by Edwin Young, PhD
I hear people discussing all sorts of topics like politics and government; religion; education; the arts; recreation; entertainment; the various forms of media; economics; money; business; law; justice; welfare; the environment and nature; sports and hunting; science and technology; their occupation and work relationships; sex; romance; marriage; home and domestic life; families and raising children; past generations and history; what people want in life or out of life; life in general in other countries; and so on. As they engage in these conversations, I hear them use the words: people, those people, they, everybody, nobody, the country, Americans, the rest of the world, and other synonymous or related words. I hear them using these words with no specific reference to particular people or peoples. Often these words are uttered as sweeping generalizations. When I hear statements such as, “Everybody knows. Nobody believes that. It would be good for everyone. Anybody could if they wanted to. This would be good for everyone. People just are not . . . . “ I think to myself, as I am listening to the use of ‘people’, how is it that these people can be making these sweeping generalizations about some amorphous group or all groups of humans with respect to this, or any conceivable topic?
If the discussion turns into a debate or argument, someone is likely to ask, in a challenging manner: “They? Who do you mean by ‘they’? Name one. Exactly who do you mean by people?” This can be an embarrassing moment for the protagonist. The reason for the embarrassment goes deeper. It seems that the protagonist usually does have in mind a reference group, but the generalization was too inclusive or exclusive. “Nobody thinks that” may turn out to mean “none of my friends; no one like me. And, “Everybody knows” may turn out, in a similar yet opposite way, to have one’s own group as the reference group. Yet, at the spoken moment, the speaker may be so convinced of his/her proposition that it seems like surely everyone must feel, believe, prefer, and so on, the same.
A politician can capitalize on this tendency when addressing a homogeneous, like-minded group of supporters by saying “This would not be good for anyone”. Or “this would be good for everyone.” What if these statements were to be made to representatives from all of the vast variety of groups in the country? Perhaps, just perhaps, only a small, select number of groups would concur. Yet, in a somewhat unlikely scenario, the protagonist could retort: “So what! The people who matter agree with me.” On the other hand, suppose some of the protagonist’s supporters were concerned with the consequences of the proposition for groups other than their own. Suppose these dissenters wanted to know what the broader and more long-range consequences might be for other groups as well as their own group?
Whether it is talk on a campaign trail, in a living room, at a religious service, on a break at work, in a classroom, or wherever, the speaker’s sound of assuredness accompanying these sweeping generalizations may actually cloud an otherwise uneasiness about the statement’s accuracy and deflect the listeners from exploring the legitimate, important question of who, specifically, are and are not included in this “everybody” reference group.
And furthermore, does the assertion, as applied to “all”, in fact, entail the same consequences for “all”? And finally, are the listeners taking into consideration both the broader and more long-range consequences? How can these questions be answered if there is no opportunity for them to be aired?
So, Who Are the People?
The Metro bus has been my soul means of transportation for many years. While riding the bus, I see passengers who are a very ethnically diverse group of people. There are many varieties of each of the following ethnic groups on the bus: African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Middle Easterners, Indians, Native Americans, and Caucasians. There are babies, children, teens, adults, and the elderly. There are psychotics, criminals, delinquents, mentally retarded, the blind, persons with all types of physical and mental handicaps, obese and emaciated persons, people with all types of diseases and illnesses, as well as a few healthy people. Many appear exhausted. Most have blank, zombie-like looks on their faces. Most are wearing worn out, ill-fitting cloths, cloths ill suited for the weather, and worn out and ill-fitting shoes. Only a very few are moderately well dressed. Many of these passengers only speak their native, non-English, language. Most have very little education.
Nevertheless, some are reading books and studying school textbooks written in English, and some are reading newspapers written in their native languages. Some of these people are polite, quiet, and friendly, but they are typically aloof from the other passengers. Some are hostile and rude. Some are loud and constantly chattering in loud voices to whomever will listen, some talk regardless of whether anyone will listen or not. Some of them loudly broadcast their personal life and problems as though unbearably distraught. Some are silly, giddy, and inappropriately friendly. Occasionally a destitute looking mother or man will beg for money even though begging is prohibited.
