The empathetic poor

The good Samaritan
Image by twoGiraffe via Flickr

US. Americans like to pride themselves on their hospitality  and  generosity and I’ve heard many visitors to the US back this impression up so there must be a truth to it and I do not doubt that towards more “trustworthy” people, as are for example white, middle-class European tourists, Americans will go out of their way to take care for them. However, things are radically different when one is talking about lower class people, immigrants and PoC. This story from reddit is quite enlightening on this respect. Here’s a quick quote-summary1:

This past year I have had 3 instances of car trouble. A blow out on a freeway, a bunch of blown fuses and an out of gas situation[…]

Anyway, each of these times this shit happened I was DISGUSTED with how people would not bother to help me. I spent hours on the side of the freeway waiting, watching roadside assistance vehicles blow past me, for AAA to show. The 4 gas stations I asked for a gas can at told me that they couldn’t loan them out “for my safety” but I could buy a really shitty 1-gallon one with no cap for $15. It was enough, each time, to make you say shit like “this country is going to hell in a handbasket.”

But you know who came to my rescue all three times? Immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of them spoke a lick of the language. But one of those dudes had a profound affect on me.

He was the guy that stopped to help me with a blow out with his whole family of 6 in tow. I was on the side of the road for close to 4 hours. Big jeep, blown rear tire, had a spare but no jack. I had signs in the windows of the car, big signs that said NEED A JACK and offered money. No dice[…]

So, to clarify, a family that is undoubtedly poorer than you, me, and just about everyone else on that stretch of road, working on a seasonal basis where time is money, took an hour or two out of their day to help some strange dude on the side of the road when people in tow trucks were just passing me by. Wow…

This isn’t of course just to rant against the US. Most, if not all primarily middle-class countries in the world behave like this. I do not think that Germans or Englishmen would be more willing to stop to help than the Americans. Hell, the Germans had to implement laws which make it illegal not to stop to help during a car accident, just to prevent everyone just driving by.

Things vary of course, depending on how society is formed, along with their traditions and the incentives the system creates, where small economic variables can have a very big impact2 but there is an obvious correlation to social class and how much your “good samaritan” feelings extend. To me, it looks like one’s mutual aid tends to focused towards their own social class or and higher, which of course why the rich (which have the smallest numbers) seem to be meaner on average than the rest of us.

I’m not a scientist and especially not  sociologist so I can only state my impressions on this of course, but I see various interlocking psychological and material effects taking place here to form this reality, from the monkeysphere, to tribalism, to class warfare, and all of them together form this reality and this is just yet another emergent phenomenon from the existence of inequality. It is exactly these kind of emergent effect that simple logical assumptions and rationale (such as the favourite right-libertarian defence of inequality as “harmless”) cannot predict or combat.

Until  we achieve global equality, such phenomena as the above will always exist and the most oppressed classes will be always the most altruistic while the ruling elite and all kinds of managers will act the most crassly and egoistically to the detriment of everyone else. All the pleading in the world for a more empathetic “first world” will continue falling on deaf ears, because it’s not that these citizens of the rich nations willfully become this way, but rather that any existence of inequality, will affect the psychology of people to make them act this way. And unfortunately, it’s not possible for everyone to receive the kind of life-altering event, as the redditor above.

  1. Btw, the above are not the best parts, just the parts that convey the main point I’m trying to make. I won’t spoil the whole comment and you should really read it in full to get the whole emotional impact of it. []
  2. Example: Having to pay for health or an ambulance to come will make people involved or watching accidents have a significantly altered reaction compared to countries where all health care is free. I still remember the story about a guy in Switzerland passed by a motorcycle accident with an unconscious cyclist. He called out an ambulance to the scene which was turned back by the cyclist who had woken up by then. Since ambulance call-outs are charged there and the cyclist refused service, they tracked down the original caller and charged him. Now what incentive would that give you? []

5 thoughts on “The empathetic poor

  1. The footnote really got to me for some reason.

    In Jersey where I grew up, we had free call boxes and highway management. If you were broken down on the side of the road, you could rest assured that someone would be coming around regularly to check the roads and offer help even in the middle of the night. Of course, though, as soon as "deficits" got too high, it was one of the first services to be cut by half, but it still exists. I can't imagine being charged to call for any emergency services though. That's just awful. That's what our taxes are for, so we may as well get *something* out of it.

    1. It's funny how many of the things our relevant cultures take for granted, are seen by others as luxuries, and yet, when you think about it, many of these are only expressions of human mutual aid and make perfect sense. It's just so sad that through profit-seeking they've managed to make simply altruism be so "expensive" so as to be considered a luxury.

  2. We are born into a world that deliberately and systematically instills in us a fear of the "other." Many feel as though rather than trusting our fellow humans, we should keep them at a distance and only make exceptions for those who've proven themselves trustworthy. The general assumption is that "everyone is out to get me," when most people are just trying to get by in their daily lives and we could all do with some help from time to time. It's interesting to assess how the nature of trust or presumption needs to be addressed before any decent amount of progress in this area can really be achieved. (Although I'm just a big proponent of the "Dude, don't be an asshole," lifestyle.)

    Then again, it's not profitable to break down barriers. I mean, once people see how much they actually have in common, well…the world turns to complete shit, right? ; )

  3. I've noticed this phenomenon several times, and it has always backed my anger toward the wealthy. In Chicago, when I worked for Children International trying to get people on the streets to sponsor children in third-world countries, the more working-class somebody looked or acted, the more likely they were to stop and listen to me. People in business suits with briefcases stampeded by me 100% of the time.

    Another time, I was working for Clean Water Action, trying to promote awareness and get support for environmental initiatives. We had to go door-to-door, and I only lasted two days. On the first day, we went to a middle-to working-class neighbourhood and I was surprised at how many people were friendly and donated money. On the second day, we went to a wealthy neighbourhood and I got doors slammed in my face many times. That day I broke down and quit.

    A third time, I worked for a movie theatre in the ticket booth and had to ask people if they wanted to donate $1 to "Stars of Hope" to support children with cancer. I could predict with astounding accuracy who would buy a star. Black people and Latinos bought the most stars, and East Asians and white people bought the least.

  4. In Guatemala they have a saying "A poor man can't eat. A rich man can't sleep." The fear of other people that flourishes when some have so many and others have so little just corrupts everything.

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