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18 September 2013 @ 11:49 pm
Seeing How the Other Half Live...  
My friend Mike put a link to this story about a middle-class white family in South Africa moving into a black slum for a month and there was much response on Facebook. Mike was unconvinced there was much merit to the criticism these people received and other people chimed in to suggest why it was problematic. Having now read the article I can see Mike's point as little harm seems to have been done and the family that moved into the slum seems to have acted in good faith. However I also see that the criticisms have some bite. I was just going to respond to his post, but this got way too long too fast.

I think one trenchant criticism of this sort of thing is found in the song "Common People". Basically there are way to many ways where anyone who goes into this sort of thing is not really going to having the same experience that the normal residents do and that means you may get all kinds of false or unreliable beliefs especially ones that reaffirm what you already believed going in. This is why I never believe those: I went homeless for a day and they live like kings! articles that get written from time to time. The family in this case were not taking that sort of line, but that does not mean they are not subject to other biases of perception about their neighbours and themselves in the experience.

Some people worried about exploitation and obviously exploitation can be a problem with these sorts of power dynamics, but I don't see that has a necessary or primary problem. So to me the issue is the moral hazards and epistemic risks involved. Also, the sense of trivialization that other people get from such activities (insults are necessarily subjective), since even a month living like that with the certainty of return to your normal life at the end (or before if you choose) is different from years of living like that with no end in sight. It is not that anyone is objectively worse off at the end of this, but it does not make it a good idea (like performing without a net). Note the people who do it may be worse off because they may feel self-satisfied or as I said reinforce false beliefs.

I think humility, compassion, understanding and even unity are better learned through serving others and this sort of activity is a bit to internally focused to seem like a good way to achieve moral insight or improvement (although I suppose monastic orders who take a vow of poverty might disagree with me). The other advantage of pursuing this sort of awareness through charitable acts is that material aid is a more apt to measurement (although not without confounders) then any more imponderable moral qualities.

In one of the many responses another friend Ellie's echoed the idea (found in the article) that this sort of thing shows we only care about these things when they happen to people like us, citing examples of people wearing hijabs for a day. While the criticism makes sense for the case of living in a slum, since no one denies such poverty exists they just ignore it or treat it as inevitable, I think the wear a hijab for a day approach is often less about the fact that we need to see people like ourselves suffering to believe it is important and more that we just don't believe the reports of people who are not like us, if it clashes with our experience of the world. As far as I can tell people still deny visible minorities are discriminated against in their locality (I'm thinking of Canada, but seems to apply to many places if not most) because they don't experience it themselves and assume the world is just and find reasons to discount the claims of minorities who claim discrimination (they assume the complainers are exaggerating, overreacting etc.). Whether wearing a head scarf for a day in Toronto is a good idea or not, I think it serves a different role (its not to understand how people who wear the hijab live, but rather how they are treated).

Anyway all this reminded me of other things:

Black Like Me (a book, white journalist in Texas who darkened his skin and experienced racism etc., iconic story often referenced in sitcoms into the 90s as I recall)

Sullivan's Travels (A movie the tale of a film director who wants to make a socially relevant film by becoming a hobo, riding the rails etc. in 1941 USA). In particular, I think the Butler in this scene has a point although at the same time his his view might be regressive.

Grey Owl the guy born in England who came into Canada and adopted the identity of a native American (claiming to have an Apache mother) and became a figure of some renown as a conservationist in that identity, his actual lineage and nativity was revealed after his death and he got to be portrayed by Pierce Brosnan in a movie, it's his (Grey Owl's) birthday today (September 18th).
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