Judging, or Explaining, the Homeless

Judging – or Explaining – The Homeless

In his 1993 book Tell Them Who I Am, Elliot Liebow wrote the following in the book’s preface:
“In general, I have tried to avoid labeling any of the women as mentally ill, alcoholic, drug addicted, or any other characterization that is commonly used to describe – or, worse, to explain – the homeless person. Judgments such as these are almost always made against a background of homelessness. If the same person were seen in another setting, the judgment might be altogether different.”
I find this quote about the homeless women that Liebow writes about in his book fascinating. The women who Liebow writes about would generally be considered normal if they happened to have a home, he explains. Their drinking, drug use, poor tempers, and other characteristics are used to explain away their homelessness, and as the quote above hints at, to excuse people from having to feel bad about them or to excuse people from having to help them.
People have trouble fathoming homelessness, and it becomes easier to blame the homeless than to blame society or their own actions that may have contributed to the homelessness of others. If another person’s homelessness can be explained by that person’s particular shortcomings, then the problem of homelessness can be dismissed and the homeless themselves can be ignored until they correct their own problems.
Liebow shows that this idea is a myth. The women he spent time with became homeless for a variety of reasons, but the poor characteristics used to define their homelessness generally were not that different from the poor characteristics of normal every-day people who have jobs, families, and homes. We all hear stories or have known professional people who do drugs, successfully retired individuals who drink excessively, or leaders and business owners whose behavior make us question their sanity. However, because they have homes and don’t need social assistance, their behaviors are dismissed. It is only when someone needs help, when someone has lost a home, that we suddenly judge them based on drug use or apparent mental instability.  As Liebow’s quote shows, this can seemingly be more of an excuse for a person’s state of need, and a disqualifying factor for our concern, rather than a real reason why someone is in the state they are in.
Defensive Decision-Making - Joe Abittan

Defensive Decision-Making

One of the downfalls of a negative error cultures is that people become defensive over any mistake they make. Errors and mistakes are shamed and people who commit errors do their best to hide them or deflect responsibility. Within negative error cultures you are more likely to see people taking steps to distance themselves from responsibility before a decision is made, practicing what is called defensive decision-making.

 

Gerd Gigerenzer expands on this idea is his book Risk Savvy by writing, “defensive decision making [is] practiced by individuals who waste time and money to protect themselves at the cost of others, including their companies. Fear of personal responsibility creates a market for worthless products delivered by high-paid experts.”

 

Specifically, Gigerenzer writes about companies that hire expensive outside experts and consultants to make market predictions and help improve company decision-making. The idea is that individual banks, corporations, and sales managers can’t accurately know the state of a market as well as an outside expert whose job it is to study trends, talk to market actors, and understand how the market relates to internal and external pressures. The problem, as Gigerenzer explains, is that even experts are not very good at predicting the future of a market. There is simply too much uncertainty for anyone to be able to say that market trends will continue, that a shock is coming, or that a certain product or service is about to take off. Experts make these types of predictions all the time, but evidence suggests that their predictions are not much better than just throwing dice.

 

So why do companies pay huge fees, sit through lengthy meetings, and spend time trying to understand and adapt to the predictions of experts? Gigerenzer suggests that it is because individuals within the company are practicing defensive decision-making. If you are a sales manager and you make a decision to sell to a particular market with a new approach after analyzing performance and trends of your own team, then you are responsible for the outcome of the new approach and strategy. If it works, you will look great, but if it fails, then you will be blamed for not understanding the market, for failing to see the signs that indicated your plan wasn’t going to succeed, and for misinterpreting past trends. However, if a consultant suggested a course of action, presented your team with a great visual presentation, and was certain that they understood the market, then you escape blame when the plan doesn’t work out. If even the expert couldn’t see what was going to happen, then how could you be blamed for a plan not working out?

 

Defensive decision-making is good for the individual, but bad for the larger organization that the individual is a part of. Companies would be better off if they made decisions quicker, accepted risk, and could openly evaluate success and failure without having to place too much blame on individuals. Companies could learn more about their errors and could do a better job identifying and promoting talent. Defensive decision-making is expensive, time consuming, and outsources blame, preventing companies and organizations from actually learning and improving their decision-making over the long run.
Inventing Excuses - Joe Abittan

Inventing Excuses

With the start of the new year and the inauguration of a new president of the United States, many individuals and organizations are turning their eyes toward the future. Individuals are working on resolutions to make positive changes in their lives. Companies are making plans and strategy adjustments to fit with economic and regulatory predictions. Political entities are adjusting a new course in anticipation of political goals, agendas, and actions of the new administration and the new distribution of political power in the country. However, almost all of the predictions and forecasts of individuals, companies, and political parties will end up being wrong, or at least not completely correct.

 

Humans are not great forecasters. We rarely do better than just assuming that what happened today will continue to happen tomorrow. We might be able to predict a regression to the mean, but usually we are not great at predicting when a new trend will come along, when a current trend will end, or when some new event will shake everything up. But this doesn’t mean that we don’t try, and it doesn’t mean that we throw in the towel or shrug our shoulders when we get things wrong.

 

In Risk Savvy Gerd Gigerenzer writes, “an analysis of thousands of forecasts by political and economic experts revealed that they rarely did better than dilettantes or dart-throwing chimps. But what the experts were extremely talented at was inventing excuses for their errors.” It is remarkable how poor our forecasting can be, and even more remarkable how much attention we still pay to forecasts. At the start of the year we all want to know whether the economy will improve, what a political organization is going to focus on, and whether a company will finally produce a great new product. We tune in as experts give us their predictions, running through all the forces and pressures that will shape the economy, political future, and performance of companies. And even when the experts are wrong, we listen to them as they explain why their initial forecast made sense, and why they should still be listened to in the future.

