This is the follow-up to the story I posted yesterday. It’s great to read the generosity of so many Melburnians. Now that it’s happened it doesn’t surprise me – people are like that. It also highlights something I’ve thought for a long time.
I wonder how many of the people offering help to this homeless girl are also staunchly anti-refugee, and carry on about Muslims and terrorism. I’m being unfair perhaps, but in my experience the two positions are not contradictory – people are often generous and compassionate on the personal level, and just the opposite at the group level.
It’s the difference between the general and the specific. A faceless crowd is easy to dismiss, and even demonise. Pluck a child from the crowd and it becomes personal, people become interested, and even sympathetic. The blanket generalisations and convenient beliefs that power prejudice dissolve in the face of intimate reality. The same man who happily says that kids should be locked up on an island thinks differently when he looks into the eyes of the self-same child. Personal experience trumps vaguely held prejudice.
It’s such a blatant difference that you wonder why people aren’t more aware of it – except mostly they aren’t. It’s a form of hypocrisy, but like just about every example of hypocrisy the perpetrator is oblivious of it.
Joseph Stalin is said to have proclaimed that “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”
Stalin was not a noted humanitarian, and you could look at him with cow eyes and I reckon he’d still happily pull the trigger. Still, he had a point. We can no more get our head around abstract groupings – refugee, Muslim, etc – than we can numbers so large we can’t conceive of them. The death of one man hits harder because it is more intimate. Not one of the nameless, he takes on an identity and a story. So it is with the refugee who becomes personalised, or indeed the homeless girl hoping for a university education.
Given a voice and a back story she becomes individual, and not just one of the too easily categorised ‘welfare cheats’, ‘dole bludgers’, or indeed, as our government would have it, a leaner.
This is fine, except it shouldn’t take this. But then perhaps I’m being ungenerous?