On September 10th 2021, I was fortunate enough to be selected to do a Ted Talk. You can watch it at the video below.
We live in a divided country. A lot of people think that this division is about progressive vs conservatives. But the reality of the situation is that perception is a mask for the real and primary dividing factor, wealth vs poverty.
There are an awful lot of narratives about what poverty means and relative poverty in our society. A lot of people think that the poor just aren’t saving well or that the government already spends too much on social safety nets. The problem is, these arguments are political folk tales, not based on science or evidence. The reality is so much more complicated than these simplistic arguments that surround our notions of economic purity.
What do I mean by purity? Well, consider this video surrounding how much of the western world breaks down it’s notions of right or wrong, black and white. Anthropology Shorts: Mary Douglas Purity and Danger
We like easy, clear categories, to oversimplify elements of life and society and reinforce that with notions of morality that manifest in guilt, shamming, gossip and of course media. These notions of either/or logic (known in some social sciences as a false dichotomy) prevent us from understanding the actual situation on the ground. This leads to something called, perceived truth vs ground truth.
Perceived vs Ground Truth
Perceived truth is what we think is happening, or what ideally is going to happen when we institute new policy or laws or ideas in the real world. Ground truth is when that plan, or policy, or cultural norm actually impacts the lived experiences of human beings. For example, the idiom, “A rising tide lifts all boats”, is a perceived truth that comes out of the 1980s in economics. It’s the idea of trickle down economics and neoliberalism, that if you deregulate economics, empower companies and increase privatization, everyone will benefit. This is a perceived truth. With more than four decades of these polices, the truth on the ground shows us something different (Check out this article on Why Trickle Down Economics Doesn’t Work). The lived experience of working people is much different than the claim. They have not benefitted from these policies and in fact just the opposite. The ground truth is, these policies hurt most Americans while lining the pockets of those already in power. In fact, we now have the highest rate of inequality since records began.
Social Mobility, The American Dream, and Bootstraps.
What about social mobility and the notion that, given hard work, someone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps? The Bootstraps idea is another example of perceived truth, something that the media often touts via anecdotal evidence, that highlights the exception and not the rule. This is a media system that is largely owned by private firms, have a vested interested in continuing the narratives of the people who own them and fund them. Many of these big companies own a large portion of the media system and thus you have limited narratives that are available for people to consider. One of the creepiest examples of this concentration of media is the script that Sinclair forced about 200 of their local news broadcasts to read.
Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman highlighted the relationship between these narratives in the media and the control of what the media can say through five major filters in their famous book, Manufacturing Consent. The book examines the structure of large scale media. As it turns out, Media narratives actually make the situation of working people worse by casting perceived truth as a form of ultimate truth. Scholar Peter Drier highlights the problems of media systems and perceptions of poverty in his article, How Media Compounds Urban Problems and notes that the media often makes poverty worse by highlighting the exceptions and not the normal experiences of people on the ground. Narratives about welfare queens and troubled youth lead the news, while communities working together to solve issues or what it looks like to be poor are largely ignored. The job of the media is to hold those in power accountable, not to trumpet their narratives and further the suffering of the average citizen.
The thing about bootstraps is, not only is social mobility extraordinarily difficult, but it’s not even uniquely American. It turns out, that data doesn’t support that social mobility is as common in the United States as we think. Yes, there is an American Dream, but not only is it rare, but many of the other developed nations have much higher rates of social mobility, and much lower rates of inequality. Countries like Canada, have near double our social mobility. If your a podcast listener, Radiolab did a great job of breaking down the numbers on social mobility as well as debunking some of the myths surrounding poverty as well. Check it out here.
It’s expensive to be poor…
So often I hear, well if the poor were better at saving, then they wouldn’t be poor. The problem is, it’s expensive to be poor. You may have seen this meme going around social media at some point.
Is this perceived truth or ground truth? In this case we know it’s ground truth. That on the ground, it’s more expensive to be poor then middle class. This was very effectively demonstrated in the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. The fact of the matter is, simple little things like not having a washer and dryer in your house mean that you have to spend more time and money to accomplish simple tasks. If it was just one of these things, it wouldn’t amount to much extra labor or expense, but as Barbara Ehrenreich demonstrates in her book, every Nickel and Dime adds up and adds to the weight of extra time and money that poor people have to spend. Living paycheck to paycheck isn’t just about saving, often it is impossible to actually put away money. In fact, nearly 40% of Americans are one emergency away from disaster and homelessness.
