Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Ethics and the Righteous Lumpen
We share so much of our society with our lumpen dopefiends than we care to admit. We live in the same cities, we have the same people in powerful positions making decisions and we share many of the same norms and structures. We went to the same schools, joined the same military (or at least claimed we did), and use the same hospitals when we're ill. While homeless drug addicts are invisible and ignored by everyone but each other, we cannot ignore the fact that we are completely intertwined with them. If they had had a different situation as a child, or made different choices, they wouldn't be one of “them,” they would be us.
However, are they so similar to us? Their addiction to heroin is the most important thing in their lives. Bourgois and Schonberg claim that the righteous dopefiends have sacrificed everything in order to satisfy their heroin addiction. Getting their heroin fix is more important than keeping a job, their family, their social status and even their dignity. They have given up our morals and norms and placed themselves outside of society. They are lumpen because society does not consider them to be worth inclusion. This group of social flotsam is considered to be the lowest of the low who have given up our moral standards.
But have they? Despite their rejection from social norms and morals, they also strive to achieve the “good life.” Tina and Carter make a home together, for example. Many of them try to prove they're not as bad as the others (for example, Tina doesn't consider herself a prostitute, the black heroin addicts do not skin pop, others claim they were veterans) and they have justification for their actions. They don't want to be like this, so they create separate bedrooms in their camps and make promises about “when they're sober.” They create a “good life” through finding a running partner, someone with whom they share their belongings, who they can take care of and who can take care of them. They are not part of society, but they maintain the norms of social lives within their lumpen group. They do not have to conform to the norms and morals of America, but they make attempts to still participate.
How alike are mainstream Americans and those who are excluded from it? In our behavior, we are alike. The norms of family and sharing and racialized behavior are still prevalent in the dopefiend camps. However, when it comes down to thin morality and values, the drug addicts have replaced their morality with addiction. When there is room for other norms and values, they follow them. But even Sonny skin pops when he cannot find a vein, and Tina will sell her sex for drugs. Taboos are easily broken, and morals set aside in order to avoid being dopesick. Unlike Stephen's idea that we are morally alike in thin ways and when we put them into practice, the thick morals are different, it seems as if with the lumpen, the reverse is true. Our behavior is similar in our strive for the “good life,” but what is morally good is different. For them, good is avoiding dopesickness at any cost. For us, while we avoid human suffering, we can still drive by or walk past without being moved to help them. We have other values and morals that take precedence over helping people avoid becoming dopesick.
In fact, we do not even pity those who are dopesick. We hope that by being dopesick in their jail cell, they'll be able to kick the habit. We take hope in their suffering, because we see their suffering as a consequence of their choices. Do they deserve this forced suffering? What do they deserve from mainstream Americans, who have the power in the relationship? With our value of easing human suffering, it would seem logical that they deserve medical care to ease the side effects of addiction, such as treatment of abscesses, or even small doses of medicine while in jail. However, they do not receive it. Furthermore, their shelter is repeatedly taken from them because we have decided that people should not live under overpasses, making them exposed and without a home. As fellow humans, they deserve dignity, but we do not give it to them. They partially take it away from themselves, as a result of the dopesickness and poor cleanliness habits. However, when we pretend they don't exist or ignore them, we take away their dignity and humanity. When we treat them as things that don't even deserve to be in the hospital, we rob them of what dignity they have left.
This raises the question: if avoidance of suffering is truly part of our morals, why don't we help them? Why do we drive by? Why do we look at everything but the face of the man who is asking for money downtown? Why do the police clean up their camps, as if taking away their home will make them disappear, as well? Why do the doctors in the hospital take all day before helping the man with maggots in his leg? Perhaps because we see it as hopeless for us to try to ease their suffering. Perhaps it is because we see them as choosing to suffer. Perhaps this suffering isn't easily fixed by a donation or a race, the way a cleft palate or cancer supposedly is. We don't donate our Facebook statuses to homeless dopefiends. How do we help to alleviate their suffering? The only easy solution is to ignore the problem. If we consider these homeless drug users to be choosing their own fate, to be outside of our concern, we are allowed to ignore them.
Our treatment of homeless addicts raises the issues of choice. What role does choice play in all of this? Did they actually make the choice to use drugs in the first place? There are many other factors involved in drug use besides the individuals decision to inject heroin. The presence of drugs in their life, whether or not other people in their life use drugs, how they've been taught to cope with adversity, their class, their family life, etc all go in to someones likelihood of using drugs. If someone has so many social factors stacked up against them, it becomes less of a choice to use drugs and more of a choice to not use drugs.
Similarly, do we actively make the choice to ignore and judge them? Rarely are homeless heroin addicts portrayed in the media except as a social problem. Few people in society help or talk to the panhandlers who may or may not be drug users (but we assume they probably are). We're taught to avoid them and stop staring when we're young children, and our parents roll up the windows and lock the doors when there's a homeless person begging on the side of the highway. Is it any surprise that we ignore them?
How can we learn from Righteous Dopefiend? How do we judge them with this new awareness of the issues surrounding homelessness and drug addiction? Do we even have the right to judge them, knowing their moral standards are different from our own? Should we judge them for their choices in lifestyle, even if it's not a complete choice? Furthermore, how do we judge ourselves when we see ourselves doing nothing? This book leaves more questions than answers, not only about the dopefiends, but also about ourselves and our understanding of morality.