 

A human who threw darts, flipped a coin, or picked options out of a hat before making a big decision is likely to be just as wright or just as wrong as the experts who suggest a certain decision over another. However, the coin flipper will have no excuse when they make a poor decision. The expert on the other hand, will have no problem inventing excuses to explain away their culpability in poor decision-making. The smarter we are the better we are at rationalizing our choices and inventing excuses, even those that don’t go over so well.

Believing You Are Doing Right When Doing Wrong

A trait we all share as human beings is the ability to rationalize our actions and find fitting excuses for our decisions, priorities, shortcomings, habits, and behaviors. We can take the worst part of ourselves and put a positive spin on it, explaining away the negativity or at least explaining why we are justified in our wrongdoing. Ta-Nehisi Coats looks at this human ability in terms of racism in his book Between The World and Me.

 

Coats quotes Solzhenitsyn and writes, “‘We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any,’ writes Solzhenitsyn. ‘To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.’ This is the foundation of the Dream—its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works.”

 

In the passage above, Coats refers to The Dream as the false history and false memory of our nation’s founding, of slavery, and of our nation’s reconstruction following the Civil War. The Dream is not any one particular thing, but a set of experiences and life expectations afforded to white people in America but historically denied to African Americans. At the turn of the 20th century The Dream was denied to African American’s based on a false understanding of biology, genetics, and race, and allowed stereotypes to mascaraed as evidence based truths, lodging deep within our countries consciousness and as Coats would argue, still affecting us today.

 

We do not see overt racism very often in the United States today and it is generally quickly condemned by all. With overt segregation behind us, it is easy to assume that we have opened the doors of opportunity to all, and to assume that our success as an individual was no more likely than the success of any other person. We all had to make good decisions along our path and we all had to fight through obstacles with a sense of pride. Surely if we could do it, then so could any other person. Our focus on ourselves and the challenges we surmounted blind us to the reality that other people did not have the support, the starting point, and the random good luck that we had. What Coats refers to as The Dream is a set of circumstances that provide opportunities to some (opportunities that are hard to see) and criticizes those who do not achieve the same level of success without also having the same opportunities.

 

We think that what we are doing is good and just, but we are failing to recognize the ways in which we are maintaining division within society. We explain away our failure to act to help people by focusing on the sacrifices we had to make, on the frugal decisions we made with our money, and on the challenges we overcame. We do not see how our jokes, our inability to act, and our hidden acts of segregation (hiding behind economic household segregation) change the lives and opportunities of others.

 

This way of thinking allows systems to operate with unjust consequences and outcomes for racial minorities. Our human mind finds ways to take the blame off us and to place it on others who suffer, face greater challenges without support, and have historically been discriminated against. The act of recognizing the opportunities afforded to us but not others, and the act of recognizing how much we would struggle in another person’s shoes without the same opportunities is quite humbling, and takes away the facade of The Dream that Coats describes. Ultimately though, if we cannot recognize our self-interest and our brain’s ability to manipulate how we describe our self-interest, we will never reach a point where we are more just in our actions and decisions.

Exoneration

In the United States we love labels. We fully embrace the part of our brain that wants to categorize and classify everything around us, and when it comes to people we search for the right label to apply to every person to help us understand who they are, what they believe, and what they are likely to do or think. Our brains are constantly looking for patters, and labels are a type of heuristic to make people easier to understand.

A label that has been used more and more over the last several years, but has only become more complicated, is the word racist. Most people do not think seriously about race, though unavoidably race does influence our behaviors. Race triggers tribal instincts deep in our brain, encouraging us to look at others and decide whether they are like us or not like us, and associate and act accordingly. Where we live, who we hang out with, the jokes we tell, and where we go out for dinner are all areas where our tribal brain shapes our behavior based on perceptions of race, which is to say perceptions of sameness and otherness. Without self-awareness these implicit biases are hard to observe, understand, and counteract in ourselves, but they can be observed and criticized by other people or within a larger society.

It is this conflict, the challenge of seeing how implicit bias impacts our individual decisions and the ways in which implicit bias manifests in racial injustice, that has made the label racist so charged and so difficult to understand. We want to group social injustice, white people who make jokes about minorities, and our segregated society into the racist label, but the people who are tied up in everything described by the label are unable to see how they could be described by such a term.

Ta-Nehisi Coats in his book Between the World and Me describes this problem and how white people in our country have reacted to the charge of racist. “My experience in this world has been that people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.” In a sense, those who are grouped under the umbrella of racist become singularly focused with making excuses to show that they do not fit within the label. They demonstrate ways in which their behaviors are inconsistent with the most obvious forms of racism, and argue that their individual actions could not contribute to the system which has been oppressive for minorities and contributes the segregation that our society sees today.

Those charged with the label racist view racism as being overt actions, demonstrable discrimination, and unabashed ill-will toward minorities. The type of implicit racism that is rampant throughout society is somehow shielded (by hiding behind economic excuses) from the understanding of what racism is for those who are criticized as being racist. Society however, can see the way that individual decisions and historical injustice have piled on to create a society that is deeply affected by racist politics. Somehow we need a new label and new description to accurately explain society and individuals without forcing an exonerative reaction form those at fault.