On one occasion, on a hot summer’s day, a middle aged Hispanic woman in a threadbare dress and a look of combined panic and depression began to stare at me. After a few seconds she leaned across the aisle and began asking me, in a harried voice with broken English, if I could “Please, give me some money? Anything, anything, please, my four little children are at home and have not eaten in days. We are starving and I cannot find work. Please help me!” I did not have any money on me and told her so. She sat back down and began to plaintively mutter that she had no hope, that she had tried everything, and that no one will help. Then in a frenzied voice she repeated at least five times: “My god! My god! The only thing I can do is kill my children and myself!” Then she slumped over in her seat in hellish resignation. My only response was a sick, guilty, impotent feeling and an empty hope that she would not do it, that somewhere, somehow, she would find help. I looked around, and from the other passengers’ expressions, I assumed they were feeling the same as me. I thought I also saw a look of gratefulness that, for now, they were spared the same awful fate.
Almost all of these passengers are going to or from jobs that pay minimum wage or less. Their jobs typically require them to work over eight hours a day. It costs them $1.00 to ride the bus each way, or $2.00 a day. For two adults, this is $80 a month at a minimum. Most will take small sacks of food so they don’t have to purchase meals. They will typically spend two hours each day riding the bus. This means that they are away from home ten to twelve hours a day. For an average of 55 hours of work a week, including travel time, a typical worker brings home less than $200 a week. The typical bus passenger-worker lives in a four to five room apartment with one bath, the apartment costs at least $500 with utilities, which are around $150, and a telephone for around $50. To do laundry they put their dirty cloths in grocery store carts and push them two or more blocks to and from the Laundromat, scantily clad in freezing weather, and pay another $5.00 to $6.00 at least once a week. Typically, there will only be two working adults, making between them about $1,600 per month. In this apartment there will be, on average, two or three adults, one of which is a mother, two elderly persons, and at least four to six children, one of whom is a baby and one a teenager. This means there are typically about three to four people in each bedroom, all sharing one bath. In addition, if the teenager is a girl, there is a one in three chance that she will also have a baby. It typically takes at least $1,000 to feed a family of eight [$125 a month per person].
If you add these expenses, you find there is not enough money for a sub-subsistence life. If they have children in school, they cannot afford the usual supplies. These children’s cloths are ill fitting and don’t protect them from the weather. Their appearance and language skills also mark them as underprivileged outsiders whom the mainstream children treat as though they are lepers. What must it be like to go to school like this, with empty stomachs, and try to study or participate in extracurricular activities? Imagine what it would be like to live, much less to have your children to grow up, under these conditions. With forty-six million people going without any kind of health care today. If one of the people in these life circumstances falls seriously ill and they have no health insurance and certainly do not have enough money to pay for a private physician or the medicine he/she might prescribe, what will happen to them? Hopefully, a county health system for indigents will take over. However, if they are lucky enough to get to a county hospital or free clinic, they are likely to sit and wait four to twelve hours for a physician. If you used these same indigent medical services yourself, you would surely never ever want to go back there again.
A few days ago, on a sweltering summer afternoon, I boarded the extremely crowded bus and tried to wedge into a small space a young African-American woman was trying to make for me. As I sat down, I thought I might have stepped on her toe. I said “Thank you.” and “I’m sorry if I stepped on your toe.” She responded in a soft, humble voice that it was OK, that I had not hurt her. Since we had made the initial contact and since she seemed pleasant enough, I sighed and commented on how standing out in the humid heat for forty-five minutes waiting for the bus had left me drained of energy. She agreed and then volunteered, as though something about me might suggest an ignorance of these things, that at this time of day everyone was returning from work and that was why the bus was so crowded. I asked if she was returning from work also. She openly announced, again in the soft, humble, but now almost apologetic voice, that she was returning from the mental health clinic downtown. She said they had given her a refill of the prescription she was supposed to take for her condition. I asked if she was on Social Security Disability and she said no, that she had a regular job but she still did not know what to do now. With that lead in, I asked what the problem was. She said, “Well, I have this condition that if I don’t take the medication I go crazy. But, if I get the medication, I don’t have enough money for rent and food. I get 30 pills for the month and they cost $418, and I don’t see how thirty of those little pills could cost so much. So, I either don’t eat, get evicted, or go crazy.”
