Wednesday, December 26, 2007

"Helping" And Its Stories

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.


david said...


david calling and writing to you from another company town: gove (nhulunbuy)northern territory in australia (papua new guinea is just over the horizon )

i am from port coquitlam (the home of terry fox )

the company in my town is the canadian pacific railway

i am visiting my friend gail and her partner mick

mick works for alcan and has for 17 years
gail would like to work for alcan

(given mick's wage, so would i )

i am here taking a break from speaking about fetal alcohol and the law in australia

i got a free air ticket to oz paid for by aussie brain injury folks and in return i speak to various folks, agencies and their staff about this fetal is a world problem not just in aussie

on christmas day i went for a two hour walk so gail and mick could compare notes and perhaps have a nap.....he is on nights, she works weird hours for a bakery, together time is rare

especially with all the holiday visitors

so i went walkabout

gove is the duplicate of many company towns in canada.

about 3500 folks, about 700 white souls are directly employed , few or none of the aboriginal population work for alcan

the town site was designed by swiss engineers who it appears did not spend any time here, the bungalows would be cute in a swiss post card or in any post card of any northern hemisphere plus 45 degrees latitude landscape

reminds me of the engineers who designed all the houses on most canadian indian reserves

( i don't have to live in 'em)

i walked about town like you did on christmas day in 50 degree temperatures and i watched a 40 year old man slap his 3 year old daughter over and over and over...on the bum...whack...whack...interspersed with loud commands as she was not complying

he was trying to get her to learn to pedal her new two wheeler

she was screaming.

she was bawling, full on tears wailing as if the world was ending

she was hollering

: i do not want to

: i do not want to

: no


:I do not want to

as i walked by intervening was my first reaction

sadly (wrongly?) in a few seconds
i began the interior monologue:

i am a visitor here
maybe they do things differently here

this could get unpleasant



oh shit how is any thing i say going to make it better for the little girl ?

i walked by said and did nothing

back at mick's i told gail mick and mick's best buddy of 17 years brendan what i had just experienced as we had a dinner that would be ok at alice's restaurant!

brendan, the ever quick with the quip said : just proves dick heads are universal

the incident of the man slapping his young daughter was near the end of my walk...i was not lost. just directionally challenged for a few minutes

after i walked by the man hitting his daughter i returned to pass his house about 5 minutes later ( as i realized where mick lived )

as i walked past the second time the dad was getting out of his shiny silver suv truck and we walked by within inches of each other

i am reminded of leonard cohen's poem about adolph eichmann

the fellow from gove unlike eichmann was a clear picture of a "pounder" (note : i am a criminal trial lawyer in BC and a "pounder" is a fellow who punches his wife and gets caught)

his jaw was set in a perma scowl,
he gave me the look of death, we had some eye contact during his assault as i was walking by him within a metre or so,
he strode across the road to his house, now quiet

i have been here before

once in 1977 during university at trent in peterborough ontario, the women upstairs in the once manse for the old united church now a apartment building were fighting

roommates ruth , elizabeth, and i discussed the pounding going on above us and what to do

one of the women upstairs was tiny one was my size and it was not the first time we had heard the punches the crockery breaking, the body slams
i went up intervened and was told by the larger woman who was pounding the smaller in good anglo saxon monosyllables to go away

so i did

we called the police

for the next 30 years i have intervened many times

as luck and genetics provide i am 6 foot 2 inches 230 pounds

so i can intervene

here now 30 years later

i did not


feels icky

as i think i made a mistake

i am still upset at :

a) not intervening


b)hearing and re - hearing her screams in my mind/memory

everyone who has heard this story (here in Gove) grimaces

while i am not haunted like heathcliff in WUTHERING HEIGHTS

i am still upset, and this morning's run in a warm monsoon and the following walk in the lovely light rain found myself walking by the family's house

to look again


to maybe give myself a second chance

an issue for me is the disconnect

the difficulties of the aboriginal communities in northern australia remind any canadian of the regular horror stories we have about the indian reserves in canada

and as one fellow said yeaterday who is also a long time alcan employee (23 years in gove)when i pressed him about the"aboriginal" situation here said:

it is sad

it is complex

there is so much i do not know

i have no easy answers

he was in my mind finding it difficult to be glib or to ignore the problem

to my mind he was not your typical australian

many australians refer to aboriginals in the same tone of voice canadians use when they refer to "drunken indians"

and tell the same racist jokes
and make the same comments about them being different

gauging by the house in this company town in gove (the aboriginal name is nhulunbuy,
gove was a navigator in a ww2 plane that crashed here) the man who hit his three year old daughter because she refused was unable or was unwilling to enjoy her christmas present was an engineer, or at least not one of the "blokes" who toil in the mine or refinery and wear coveralls or the uniquely australian work shirts

he was upper class

he was getting out of a vehicle i could never afford

he was clean shaven

his yard was perfect, trimmed and green

his house numbers were in gold plate and shiny

he had two vehicles as there was a passenger car a four door sedan parked on his concrete driveway

no police man walking by would give a second glance

yet i have seen him over and over again in criminal court in vancouver

for me the issue that has been dogging me for some years now is :

do we accept that there must be human universals or not ?

and what is on your list of human universals?

either we are all the same in some aspects (my list is long ), or some humans are not the same as us ! then thus unworthy by some arbitrary standard

of course power is a key ingredient necessary to be discussed

and powerlessness

I am thinking of the saudi supreme court that ruled a woman after she been raped must be flogged

i am thinking of hurricane katrina and who has caught the brunt of the destruction

i am thinking of all the canadian indian reserves and their identical twins in australia

your sudbury story rang inside me

i often think the american constitution is writen for rich white guys over 55 years of age

the prez of exxon, the cheney's , the walmart family, the standard republican males

and then i think evil is as common as mud

and in aussie i am over the top proud of our canadian charter of rights and freedoms

our advances in our canadian criminal code

and yet here i am in gove seeing the same family violence i was paid to "deal with " in vancouver

gail says : well there's one christmas that little girl will never forget

me either


Scott said...

Hi David.

Sorry it has taken me so long to reply to this...I was out of town for the holidays and my internet access was quite limited, and I've only been back and getting caught up on everything for the last couple of days.

Thank-you so much for your detailed and honest reflections. It can be so hard to make that kind of decision well in the moment -- I know there are times in the past in which I have regretted acting and times when I have regretted not acting.

As for the question of human universals, I think it is a tough one. My response is both "of course there are" and "of course there aren't". I think what makes it tough is that we are trained so thoroughly to think about such "universals" in the framework of European-derived liberalism, with its built-in exclusions and marginalizations around gender and race and so on, its tendency to erase interrelatedness and context, and its assumptions about how a small fraction of us get to decide upon and impose those "universals" in our own image. But things like male violence against women and children -- there is no such thing as a valid cultural excuse for domination like that. The relevance of specificity in terms of culture or experience of colonization or racialization or what have you is not in making it valid or invalid, it is in shaping the landscape in which efforts to create change take place. But what that means in practice, in the moment, is not always clear or easy.

Once again, thank-you for your thoughtful comment!