I grew up in a place where rough sleepers would sometimes stop you to ask for money. I now live in a place where children, men and women will sometimes approach you as you walk down the street, asking for money, food or water.
I have noticed that the response that most of us adopt to these interactions is to simply look the other way and pretend that that person does not exist. Maybe it makes you feel helpless because you cannot do anything to change a painful situation? Maybe they are a reminder of the things you believe are wrong about the world? Maybe you just simply see them as an inconvenience who is disrupting your busy life, an individual who should be working but is too lazy to do so?
It is definitely much harder to acknowledge that person and think through what they need. That would mean engaging with the inequality that exists in your own neighbourhood. We do not like feeling guilty. We live in a world where stories of “rags to riches” are celebrated, and we all like to make this our identity too. We like to think we have struggled to get where we are, and have succeeded despite the obstacles against us. Acknowledging that person’s presence would mean having to be confronted by your own privilege in comparison to them.
Maybe we kid ourselves that this lack of response is actually in that person’s best interests too. We have all experienced doing something accidentally shameful in public and trying to pretend that it never happened. By ignoring the person who is begging, we are saving them the embarrassment of acknowledging the situation too, right?
However, I do not believe this is really what we are doing at all.
Although nowhere near on the same level as begging, I have had a small glimpse of this myself. For a few of my previous jobs, I have spent time trying to talk to people on the streets or give out flyers to people walking past. I have done this both for profit-making companies and for non-profit organisations; sometimes to persuade people to give money and sometimes just to raise awareness. In general, whatever the reason for it, this can be quite a demeaning experience. You feel guilty that you are wasting someone’s time as they hurry about their lives.
Sometimes people would be nice to me, sometimes tolerate me and sometimes be aggressively rude. However, what I can say from my own experience, is that the worst thing someone can do is to refuse to acknowledge your presence at all. It would feel horrible to have someone walk past and completely blank you. It felt incredibly dehumanising.
I can’t help but think that this is how we all feel. There is nothing worse when you have an argument with someone that when they refuse to speak to you, or pretend that you don’t even exist. Even if someone is being rude or treating you badly, we somewhat appreciate that they still see us worthy of some kind of emotion.
I have noticed too, more and more, that we are living in a time where people with different political, religious or ideological views are finding it harder to engage with one another. Instead of disagreeing with that person’s perspective and talking to them about why you differ in opinion, we are increasingly demonising that person, and therefore deciding to remove them from our lives. Again, I believe this is a refusal to acknowledge that they are also a person, same as you.
Maybe sometimes it’s easier to numb ourselves to the injustice around us because it’s painful to have to face it, but I think it’s important that we do feel the things that are painful in the world.
There are definitely times when you should stop interacting with another person, particularly if there is a continued risk that they will cause you damage. However, I think that we do this too easily, just with people we view as being a mild inconvenience to ourselves. Often I think we focus more on what divides us from other people than on what we have in common with each other.
So, in a time where there is such a drive towards division, whoever you are, wherever you are from and whatever your views about the world, regardless of your social group, economic group or nationality, let’s please just choose to acknowledge each other’s humanity.
Abigail works for an NGO on the issue of Human Trafficking, helping draft policies and conducting research. email@example.com