As a father, and even with a graduate degree, I’ve experienced events like this first hand. I have skipped meals to be sure my children eat. I’ve gone long periods of time without seeing a dentist or a doctor because I can’t afford it, which could cost me a lot more later (i.e. the meme above). I have to prioritize everything I do to figure out how to pay bills and keep food on the table. Many poor families are far more disciplined about money than I and working with communities and doing first hand research, I’ve notice that the idea the poor are lazy or unable to manage their money is not only false, it’s actively harmful. For example, when I was in graduate school, I was forced to dumpster dive for three months when I only had $1 a day for food after bills. The reality is, sometimes there is no way to save and even when you do, surprises happen and you suddenly find your savings drained because your car breaks down (because most poor people cannot afford a car that is newer and less likely to break down) or perhaps you get sick and can’t afford the copays because the insurance industry is all part of systemic poverty. Which leads to the next point…
Poverty as a System and Structural Violence
Poverty is a system, a structure in society that is not created on accident. It has little to do with a lack of work ethic or training and so much more to do with how the game is rigged.
Anthropologists introduced a concept called Structural Violence way back in the 1960s. It is the idea that systems of power do everything they can to maintain that power. Anthropologist Paul Farmer wrote a 2004 article titled An Anthropology of Structural Violence. In it, he details how altering history or hiding large portions of it, allow for the continuance of a system that significantly oppresses the people of Haiti. He shows that the large problems they have in arenas like health care are a direct result of wide systemic problems.
The reality of the situation is that the people of Haiti were purposely disenfranchised by the dominant European and American powers because their independence in 1804, came as a result of the a massive slave revolt. Wanting to make sure that their own slaves didn’t get any ideas, France, England, and the newly formed United States spent the next few decades (the United States still intervenes and did so for much of the cold war) intervening in the politics, economics and government of Haiti to ensure that it did not become a successful nation. Much of modern poverty is like this, it was created by those in power and is maintained by those in power. As I discussed in my YouTube video on the origin of the concept of Race, even the very notion that we have different races was created in the 17th century as a means to divide and conquer a diverse group of poor in the American colonies after Bacon’s Rebellion to prevent further uprising.
The original idea of the board game Monopoly was to teach people how these structures work. The linked article highlights the history of the game but also gives people a glimpse at what happens with deregulated greed. One player ultimately ends up controlling the board while everyone else struggles and eventually loses. Poverty is no accident, it’s a rigged game. Two books highlight real world poverty and why such insane levels of inequality are a terrible idea. The first Why We Can’t Afford the Rich draws on a mountain of academic research to demonstrate how these systems function and why philosophies like neoliberalism and libertarianism are actually dangerous for society and lead to economic collapse. The second book Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism further explores these problematic assumptions about perceived truth vs ground truth and how this manifests around the world. If you are interested specifically in what happened when water became privatized you can read this article by Michael Goldman.
Poverty is no accident, it’s a structure. And while personal accountability is important the structure of a society can make change incredibly difficult for some, and much less for others. You may have seen this meme on the right traveling around the internet as well.
This meme is a simple and quick way to understand exactly how these systems work. Yes, hard work is a good thing. Yes, personal responsibility is a vital thing. But if the hardest working, most dedicated people in America were paid based on their work, it would be the janitors, the farmers, the construction workers, the teachers, and others like them who put all of their time and energy into the work who would do the best in society. We don’t really value a hard day of work, we value a false ideal of what work should look like and who is doing it. We are stuck in the perceived truth, the almost spiritual platonic forms of perception about work and wealth, and not what’s actually happening on the ground for the lived experience of many Americans. As long as we value perceived truth over real world evidence (and not anecdotes based on the extremes) we will face significant division and conflict. We must study and understand the structures of our society or risk further economic collapse and the suffering of many.
This is a bit of a “Rules to live by” post I guess. I have spent the last six years of my life teaching both undergraduate and graduate students anthropology, culture, and diversity. In my classroom I try to make things as practical as possible. We can fill our students heads with theory all day long, but what I try to do is try to give a baseline understanding of how different cultures view the world so that when they encounter other people in work or out traveling the world, they can find a way to understand another person and prevent some of the conflicts and communication traps that we run into.
I find myself repeating a lot of the following over and over and so I thought maybe it would be useful to some of you out there. Of course, you can completely disagree with me (that’s kind of the point here) but these are things that if you apply them, you might be able to understand those difficult people in your life in a new way.
1. There is no glorious past when things were better. That’s a figment of the cultural imagination and based on the ideals we want in the present. There is no period in history, no culture in history that was ever perfection and/or paradise. Fantasies of the past are fun, but they are just projections on the wall in the great cave of our times.
2. Every culture, every religion, every language, is weird. We are all weird, our entire species is weird as hell. The only reason you don’t think your ideas/thoughts/beliefs are weird is because you are used to them.
3. If one group is disenfranchised, that means someone is benefiting. I.E. if Women are payed less, that means Men are paid more and reap the benefits. If people are treated poorly because they have darker skin, that means if you have light skin you benefit (even if it isn’t obvious). That’s what privilege is. It is not an attack on your character, people cannot help what system they were born into, but they can change it.
