March 4, 2008
Regarding the news that there are kids eligible for free school lunches under a federal program, but who choose to skip lunch because they don’t want to be stigmatized as losers and welfare cases, writer John Scalzi notes the conservative penchant for shaming the poor is a tad counterproductive:
In the case of children in poverty, their being poor is generally not their fault. Shaming the children of poor people for daring to receive a free lunch is tantamount to saying to them, well, if you had been smart, you wouldn’t have been born to poor people in the first place. And, you know. That sort of thinking makes you an asshole.
Shaming as a motivational technique to get people out of poverty is a bit like torturing as a motivational technique to get people to tell you something: It works better in fiction than it does in real life. Shaming, like torture, appeals to some minds because it feels like a tough, no-bullshit approach to dealing with something, and everybody’s seen it work in movies, so it’s got to work in real life. But the reason that shame (and torture) work in the movies is that someone’s writing a script; the real word is unscripted. In the real world, attempting to shame people for their poverty isn’t going to motivate them much, what it’s going to do is create resentment. And quite properly so, because per points 1-3 here, in the real world poverty isn’t a single-cause, socially acceptable condition.
— snip —
When I was poor, there were people who tried to shame me for it, and people who tried to help me out of it. The names and faces of those who helped me spring to mind without bidding; they are the people whose kindness and generosity let me see how good people can be, and how I should try to be when it was my turn to help, through personal action and through my influence on my government, and how it uses what I pay into it. The names and faces of those who tried to shame me? Gone from me, save for the memory of the smallness of their being, and the poverty of their understanding of how to treat others. I was inspired to lift myself out of poverty, not shamed into doing so.
When we help those in poverty, the way to look at it — the way I look at it — is that we’re paying it forward. Those I’m helping now will be those who will help others. I know this because I was helped myself. I’m not interested in adding shame to the mix; what I am interested in is adding the idea of responsibility to help those who need help, as you have been helped yourself. You won’t get that through shame.