A couple of Saturdays ago, I had a bit of an unusual encounter. It wasn't unusual in the sense that it shows anything at all surprising about our world, but rather in that it was not a common experience for me. It is the sort of encounter that often gets turned into a story in very particular ways, especially at this time of year, and so I thought it was worth presenting in ways that challenged that type of story.
Here are the details: I was walking in downtown Sudbury. There was lots of snow on the ground and it was cold enough that in the ten minutes since I'd left our front door, moisture from my breath had already led to plenty of ice buildup on my whiskers. I was walking on the main street that goes through the downtown, in front of the downtown mall, and getting ready to cross to the other side. As I was crossing, I noticed someone that I do not know but that I recognized from seeing around the downtown and from an agency that provides emergency food and drop-in services to people living in poverty (which also provided meeting space to the anti-poverty group that was active during my first couple of years in Sudbury). My past interactions with this individual have not gone beyond giving him a few dollars a time or two when he has asked me on the street, and have never involved having a conversation or anything like that. So I prepared to be asked for change. When I got closer, however, it became apparent that he was in pretty bad shape -- not unconscious but still pretty out of it, and seemingly in quite a bit of pain. He had moved to lying on his side (and remember, it is snowy and very cold) and grimacing.
I asked if he was okay. He indicated he was not. I asked if he wanted a doctor. He indicated that he did. I dithered for about thirty seconds or a minute, reconfirmed his lack of okayness and his desire for medical help, and went to the nearest available phone, which was just down the block at the bus station. I used the phone at the information booth to call 911 and had them send an ambulance. At the request of the 911 operator, I returned to what she had labelled "the scene." I told this guy the ambulance was coming, though it wasn't clear that he understood me. In the few minutes it took to arrive, he went from sitting propped against the wall (something he had presumably accomplished while I was on my journey to find a phone) and back to lying on his side. When the paramedics got out, it became clear that they knew him by name. I hung around for a couple of minutes and then continued with my errands.
There are a few things about this fairly straightforward incident that strike me as interesting and relevant. They roughly divide into two areas: the decision to act and the consequences of acting.
The first thing that this got me thinking about was the conditions under which help gets extended by people who are seen and who see themselves as "respectable citizens." For example, I suspect that this man's physical appearance would usually be read as putting him in the categories "not white", "very poor", and "homeless", though I hasten to point out that I don't know anything about his background or about his current housing situation. But that's how he gets read, I think. I suspect this relates to the answers to questions like, how long had he been in the state that I found him? How many people had walked by and seen/not seen him, without doing anything? He is effortlessly read as Other, which makes him less likely to be noticed and less likely to be offered help when his appearance is giving evidence of distress.
In saying those things, I am quite conscious of the way in which encounters like the one I described can be read into particular narratives that serve to construct the person playing the role that I played as a "good one" -- I'll talk more about that below, but I'll start trying to counter it here by admitting that I am asking this question not to perform good-person-ness but because in that moment I felt the pressure not to see and not to act. I remember from Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series a thing called the Somebody Else's Problem Field, which was used to make things more or less invisible by convincing any sentient beings in the vicinity that, really, they didn't have any reason to notice or be concerned with the object in question. And as shameful as it is, I felt my mind instinctively grasping for reasons not to have to see this man's distress or not to have to act on it. Perhaps, if I was in a different emotional place and/or some details of the circumstance had been a bit different, those graspings to make it somebody else's problem might have succeeded. I'd certainly like to think not, but frankly, developing a hefty box of internal tools for not noticing and not acting on horrific things which are right in front of our noses is a key part of socialization into privilege of various flavours, and having a self-image as "compassionate" or "progressive" or "radical" (or "Christian") doesn't make all of that training just disappear. To be honest, I have a feeling that performing the pretence of smooth functioning in our society absolutely requires people with privilege to have such a toolbox and to use the tools it contains to deaden parts of our humanity.
The question of the decision to act is also relevant to the period immediately before the paramedics arrived. As far as I could ascertain, in the unknown length of time before I initially ran into this guy, and in the few minutes I was away from "the scene," no one else decided to notice and to act. Yet in the few minutes between when I returned to "the scene" and when the ambulance showed up, three passers-by indicated by their interactions with me that they read the scene as a person in distress needing help. What difference did my presence make? I think my relatively privileged body arranged in ways as to demonstrate concern served as a bridge, a way to make the Otherness of this fellow less apart from the world of the other pedestrians. My presence pushed a reading onto the situation that made seeing and offering to act more reasonable, that reduced the fear (or guilt or anxiety) that people of relative privilege experience in response to Others in such situations, and that also reassured people that even if they noticed, it would remain somebody else's problem.
The action itself and its consequences are also interesting.
You see, though there is a definite push not to see in this specific class of instance, once seen and acted upon it enters a more general sort of story that is very common in our culture. The right sort of smartypants could probably trace this story's origins back to important features of Christian thought as well as to the emergence of the ideology of "community" that came along with the emergence of capitalism. I'm not going to attempt that. But it is a story all of us will recognize -- a story of "helping," of "doing good," of "the Good Samaritan." Especially at this time of year, you see it sprinkled through the media. It warms hearts, it builds cheer, it fills that thirty seconds between death and advertising. In its more collective variants, it calms guilt at First World privilege and sells wars to an unwary public.
