What Does Your Society Teach You About Poverty?

Posted August 28, 2014 no picture Effie Johari

no picture Effie Johari View Profile
Member since June 6, 2014
  • 14 Posts
  • Age 18

The hand that gives is above the hand that takes. (Image from Orbital Charity Dynamics, UK. Caption by author and not affiliated with the organization.)

The hand that gives is above the hand that takes. (Image from Orbital Charity Dynamics, UK. Caption by author and not affiliated with the organization.)

Implicit in most discussions of poverty is the notion that inequality is a given, and this has been an expected way society passes down their ideas regarding the subject. Since the only society I have ever lived in is here in Malaysia, I do not have firsthand accounts of the values that other cultures espouse except for my own. Here, there are several ideas of poverty and the conditions that engender it that are taught both formally and informally as an attempt to obstruct the violence realities of economic inequality.

First, is a pretty common belief that poverty is an identity problem. With a strong belief in the promise of economic mobility, those who are poor are seen as lesser because they just haven’t worked hard enough to lift themselves out of their existing conditions. The stigma against homeless people, which I have written on, is largely due to the belief that they are simply too lazy to take care of themselves. This is the danger of putting all of your eggs in one meritocratic basket. The ‘losers’ of the economic and social game are seen as deserving because they have not worked as hard as you or I. You may retort that people do not honestly think this way anymore, but tell that to authorities who blame the poor for their own plight.

The picture that society captures reflect anything but the consensus that the poor deserve to be treated with the dignity rightly afforded to any human. The homeless are still homeless, the beggars still beg, and the poor still struggle to find means of subsistence. On another note, it is no longer acceptable to publicly degrade the fortunes of those who live in impoverished, yet to be ‘developed’ countries. Surely for first world countries to blame those in the third world or global south for not having reached their version of a modernized and developed country is no longer on the table. But again, whatever constraints on what is or is not appropriate to say in polite company makes no difference to the realities. It just means that the structural violence occurring now happens silently.

Second, as Malay Muslims, my education as well as the general culture in this country has impressed upon me the importance of sedekah, or giving alms. To care for those who are less privileged than us, to give as much as we can, is an exhortation, and a noble cause. However, side by side with this cultural teaching that’s passed from one generation to the next via both formal and informal education systems is the idea that when you give sedekah, you get twice what you give in return. This goes with the saying ‘the hand that gives is better than the hand that receives’. The idea is that those who give will receive more blessings from God, but the social context this teaching is spread in undermines the sacredness of altruistic actions.

In a materialistic world powered by self-interest, telling someone that giving to the poor will double your possessions (be they material or otherwise) seems like you are affirming an ideology where nothing can be given for nothing, and that everything is up for exchange, everything is up for sale. This incentive further undermines sedekah as an act for God. Instead, it keeps the gap between the haves and the have nots wide open by ensuring the purpose of sedekah, at least how it’s taught, isn’t to reach an end goal of equal economic distribution, but so that you too can get something out of helping others. In a religious context, doing good does gain you points, but a rewards and punishment system is a hindrance and possibly detrimental to the goal of economic liberation. The end itself should justify the cause, without spurring children on with ideas that sedekah will benefit the giver twice as much as the receiver.

Third, and finally, there is the much questioned issue of the nature of sympathy. Sympathy can so easily translate itself into the charity-industrial complex, and sometimes, it is no more than a manifestation of guilt. When philanthropy itself acts as an industry, it’s time to question the motives behind those who say they want to help, including individuals who are encouraged to express sympathy for the plight of the poor, but who nevertheless are instilled with the idea that the existence of a lower class is inevitable, and in fact, beneficial.

“So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all good intentions) an impertinent – if not inappropriate – response. To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may – in ways we might prefer not to imagine – be linked to their suffering, as the wealth as some as some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.” Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

Society and its labours are so increasingly divided today that we do not hold ourselves accountable for the injustices of the world. A baker, mechanic, or security officer considers themselves to not be involved on a political scale. A rich person doesn’t consider the money they have as stolen from the poor. But for systems to run, it needs everyone to participate. The bit parts are the system itself, and this is a system that violently oppresses the poor. Sympathy obfuscates accountability and action.

It is sinister indeed to consider the notion that poverty is inherent and natural. Social, cultural and religious forces conspire with the ruling class to teach our children that everything exists for a reason. The reason poor people exists is to test the rich, for example, and the reason economic hardships befalls a person is to test them. This sounds ridiculous but is in fact the beliefs of the religious community that I grew up in, one that puts a period after the sentence ‘everything happens for a reason’.

If we wanted to talk about what we personally believe – our purpose on Earth, and of creation itself – we can sit here till our hairs turn grey. Reducing the suffering of others to mere functions is a luxury of the truly privileged. Volunteerism, charity organizations and efforts, as well as community-centered activities that aim to alleviate the material realities of the poor, should continue to be supported. But it is time we do away with cultural teachings and ideas that can hinder the cause. Economic inequality is a reality that is caused by humans, and as humans, we have to take that responsibility.


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