Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Homeless, Racist; Dignity, Shame

For a while I was a case worker with a community of individuals dealing with homelessness. Note that I did not say “I was a case worker with the homeless”. This might seem like a small variation but it is a rather important one. “Homeless” is an adjective not a noun; it is a context someone finds oneself in not a state of being that defines a person. It is the difference between allowing someone to identify as an individual or forcing an individual to be nothing more than a stagnant identity. Recognizing someone as an individual, regardless of their context, is a key component of dignity. It is also a key component of not causing an individual to feel ashamed.

I want to take a moment to look at shame before going on. I have never found shame to be a good motivator. When I feel ashamed I am stuck, I feel I cannot change or do anything about my condition. Also I have never found shaming someone an effective teaching tool for long term change. At the end of the day I can find no use for shame.

What I do find effective is guilt. If someone comes to me and points out an action I have done that is wrong, shows me its wrongness, and promotes guilt, that can be a strong motivator for change. This process respects my dignity, it allows me to identify outside of the wrong action and make a set of achievable goals to over come it.

Now individuals should feel neither ashamed nor guilty if they find themselves in the context of homelessness. Shame should not be there for reasons stated above. Guilt should not be there because homelessness is a context not an action. Now an individual might engage in a series of wrong behaviors that might lead them, or perpetuate. the context of homelessness. Now in respect to those wrong behaviors guilt might not only be appropriate but requisite for the change necessary for leaving the context of homelessness. Some individuals find themselves in the context of homelessness not because of wrong doing but on account of right action in a broken world, an individual fleeing an abusive spouse with their children for instance.

What I have come to realize is that racism (a long with heterosexism, homosexism, misogyny, misandry, cisgenderism[1] etc.) is that it is also a context. This does not validate racism, any more than naming homelessness a context makes it any less a societal injustice. Racism is simply a context for which there is generally less compassion for those obviously caught up in it than homelessness. This lack of compassion makes it very easy to shame individuals, ignore their basic dignity, when they are caught up in the context of racism.

My suggestion is that this is counter productive. What I feel when I call someone a racist (or heterosexist, etc) is a very good feeling of self righteousness and when I am called a racist I feel an inordinate amount of shame. I know that when I am filled with either self righteousness or shame that I am generally blind, stuck, and unable to communicate. Now when I am perpetuating wrong actions that bring me into the context of racism, homosexism, cisgenderism and misogyny (all of which I have been called to task on and I expect such to occur again) I do need to be brought to task, I do need to feel an effective level of guilt, and I do need a community to be in conversation with me so that I can goal set to right and appropriate action. This cannot occur, however, if I am feeling shame and ineffective unrest and pain from those calling me to task.

I want to remove myself effectively from contexts that are filled with societal injustice and promote others to like actions. This means I have to place aside a need for vindication through shame, it means I have to recognize the basic dignity of those who are caught up in horrendous contexts and might be perpetuating severely wrong actions. It means I have to have compassion and empathy for those whom it is not necessarily easy so to do. It means striving to recognize the dignity and forgo shaming all individuals in all contexts unilaterally.        

[1] I have never encountered a prejudice similar to racism or sexism from the transgender community towards the cisgender community (of the opposite I have sadly encountered too much). To that end I do not attempt to formulate an opposite of cisgenderism in this list and pray that no experience will ever lead me so to do. 

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