children. Would her reaction have been based on the income of the bully doing the stealing?

Dubbahdee said...

I wish this comment section had a like button.


what Ms. King said.

lorraine said...

I have been that poor. I literally did not have food for my kids but I would no more steal a loaf of bread (would that be justified?) than fly - we just went to bed hungry, swallowed pride (it doesn't fill you up) and went to friends and begged a meal. At least we had friends. Shoes? We picked over the church basement giveaway box. I can't believe anyone would teach his or her child that it was ok to steal shoes because they were poor. I always have an advantage in those situations because I was that poor. The less than poverty stricken hesitate to speak up - don't. No one needs to steal, ever. Period. lorraine

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thank you. Never been that poor - food poor. Most people do look the other way at that, but I admire determination.

My two Romanian sons were food poor when they were little. I've never asked them what they think of that now. Tomorrow.

Der Hahn said...

Justice is a prerequisite to mercy. Asking for the pardon but no recognizing the wrong is not an appeal for justice but license.