4. Everything has a cost, everything. Nothing is cost free. Every major world empire was built on, and is maintained by a river of blood. The very fact you live in this country at this time in history means you benefited from war, colonialism, genocide, ethnic cleansing and all other manner of terrible things. But so has every other great empire. The Romans, the Islamic Empire, the Mongolian Empire, the Chinese Dynasties, they all did the exact same thing. So why teach them? Why talk about our mistakes and terror? Because I believe we can choose to be different. The first step is acknowledging that our culture did some fucked up things to other cultures.
5. Communication is really freaking hard. Words are really powerful. Everyone has words and images that they are sensitive to and trigger them (obviously survivors of trauma like many of my friends and myself have to spend a lot of time working through this) Figure out what yours are and watch your reactions. Sometimes just watching and understanding which words hit you hard can be a powerful tool for healing. But do remember, the only thing you can control is you. Life and most the world doesn’t care if you are triggered.
6. People are allowed to change. Something someone did 10 years ago does not necessarily reflect who they are now. Social media has created a distortion of static identity. Digging up ancient photos and tweets is only really useful if people are still exhibiting the same terrible behaviors now as they were then. Most of us go through a long hard process of testing ideas. This is normal and healthy, until you let your ideas take over and make you rigid.
7. Ignorance is not the problem in this world. Everyone is ignorant of something fundamental. Ignorance simply means to not know something. The problem is willful ignorance. When someone presents you with a new idea or a challenge to what you think about the world, take a breath. Let the emotional outrage simmer down and then try to approach it with calm and detachment and weigh all the evidence. Sometimes you might still be correct, and sometimes not. This is an uncomfortable but powerful process.
8. Being socially active, being mindful, being able to give back, boycotting products or getting an advanced education are all a privilege. Not everyone has access to these things. Remember again, that the only thing you can control is you. But also remember that you are powerful and that individuals are capable of making great (and terrible) changes to the world. You cannot force responsibility on other people and you should always remember that people face different barriers in life.
9. Read lots and from a wide variety of perspectives. Try and consider that you might be wrong about everything once in a while. It’s terrifying but sobering. Consider how little knowledge is contained in the entire human experience compared to the vastness of the rest of the universe.
10. Make sure you learn the difference between something that is opinion or cultural options (i.e. Monogamy or Polygamy are the best kinds of marriage) vs something that is objectively and verifiably true (I.e. The Earth is round). While your at it, learn about the scientific method and what good evidence is. Most things on the internet are easy to debunk with a little effort and awareness of your own bias.
11. Take a moment before you blame someone else for your problems or the problems of your culture. Yes, sometimes things are out of your control, structural violence absolutely exists, sometimes crazy random shit happens, and some people are unlucky, but if you keep seeing the same pattern over and over again, you might be a part of the equation. On a cultural level, if we are scapegoating people, who benefits? Blaming other populations for our issues, historically always turns out to be shortsighted.
12. Apathy and greed are deadly and destructive. A society that bases it’s institutions on these things will always have very serious problems. Empathy and generosity go a long way.
13. Listen to people’s stories. Share your own. If you don’t represent yourself, someone else will. Stories are how we save the world.
14. Diversity and difference is one of the most powerful tools in the human experience. Why? Because different people and cultures think about things in different ways. That means that there are many ways to approach complex problems. Sometimes we can’t see how to solve something because we are too close to it (personally or culturally).
15. There is no such thing as a homogeneous culture. People are people everywhere you go. Just because someone has the same language/religion/gender/nationality/income doesn’t mean they have the same inclinations or hopes or dreams. Each one of my children have different hopes and dreams about the future. Why would a group living on the other side of the world be any different? Don’t put people in boxes or make grand assumptions.
16. The is no one size fits all solution to anything. There is no single solution to solve any of the worlds major issues. All of history demonstrates this.
17. You are the bad guy, the evil empire, the oppressor, the asshole in someone’s story. No one in history is perfect. The people we claim as saints were either assholes earlier in life and grew from that or we are missing information. Plenty of people think I am an asshole. Plenty of cultures think Americans are terrible. No one ever thinks they are the asshole and every culture thinks they are they greatest ever.
I could probably think of more, but those are a lot of the things I find myself repeating most often. You, of course, are free to disagree, and of course comment and discuss.
In this 4 part on our series on Race, we explore the concept of Whiteness and White Trash from an anthropological perspective.
I am taking a moment out of my creative activity to talk about something that is important right now. Standing Rock is our future. What happens in the next few days or weeks there could change everything about our country, for the better or for the worse. It was a rough weekend up at Standing Rock. Check out this news piece from the New York Times for a brief summary on last weekends events. New York Times Story on Last Weekends Events
I am a lecturer at two universities in the Departments of Anthropology and so in addition to my creative writing, I have worked a lot with Native Americans in my career thus far. If we want to understand what is happening at Standing Rock, then it is important to understand the history. Below are a list of resources for anyone interested in educating themselves.
First the Standing Rock Syllabus. This is an overview of the history of Standing Rock and other important historical events for Native Americans.