Two Things Everyone Needs To Read (Update x2)

I have nightmarish memories of talking to prosecutors and judges in an effort to explain why a client didn’t behave the way they thought a “normal person” should.  It’s reminiscent of Angry Nancy Grace’s screeching, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”  Why don’t people do what reasonably well-educated middle class people think they should?

Two things came across the twitters over the weekend that helped me enormously to understand why.  The first is from Huff Post by Linda Tirado, entitled “This Is Why Poor People’s Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense.” The second is a 1996 article from the Instructional Leader by educator Ruby Payne entitled “Understanding and Working with Students and Adults from Poverty,” courtesy of Shoirca.

There is much here worthy of discussion, but you have to read both pieces first. They are worth your time.

Update: While I appreciate the emails about other posts that you think are relevant or related, these are the two that I have chosen to commend here. The reason is that one is a first-person, as opposed to a third-person (of which there are millions), narrative, and the second is a somewhat empirically based analysis as opposed to an anecdotal commentary (of which there are millions). While I appreciate your interest and effort to “help me out,” these remain my choices. Feel free to post other things on your own blogs.

Update 2:  As it turns out, the Linda Torado piece at HuffPo is a fraud. What a shame. My apologies.

20 comments on “Two Things Everyone Needs To Read (Update x2)

  1. RKTlaw

    I represent predominantly poor people. It has become wearisome listening to acquaintances attempt to explain to me how these people are: a) not really poor; and b) if they are poor, it is mostly their fault due to their inferior “choices”.

    1. SHG Post author

      That clients often make “inferior” choices is, well, true in the sense that they end up with problems of their own making. But to understand why they make those choices matters. We attribute certain choices to be evil because they don’t comport with middle class choices. They may still be bad choices, but at least this explains how and why they happen, and that they aren’t evil but reflect very different sensibilities.

  2. Marc R

    Read both articles. In the first article, the woman knows the mistakes she made yet repeatedly states she won’t change because she’s poor and not middle class. She perceives herself belonging a certain way and her life is a tautological self-fulfilling prophecy; she knows the cost of a child is infinitely higher than the 3 hrs of gas to get to planned pregnancy, or that buying dress clothing at goodwill will get her a job not requiring a uniform, but she refuses to apply her logic to better her situation.

    The 2nd article uses odd definitions to chart 3 types of people in society; poor, middle, upper. But interestingly the quote from the Israeli educator contradicts the 1st article that schools can teach a way to move through classes. Or at the very least it allows a poor person to be taught enough for a middle-class life. I’m not sure what its premise is for middle to upper-class shifting.

    So bringing it back to the CJ system…the laws as written don’t give us a cause and effect. For example statute 1234 doesn’t say “because the sanctity of life is most important, murder is the worst thing you can do, and therefore murdering somebody will lead to your LWOP or death sentence.” Rather, the law is descriptive: if you take somebody’s life you will be harshly punished on a sliding scale of extreme negligence (say 10 years) to planning in advance like stalking then killing (LWOP/death).

    In any event, tons of independently wealthy people and heirs of wealthy people who should understand civil and criminal law norms repeatedly end up in jail. Lots of poor people work hard in low wage jobs and never have more than a random traffic ticket.

    Do you think these articles undercut the way our CJ system works? Do you see the 1st article as a defense to crime or a viable mitigating argument to make at a defendant’s sentencing?

    1. SHG Post author

      Do you see the 1st article as a defense to crime or a viable mitigating argument to make at a defendant’s sentencing?

      As a defense, no, or at least not necessarily. As mitigation, perhaps. I see this more as a means of understanding motivations and choices, which are often reflected in how we project intent onto actions. The act speaks for itself, but the harshness with which the act is treated is usually grounded in our ability to understand why the act happened, and the rationale behind the enactment of laws and the purpose of sentence are always grounded in supposition of how people will think and react.

      1. Fubar

        … the rationale behind the enactment of laws and the purpose of sentence are always grounded in supposition of how people will think and react.

        This point should be required catechism for everyone in the criminal justice system. Both articles demolish the common suppositions. But the CJ system, from legislation to courts and “social services” agencies for diversion sentencing all seem to have monochrome vision.

        There is a difference between a mother who boosts Similac because her baby is hungry, and a street corner dealer who boosts it to cut his smack. Both get the felony warning on first offense in my state (ie: subsequent offense means a felony bullet). To one, it’s terrifying. To the other it’s just another reason to be pissed off at The Man.

        That statutes necessarily treat both the same is understandable. There is only so much nuance that even the best legislator can draft. But courts are face to face, human to human, so one expects more nuancer from them.

        Yet, increasingly in my lifetime, legislation, judicial appointments and judicial and prosecutor elections have tended toward a one-size-fits-all, lock ’em up and throw away the key approach. Lost in the political sturm und drang is the simple truth that different people can do the same bad act for very different underlying reasons, often very poorly expressed; and that treating all the same will not reduce the numbers of bad acts.

        Actually, I sometimes wonder if even the whole point of reducing the numbers of bad acts has been lost. It’s as if the electorate and the law have fallen prey to the same incoherence of thought processes that your cited articles describe as arising from the desperation of poverty.

        But, maybe I’m just too cheery and chirpy for the solemnity of this Thanksgiving week.

        1. SHG Post author

          Yeah, I think of you whenever chirpy comes to mind. I found both these posts, in tandem, to be help me conceptualize the paradigm that allowed me to get my bourgeois head around these problems and make some sense of it. But then, I’m inclined to do so. When I first learned of the spotlight effect, I realize how broadly applicable it is, and wondered about the futility of trying to get people to understand that they aren’t the center of the universe, that the universe doesn’t look the same to everyone else as it does to them, and that while they’re certain they’re normal and everybody else has their heads up their respective butts, that just might not be true.

