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Don't mention the poor

By Lyn Bender - posted Wednesday, 22 May 2013

We may be managing to virtually ignore climate change; but the poor will always be with us. Even if we are Australian-centric, even if we ignore terrible suffering in Africa ,and Asia and the Middle East, there they sit on the streets of Melbourne: the ubiquitous centuries old beggars.

They lurk in the shadows of the loveless prosperity of the passers by, and offer up their misery in an empty polystyrene cup. Do we say there but for the grace of god or good fortune go I and toss them a coin? Mostly we say thank god it's you not me. In that way we are grateful for their testimony. Like dutiful detached mourners at a funeral for someone we have barely known, we rarely ask for whom the bell tolls.

We may clean them from city street, when guests are expected for grand celebrations and festivities in the city, but mostly they serve a function. They are the modern scapegoats


In Ancient Greece these were the beggars cripples or petty criminals literally cast out in times of plague or disaster to appease the gods, who may then go easier on the more worthy citizens.

In ancient Hebrew times it was an actual goat cast out into the wilderness upon the Day of Atonement.

We have the modern incarnation in targeted groups such as asylum seekers. But the former third world has long been the scapegoat of wealthy nations. We are changing but how profoundly?

How lastingly or deeply moved are we in the west, by the suffering of the Bangladeshi factory workers? Paid a pittance, they have lost their lives to supply wealthy consumers with cheap garments, and now they lie buried beneath the rubble of their sub standard factory workplace? Some of us may sign a petition, or boycott certain vilified brands, but after a while…..

The news of the occasional miraculous rescue, amid the horror and buried bodies, dies down. The media switches off and we go back to watching distracting television. En masse humanity can be very callow.

Perhaps it is only when we feel directly impacted by suffering or need, that we are likely to be really engaged. Until then we may operate passively in what Stanley Cohen describes in his book as States of Denial.


When we see truly hear and know another's pain empathy can kick in. This may be because our evolutionary biology is connected to our capacity to attach to the herd, and is designed to arouse care for those in our immediate family and community, when they cry for help or show distress. This is an ancient embedded survival strategy that has taken on many forms, though not all good, throughout civilisation including war, trade, codes and laws.

Like the fight and flight response it is another central survival drive. We will fight to save ourselves, and those on whom we depend; or we will flee. The problem in our globally interdependent world is as poet John Donne wrote in the 17th Century, "no man is an island" We are now unequivocally bound to the entirety of animals, plants and people and the planet. If the ecosystems collapse we cannot sustain life. Certainly not as we now know it.

So when trees fall in Indonesia it reverberates throughout our entire world. Yet Australia has reneged on a promised $75 million for forest regrowth in undeveloped countries. This would have benefited us all.

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About the Author

Lyn Bender is a psychologist in private practice. She is a former manager of Lifeline Melbourne and is working on her first novel.

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