I asked if there was a way the government could help pay for her medication. She said, “No, I’ve tried all the programs and they all say I don’t qualify.” I said it was too bad the government did not have any way to help and, while some people might be able to go to Mexico to fill their prescriptions much more cheaply, few people have that option. Then I said, “Man, those drug companies really get away with ripping off the people don’t they?” We sat in silence for a while and as the bus was nearing my stop, she muttered, very quietly, “You know, they come after you. You never know who they are, but there is always someone coming after you and you really have to watch out!” It seemed as though she felt she was offering me some very valuable information. As I got up to get off the bus, I quickly patted her on the leg and, feeling like an idiot for not having anything better to say, I just said, “Well, good luck to you!”
If ‘These People’ Become Reified and Humanized, What Then?
There are approximately thirty million people in America that fit somewhere within this description of the depersonalized, impoverished, and disentitled ‘object-people’. Yet, without these people, your garbage would not be collected; office buildings and hospitals would not be cleaned; streets would not be cleaned; broken sewers would overflow into the streets; meals would not be served in restaurants; grass would not be cut; housing would not be repaired; assembly lines would stop; farm produce would not be harvested; merchandise would not be distributed, etc. In general, most of these services that you take for granted you would now have to do yourselves. What kind of life would that be for you? And yet, even most of these ‘commodity-people’ still pay some form of taxes.
Now imagine that you had been born into these impoverished circumstances. What do you suppose your health would be like? What do you suppose your education would be like? What would parenting be like for you? What would you be learning about life and how to live it? What would your mind be like? Do you suppose your scores on intelligence and achievement tests would be affected? How might you conceive of your future? What might your understanding of the concept of “consequences” be? What would the content of your mind be like? Where would this content come from? How realistic and useful would your knowledge of the world be? How would you perceive the ‘world’ and what would determine your worldview and how you see your relation to the world? How friendly and supportive would that world seem to you? What kind of identity do you suppose you would have? How might you fare, in your own mind, as you compared yourself to more privileged people? How much of the world would you be aware of or would be real for you? How complex and sophisticated might your cognitive processes be? How mature, as a person, would you be? What might your understanding of your rights as a person in our society be? Where do you feel you would be welcome? How much power and influence do you think that you would feel you had in relation to society’s institutions? How would all of these factors effect you emotions, moods, attitudes, and outlook?
Now reconsider: Who do you mean when you use the phrase, “the people”? Are you referring to the above-mentioned dehumanized, underclass of thirty million people? Or, is it a tolerated part of the ‘art of demagoguery’ to be able to make your audiences feel that, when you use the phrase, “the people”, that you mean people like them? That is to say, you mean by “the people” those who are well-educated and well-to-do and who attend rallies like those which politicians address. Suppose by “the people” you mean this latter well-to-do group. Then how do you refer to the above-mentioned underclass of thirty million people? Perhaps you do not refer to them at all. Or, perhaps you mislead your audience into thinking that “they” are the true “real” people. Perhaps, in your speech, there is no reference at all to a group like the above-mentioned underclass. You are able to make It appear as though there were, or is, no such group. When you create these conditions, public policy, then, can proceed without any consideration of this underclass of thirty million people. Is this not a practical approach if you do not have worry about them as voters?
Sheared sheep shiver,
Even in the summer,
In the rainy weather,
In the fields together,
When the mindless breezes,
Through their bodies freezes,
And on the ground it leaves them,
Where no shepherd grieves them.
Competition is the enemy of compassion and empathy.
The Stock Market, and publicly owned (stock) corporations, is fundamentally amoral and the enemy of social responsibility and public welfare.
In a free enterprise economy, where to survive profit has to be the dominant, or sole, motivation, consumer and public welfare must be disregarded – ‘as long as you can get away with it’.
The corporate and business implicit motto must be “Caveat Emptor!”, or as W.C. Fields wryly used to say, “There’s a sucker born every minute!”
Have you examined your Weltanschauungen today?
Edwin Young is working on a book tentatively called, "Can There Be a Paradigm Shift in Psychotherapy?" Links to some of his essays can be found at The Natural Systems Institute.