The general form of the story is this: An individual (or group) A meets, sees, reads about an individual (or group) B. They have no previous connection. A sees B is in distress. A provides assistance to B. The interaction is win-win, perhaps even a trade of sorts. B emerges materially better off, or perhaps more free. A emerges with a kind of immaterial boost -- flaunted, downplayed, or denied; based in being able to see one's self, through the act of helping, as a "good Christian" or a "good neighbour" or a "good person" or just "nice;" gained through mirroring from others who know or just knowing one's self.
In this story, two transitions occur. B goes from "in need" to "not in need," if not absolutely then in some critical respect. This occurs by the agency of A, and because of this A gets to make a transition from their starting point -- "innocence" -- and into an elevated state -- "virtue."
There are several things wrong with the way this story gets applied to most situations, including the one that I began the post with. Mostly these problems revolve around the fact that this story does not accurately characterize most of the situations to which we learn to apply it. It is, to be blunt, most often a lie.
For one thing, it assumes that A and B come into relation at the point when A notices B and acts. This is almost invariably false, in the current world. In real, material, traceable ways we are in already existing relationships with everyone around us. The relations are often not directly observable, not interpersonal in character, not experienced as part of our local everyday realities, but we can show in very practical ways how they happen. This is not the place to try and characterize in detailed ways the nature of those relations, in general or in the specific instance that began the post, but it is possible to say a few things without having to say everything. It is most common in the way this story gets used that A has power in an area where B does not, so instead of beginning from innocence, the relation between A and B is one that benefits A and hurts B. Often the very capacity to "help" comes from the privilege that goes along with this oppressive relationship. Certainly this was true in my encounter of the other week, where racialization, colonization, and class relations (among other things) have helped make my life a pretty privileged one, which put me in the position to notice and act in the ways I did to a person for whom racialization, perhaps colonization, and class relations have made life a hard, hard thing, and have created the need to which I was responding. The narrative of helping often functions in the culture to allow us to pretend, however, that this sort of oppression is not the grounding for everything that we do.
Of course, A having some form of privilege where B is oppressed is not an absolute requirement for this story. It also gets used in cases where A and B experience much the same oppression, or even when B has power over A. The details differ, but it still usually functions to erase the pre-existing relations between them and to make the point (subtley or not) that "good" people don't begrudge the privileged their privilege and can't we all just get along?
So even if we leave the character of B's movement over the course of this story unquestioned for a moment, it is clear that since A doesn't really start from innocence, understanding their move as being a simple one towards virtue doesn't really make any sense. At best, it is a human being just doing what human beings should do for each other when they see an acute need. At worst, it is hypocrisy: performing and reinforcing a refusal to see the relations creating the context for the need and the context for the capacity to help, and more importantly using it as a screen to refuse responsibility for working to change those underlying relations.
Except the move for B is not usually that simple either. Take my encounter, for example. In that case, and in lots of others like it, the "helping" took the form of connecting a desperately poor person to services for which they were experiencing urgent need. The usual middle-class Canadian understanding of services is that they are adequate, perhaps generous, perhaps even too generous. Generally speaking, it is very easy for those of us who can pretend not to need socialized systems of support to attribute any unmet needs in people who have been connected to services to some flaw in those people. Social services are a material expression of the construction of Canadianness as compassionate and virtuous, so there is significant psychological investment in seeing them as adequate, even for people who don't strictly approve of them. It allows middle-class Canadians to see ourselves as "we who help", positioned as superior to those who need our help through the very hierarchical act of helping itself, and with the convenient distancing effect of bureaucratic services to actually do the helping so we don't have to encounter the Other ourselves, most of the time.
Even many privileged folk who are aware that services are inadequate in terms of quantity don't really get the qualitative problems with them. So the unproblematic "helping" via services that is read into this story is very much from a middle-class standpoint. In fact, services are far from uncomplicated "help" for those whose lives depend on them. Though they are an improvement over an absence of services, i.e. needs that remain urgent and unmet, they tend to function as a sort of exchange -- they use their capacity to meet real, urgent needs as a way to force the people whose needs they can (partially) meet to accept heightened surveillance and control over their lives. Though it provided a way for him to get his immediate hurt attended and to get out of the cold, my "helping" also cast the guy I "helped" back into a net of interactions with professionals and bureaucrats, and each such interaction is a reminder of their power over him, of his dependence on them. Like more direct forms of "helping", bureaucratized "helping" through services may or may not succeed at meeting one facet of immediate need but it leaves underlying relations of power largely untouched in most circumstances. So it really is a much more partial form of support than middle-class progressives who enthuse about services as the answer to everything, rather than actual social justice, usually like to think.
Though the details vary depending on the kind of "help" that is read into the narrative outlined above, usually it is a lot more mixed than the pure form the general form of the story requires.
Genuine, human responses to human need on a human scale are essentially manifestations in the present of the better world that we want to create. Our movements for change will go nowhere without making mutual aid central to what they do. But "help" of the sort that usually gets read into such heartwarming stories is usually a way of affirming power-over and avoiding any icky guilt -- and, more importantly, any sense of responsibility to act -- in response to that fact.
All of which is to say, it is important for all of us to constantly be aware of how the ways we are trained to see others as Others can result in us seeing our fellow human beings as less than human in very gut-level, everyday ways. We must see need and respond to it. But it is also important to question and challenge narratives of "helping" when we ourselves are a protagonist and when they are used to build a sense of generalized, apolitical goodwill, associated with the "holiday season" or not, in the media, from pulpits, and in conversation.