I have been thinking a lot about the mean remarks that you often find in the comments section on blog articles, especially the shame that is heaped upon anyone facing financial hardship. I’ve been trying to understand where the hostility comes from. Whenever an article features a person who is in need, someone is almost guaranteed to post in a menacing tone seeking to demolish any excuses the person might have for their situation. If they have a service job that doesn’t pay enough to cover expenses, they might chide them for being too lazy to get an eduction or better job or a second job. If they have a PhD they will flame them for thinking they are too entitled to take a service job. They might critique their choice of study. If the poor person is a single mother they will question her morals. “Why did you have those kids in the first place?” What strikes me about the comments is the level of offense people take at someone else’s life. They seem to feel personally threatened by the existence of the poor.
They seem to be operating out of a belief that the world is one of scarcity. There is only so much wealth and well-being to go around and if you get more, I will get less. They assume that the poor resent their good fortune and they also feel guilty for whatever mechanism allows them to have more of the stuff and resent the poor person for making them feel that way. “It’s not my fault you’re poor– it’s yours.”
The other day I watch Jessica Jackley’s Ted Talk “Poverty, Money and Love.”
Jackley said something that gave me a bit of insight into internet shaming of the poor.
“After a while… I started to feel bad every time I heard about (the poor)… I gave when I was cornered, when it was difficult to avoid and I gave, in general when the negative emotions built up enough that I gave to relieve my own suffering, not someone else’s… It became a sort of transaction for me… I was purchasing something– I was buying my right to go on with my day and not necessarily be bothered by this bad news… So as I did this, and as I think many of us do this, we kind of buy our distance, we kind of buy our right to go on with our day. I think that exchange can actually get in the way of the very thing that we want most. It can get in the way of our desire to really be meaningful and useful in another person’s life and, in short, to love.”
She went on to talk about how her experience with Kiva, the micro-lender, taught her to think about the poor in a new way because she was “told stories about the poor that were different than any stories I had heard before… those individuals he talked about who were poor was sort of a side note. He was talking about strong, smart, hard-working entrepreneurs who woke up every day and were doing things to make their lives and their family’s lives better. All they needed to do that more quickly and to do it better was a little bit of capital. It was an amazing sort of insight for me. And I, in fact, was so moved by this– it’s hard to express how much that affected me.”
When I was promoting my book Broke is Beautiful occasionally someone in an interview would ask me if I had anything against capitalism, didn’t I believe in rewarding risk? Risk-taking is the American way. It is what made this country great. If you look at the back of a dollar bill you will see the Latin inscription “annuit coeptis.” It was Ben Franklin’s personal motto an it means “Be favorable to bold enterprises.”
What I always said was that I did believe in supporting people who take risks, but that a risk, by definition, does not guarantee a reward. In fact, a lot of the people who are broke got that way because they took risks that didn’t pay off. If you want to be favorable to bold enterprises, you have to accept that people are going to fail, and fail spectacularly.
As I listened to Jackley speak, I thought of the poem Failure by Philip Schultz which begins:
To pay for my father’s funeral
I borrowed money from people
he already owed money to.
One called him a nobody.
No, I said, he was a failure.
You can’t remember
a nobody’s name, that’s why
they’re called nobodies.
Failures are unforgettable.
I thought about how insidious poor shaming is. As the trolls shoot down every “excuse” they are saying, in essence, that the only people who are deserving of empathy are those who are blameless. If your situation is your fault, you have no business asking for my help or even my compassion.
And so the poor person, as a form of self-defense, must come up with reasons why it is not his fault that he has fallen on hard times. “It was not my fault, I was laid off, the storm ruined my crops, I had medical bills that insurance wouldn’t pay.” If it could not be foreseen or avoided, then it is OK to ask for sympathy.
But what happened to the bold American spirit of encouraging risk-taking?
Failures are unforgettable because they jumped headlong into bold adventures with a spirit of optimism, passion and commitment. The very things that internet trolls might use to shame us are the things we should be most proud of– our glorious attempts to do something meaningful. The woman who had a brilliant idea and launched her business under capitalized; the man who was deeply inspired and wanted to make the world a better place by sharing his love of literature, who now has a PhD in Renaissance poetry and thousands of dollars of student loan debt; the woman who married the man of her dreams and believed they would be in love forever, who is now a single mom.
When we run away from our mistakes, and try to disown them, we are disowning the things that drove us and gave our lives meaning. This is why I find the concept behind Failure:Lab so intriguing. When you look deeply into your failure you will see in the shadow of regret the beautiful dream.
People may try to shame you for not winning everything you try. Don’t let them.
You were an entrepreneur investing in something important. If it had taken off–Oh! how the world might have changed!
Demonic Pigs and Hearing Voices (discusses poor shaming)
and my Failure Series