Monday, March 09, 2009

Objectification - a moral question

It's hard not to objectify people.

When you walk down the street dodging swerving taxis, goats, rickshaws, motorbikes, treacherous potholes and gutters, urine puddles and the like, there are a large number of beggars and small peddlers. People block your way, grab at you and your pockets, and follow you substantial distances. I'm generally very good at getting people to go away, but if you are white, you are a target, no matter how menacing you act.

As I've mentioned before, the vast majority of most of these are scams and they perpetuate the cycle of poverty and indignity. We have been urged by the most charitable of the charitable organizations to please ignore these people...

I'm certainly capable of it, for better or for worse. But it forces you to objectify people. That's no good, is it? But they are objectifying you (you are not a person, you are a well-spring of gullibility and wealth). But does that make it okay to objectify them? Probably not.

I think of my taxi story. We felt bad for the guy; he seemed desperate in asking to raise the price (we figure he had to pay a fine when we were pulled over by the police). We were really thinking we'd pay him more (despite telling him no). He'd tripled the price, and we were willing to double it. That's ridiculous, in retrospect, but we figured, what's the difference between 50 and 100 rupees (about a dollar of difference, actually)? But this path is perilous.

If you are willing to think this way, you could be rich by western standards, and be all cleaned out within hours. And you would have taught people that the most profitable thing they can do is rip off people. It also can create untenable inflation for the locals, by the way.

Fortunately, our taxi driver raised our price sixfold, which cleared things up for us. He was definitely scamming us. He did the work of objectifying himself for us. We got out of the car and I yelled at him.

But, but, but...I paid him what I thought was a decent amount nonetheless (although I threw it at him). Was this naivete? Compassion? Maybe neither, maybe both.

It's a hard line to walk, one we are working on. I can treat everyone like the enemy, but that is no way to live. But I cannot imagine that failing to objectify people (which seems the only way not to fall into the scams) to a degree is helpful to them in any way (sorry for the multiple negatives).

The problem is, I get stuck with the words of Jesus..."if a man asks for your coat, give him your tunic too." I don't think Jesus was naive, but he so often asks the impossible.

Well, for now, I have volunteering to expiate my objectification and cleanse my conscience. Isn't that humanitarian of me?

What do you think? My goal is to neither fall for scams (that's easy) but to maintain a sense of people's person-hood (very hard, especially if you want to skip the scams). How might you handle this?

We have a month to work on it, hopefully a month that shapes how we approach this matter for the rest of our lives. For in the west, we still live in the world with the desperately poor, they just are farther away.

1 comment:

Matt said...

I was able to satisfy my conscience a little bit by making sure that I looked people in the eye when I was rejecting their begging. The path that is easiest for me is just ignoring people altogether and pretending that I don't hear their pleas, but I didn't feel good about that. I found that looking the problem in the eye and making sure that people knew that I wasn't trying to disrespect them was important.