          And then I remembered how few people understand why I despise the phrase “common sense,” and so I had a drink instead.

  3. @SoapboxOrator

    Great links Scott! A testament to the power of the Twitters.

    Issues like poverty invariably lead people into two diametrically opposed impulses. One, the desire to place moral blame on the shoulders of individuals. Two, the desire to explain how and why people turn out “bad”, which leads us to feel like it’s not really all their “fault”.

    I think both of these opposing impulses are correct. Parenting provides an excellent analogy. Parents constantly have to remind kids about right and wrong and differentiate good and bad behavior. But good parents also constantly have to use empathy to understand what is going on in their child’s mind in order to figure out how to get them on the right track.

    We as a society should certainly never stop repeating our messages about right and wrong, but rather than writing off people as flawed or morally bankrupty, imho we need to bring to bear our powers of empathy and analysis to figure out how we can help individuals develop the personal and psychological tools they need to be productive members of society, just as we would our own children.

    1. SHG Post author

      The second article suggests society can change the mindset. The first, not so much. Society has been around a very long time and yet the mindset persists. I’m unpersuaded that we can impose our middle class values on the poor. It might be like trying to teach a pig to sing.

      1. Jim Majkowski

        Sometimes I wonder whether imposition of “middle class values” would be an improvement. Is it better, for example, to operate on Joe Kennedy’s precept, that it is more important how people perceive you than how you actually are? And that worked for a lot of people, perhaps including some who were elected POTUS.

        IMHO, both articles suggest the same thing: communication requires a common language, and whoever wants to influence someone else might well begin with figuring out the language the other speaks.

        As for “success,” what is that, and who is successful? Examples might include Nancy Grace, Joe Arpaio, and Charlie Sheen . All of them have plenty of money and fame. Do we really want to change society so that more people are like them?

        1. SHG Post author

          Meh. To cherry pick “Nancy Grace, Joe Arpaio, and Charlie Sheen” doesn’t help your point. So pick three other successful people who are admired and you get the opposite answer.

          It’s unclear what about first article suggests that there is a common language, and indeed, it strikes me that she’s saying there is no such thing. While that may be hyperbole, there is a huge chasm between saying “figure out the common language” and making it happen. Indeed, there is no indication that the generationally poor have any interest in trying.

          1. Jim Majkowski

            More fun. OK, how about Bill Clinton and Mike Bloomberg? And admired by whom? The first three I named must be esteemed by someone.

            As for crossing the chasm, one must start somewhere. As for your perception that the generationally poor have no interest in trying, why then bother to recommend the two essays? And many of your posts indicate you care deeply about difficult concepts of what is “right.”

            Sorry if I annoy today; I’m trying to learn from the exchange, and that’s why I so often look at your blawg. I’m not going to learn as much from people who aren’t smarter than I am.

            1. SHG Post author

              I wouldn’t mind being as successful as Bubba or Bloomberg, but the point is there are always people who are widely hated and widely admired. The better pick would have been some ordinary stable working stiff versus some street kid turned drug dealer. Who is more successful to whom?

              When we talk about the generationally poor, it’s not a discrete group as much as a mindset. As with all generalizations, they can change, make choices, improve themselves. Some won’t regardless.

              But if you know anything about how I think, the fact that it’s not easy (or may even seem impossible) isn’t a good reason not to try to do the right thing. We do so because there is no other option, not because success is assured. And don’t blow smoke up my ass. I see what you’re doing.

      2. John Barleycorn

        Well common sense dictates an early cocktail hour after reading this and pondering if Joe-Middle-Class of 2013 might have been better off if his folks heard Leonard Cohen covering Little Red Rooster on tour as opposed to the Rolling Stones.

        So have a Big Momma Thornton cover just because and pour it neat tonight.

        The probability of the subject matter of this post finding a soft landing anytime soon is as futile as me demanding more variety in my caned ravioli selection at the supermarket.

        It’s gonna happen but most probably not via an imposition of values as opposed to a dictated transformation of “necessary” feed to me on a plastic spoon and fork combination utensil.

        Should make for several very interesting decades as the “necessity” of certain forces start to sink in and class movement turns out to be a planed merger plot.

          1. John Barleycorn

            I digress but who can afford mainstream…?

            It’s all good, worst case scenario I will write a letter to Kraft Foods.

            They are sure to send me a cross marketing coupon for 5bucks off my next pay per view Ultimate Fighting Championships or Ticket Master concert ticket purchase and a two for one on canned raviolis.

            Meanwhile I gotta have faith that the first author of the articles you posted laughs her ass off when she gets a 1099 in the mail for 8Bucks or whatever they are paying their writers theses days at the Huffington Post. Them sneaky middle class bastards.

            With any luck she will say fuck it and sneak her daughter in to a club that doesn’t send their musicians a 1099 for their cut of the cover charge and her daughter will change the fucking world and shit like that.

            Who knows it might be a rapper covering Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five’s tune The Message. I think those lads were one of the first that had commercial success with the Rap Sound.

            I will link it because it in fact squarely speaks to this post.

            Now I must pen that letter to Kraft Foods before I get drunk and start abusing posting links in the comment section of SJ.


  4. Chris Ryan

    I just wanted to drop a quick thanks.

    Its hard sometimes to find items that can really challenge your perspective, and I always appreciate and actually relish the chance. I have now been reading everything I can find from the writer of the first article for the past hour, and at an easy break spot, wanted to come back and thank you for the link.

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  6. Ted H.

    Looks like that 1st person piece is mostly fiction. Fascinating nevertheless because we know that there are people who live in such conditions. However the author’s state of mind is inauthentic:
    [Ed. Note: Link deleted per rules, but added into the post as update 2.]

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