Saturday, July 14, 2007

Zero Tolerance for Dehumanization

Today the police brought formal charges against my friends Rainee and Bruce. I can't remember the last time I've felt so angry about anything. The details surrounding their case are so outrageous that it's hard to accept that they are in great danger, but they may well be.

They could go to prison, lose their daughter, and have everything that they've struggled to achieve destroyed. But they probably won't. Their counsel is the lead medical marijuana lawyer in the area, and the media, Real Change included, seems to be taking a keen interest. For now, I'm optimistic.

"How could anybody do that to someone?"

The answer lies in the word "someone." Drug users, like homeless people, are considered subhuman. So we're not dealing with "someone" at all. We're dealing with the dehumanized Other, who does not merit our empathy.

Heather left a comment on last week's Drug Users in Belltown post directing me to an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review entitled Your Brain on Drug Addicts. As it turns out, I'm a subscriber, and the article was in the pile below my coffee table.

Here's what it says. Brain imaging studies confirm what many of us already know. For most people, drug addicts and homeless people do not trigger empathy. They trigger disgust. They don't really even register as people.

With co-author Susan T. Fiske, also of Princeton, Harris chose which out-groups to show on the basis of stereotypes about them and the emotions they evoke. Fiske previously noted that the stereotypes of out-groups vary on two dimensions: warmth and competence. Warm and competent groups like American Olympic athletes inspire pride. Warm groups that are deemed unable to act on their warmth, such as the elderly or disabled, elicit pity. Cold groups that are nevertheless competent, such as the rich, induce envy. And groups that are low on both warmth and incompetence – drug addicts and homeless people – arouse disgust.

Fiske and Harris showed photographs of these four kinds of outgroups to 10 Princeton undergraduates as they lay in an fMRI scanner. To 12 other Princeton undergraduates they presented photographs of inanimate objects that aroused the same emotions as did the out-groups – for example, a sports car to induce envy, or an overflowing toilet to evoke disgust. They found that the pictures of the objects, homeless people, and drug addicts did not excite the mPFC, although they did activate brain regions associated with emotions.

So there it is. Were one actually dealing with another human being, the idea of manipulating an eight-year old who's beloved grandfather had just died to bust a couple who grow prescription medical marijuana for pain control would be unthinkable.

But if you're used to thinking of drug users as disgusting subhuman creatures who must be eliminated, then anything goes.

This is the issue that drew me to homelessness in the first place. Homeless people are widely regarded as subhuman. So are addicts and prisoners. When you have an expendable group of people who arouse disgust, terrible things can happen. The dehumanization of anyone leads to the dehumanization of us all.

Speaking of which ...

This week I fielded two press calls about downtown homelessness. The Downtown Seattle Association, as I said before, is on a new propaganda offensive over panhandling and public toilets. They are trying desperately to whip up some righteous indignation.

Thus far, they're not getting a lot of traction. But you can bet that they're not giving up. As the relationship between city and suburb changes, with cities becoming the new nucleus of upscale density, visible poverty is more unwelcome in urban centers everywhere.

Thus the fixation on "chronic" homelessness, and the companion stick approach, an escalation in the policing of the urban poor.

Being the angry sort of guy that I am these days, I'm finding diplomacy less and less appropriate to the moment. Last winter I had numerous conversations with the DSA's Peg Dreisenger and Anita Woo about the panhandling education campaign they had in the works. They were being reasonable, and so was I. I'm not wild about panhandling either.

They wanted an endorsement, but I wouldn't go that far. If they did their campaign in a way that focused on positive alternatives, as opposed to negative stereotypes, I said, I would not organize against them. They arrived at Have a Heart, Give Smart, and were rewarded with my public neutrality. I liked their brochure.

During our last meeting, Anita Woo, the DSA's communications staffer, told a story about a woman panhandler who was spotted hopping into her SUV to make a quick call on her Blackberry.

I laughed at her.

"You can't tell that story," I said. "It's like Ronald Reagan and his Cadillac driving Black welfare queens. It's apocryphal bullshit." We all laughed nervously.

She went on the radio during the launch of the campaign and told just that story. She punched away at all the buttons that the lit itself avoided. They're making a lot of money off of credulous do-gooders. It's all a big lucrative scam. They're mostly addicts. Etcetera. It's like they couldn't wait to take the fucking gloves off.

That was last January. Since then, they've escalated. Their position now is that, despite their panhandling education campaign, downtown begging is up by thirty-eight percent!

Woo trotted out the Blackberry story to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter just last week. You gotta love a good story.

Here's another one.

The DSA is also opposed to handing out sandwiches on the street. Here's a handy DSA guide to public policy: if it's visible downtown poverty, they want it to go away.

We were talking about downtown feeding, and Peggy Dreisenger, the affable manager of DSA's street program, told me the real reason one doesn't feed the poor.

Chronically homeless people have, through their years of alcohol and drug abuse, undermined the viability of their digestive organs. If one, therefore, feeds one of these wretches a sandwich, their body will reject it. They will throw up in the nearest bush, curbside, or sidewalk, and someone, probably one of her employees, will have to clean it up.

The do-gooders, she said, don't understand this.

I contained my amazement, walked back to Real Change, and told our editor what she had said. He knew. She'd said the same thing to him several weeks prior.

Since then, I've had the opportunity to ask the opinions of various health care professionals, each of whom were appalled at the story.

This story is about one thing. Dehumanization. This isn't something we should tolerate. Politeness, even here in Seattle, has its limits.


Stephany said...

This is just unbelievable, I dont know what to say except it is outrageous and i'm thankful that my brain registers ALL people as human beings.
Shit you must have patience to deal with the political shitheads in this town.

Mark said...

Coming from the psychiatric world, I can attest the hard core psychiatrists, such as T.A.C. also see mental patients as subhuman animals in need of medical treatment.

I can pass (visually) for normal , so I can really confuse them.

Stephany said...

it's seattle's sub human culture taking us all down in flames. try being rolled down __ and James on a gurney out of mental health court strapped 4 points down.

damn fuckers.

Stephany said...

Oh and did I mention that gurney rolling out of mental health court--is not about being homeless? and maybe I forgot to mention armed security guards tossed my kid to the parking garage from Swedish first hill after refusing her psychiatric care as an admitted patient?
Or how the homeless woman on my corner of my town told me she was thrown out of their lobby? [because she was visiting her homeless boyfriend and "appeared" homeless? ]
Do we have a problem in Seattle?
Talk about middle class poor, if it could happen to one of my kids it can happen to "yours".
The ones that dont have family support get tossed out by the security guards and left standing on Broadway.