Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A Social War

Dr. Susan Fiske, a leading sociologist, in a major study dealt with public emotional response to different social groups.  She generalized these responses to be “Envy” (e.g. for those who are wealthy or professionals), “Pity” (e.g. for the obviously handicapped) “Pride” (e.g. for housewives) and “Disgust” (e.g. for undocumented immigrants).   She developed a chart indicating the position of certain groups relative to each other.  She explained in a lecture at UCLA that she wasn’t able to place the homeless, as a social group, on the chart, because the American response to the homeless was so overwhelmingly in the “disgust” category, that the group would have skewed the rest of the chart.  She said that the common perception of homelessness is that they are a “pile of garbage”—less than human and personally offensive to be close to.  

(Envy Up, Scorn Down, by Susan Fiske; Varieties of DE-Humanization, lecture given to UCLA by Susan Fiske, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f--dDx0q6so  ).

According to the study by Dr. Fiske, the American public have these preconceptions of the homeless:
-Homeless people are not interacted with by the mass of the population
-They do not have a relatable mind
-They are considered less competent than other groups
-They are contemptible
-They are disgusting, as if they have a communicable disease.
-They are the equivalent of a “pile of garbage”
-One homeless person is worth less than five “normal” people
-The homeless are being dehumanized by the average American

This public perception is easily seen.  A majority of comments on Anna Griffin’s articles on homelessness have to do with how disgusting the homeless are.  There is an assumption of criminal action by the homeless, some call them “sociopaths”, while others are just wondering how to get them out of their neighborhood.  A common thread is a lack of any perception that the homeless are fellow citizens of our community.  Rather, it is the assumption that they shouldn’t be in public spaces.  Many feel that their best location is in jail, although the majority of criminal activity that is actually seen is leaving piles of trash.  There is a higher level of complaints about the homeless to the police than other groups, even when criminal activity is taken into account.

What Dr. Fiske shows, however, is that our reasons for finding the homeless disgusting is secondary to their social placement.  The foundational reaction is emotional, and we come up with reasons after the fact. This is why the reasons change to such a degree, but the basic response remains the same—they must be gotten rid of.

If our initial emotional response to the homeless is disgust, then the primary social response is that the homeless is the stranger, those “not one of us.”  This leads to fear, most often irrational fear, and then an assumption of criminal behavior.   Then the police are called with complaints because of the homeless, and they feel that they have to do something, even though they do not have any criminal act they can act upon. 

Eventually the public outcry becomes so much that the homeless are moved from one location to another, which is how a city responds to “piles of garbage.”

No comments: