A Philosopher's Blog

Why Demonize the Poor?

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on January 20, 2014

Poverty (Photo credit: Teo’s photo)

Certain pundits of the American right have continued the tradition of demonizing the poor. For example, Fox News seems to delight in the narrative of the wicked poor who are destroying America. It is certainly worth considering why the poor are demonized.

One ironic foundation for this is religion. While “classic” Christianity regards the poor as blessed and warns of the dangers of idolatry, there is a strain of Christianity that regards poverty as a sign of damnation and wealth as an indicator of salvation. As Pope Francis has been pointing out, this view is a perversion of Christianity. Not surprisingly, Pope Francis has been criticized by certain pundits for actually taking Jesus seriously.

Another reason for this is that demonizing the poor allows the pundits to redirect anger so that the have-less are angry at the have-nots, rather than those who have almost everything. This is, of course, classic scapegoating: the wicked poor are blamed for many of the woes besetting America. The irony is, of course, that the poor and powerless are cast as a threat to the rich and powerful.

The approach taken in regards to the poor follows the classic model used throughout history. This model involves presenting two distinct narratives about the group that is to be hated. The first is to create a narrative which casts the members of the group as subhuman, wicked, inferior and defective. In the case of the poor, the stock narrative is that the poor are stupid, lazy, drug-users, criminals, frauds, moochers and so on. This narrative is used to create contempt and hatred of the poor in order to dehumanize them. This makes it much easier to get people to accept that it is morally permissible (even laudable) to treat the poor poorly.

The second narrative is to cast the poor as incredibly dangerous. While they have been cast as subhuman by the first narrative, the second narrative presents them as a dire threat to everyone else. The stock narrative is that the poor are destroying America by being “takers” from the “makers.” One obvious problem is crafting a narrative in which the poor and seemingly powerless are able to destroy the rich and powerful. The interesting solution to this problem is to cast Obama and some Democrats as being both very powerful (thus able to destroy America) yet someone in service to the poor (thus making the poor the true masters of destruction).

On the face of it, a little reflection should expose the narrative as absurd. The poor are obviously poor and lack power. After all, if they had power they would hardly remain poor. As such, the idea that the poor and powerless have the power to destroy America seems to be absurd. True, the poor could rise up in arms and engage in class warfare in the literal sense of the term—but that is not likely to happen.

At this point, it is natural to bring up the idea of “bread and circuses”—the idea that the poor destroyed the Roman Empire by forcing the rulers to provide them with bread and circuses until the empire fell apart.

There are two obvious replies to this. The first is that even if Rome was wrecked by spending on bread and circuses, it was the leaders who decided to use that approach to appease the masses. That is, the wealthy and powerful decided to bankrupt the state in order to stay in power. Second, the poor who wanted bread and circuses were a symptom rather than the disease. That is, the cause of the decline of the empire also resulted in larger numbers of poor people. As such, it was not so much that the poor were destroying the empire, it was that the destruction of the empire that was resulting in an increase in the poor.

The same could be said about the United States: while the income gap in the United States is extreme and poverty is relatively high, it is not the poor that that are causing the decline of America. Rather, the poverty is the result of the decline. As such, demonizing the poor and blaming them for the woes is rather like blaming the fever for the disease.

Ironically, the insistence in demonizing and blaming the poor serves to distract people away from the real causes of our woes, such as the deranged financial system, systematic inequality, a rigged market and a political system that is beholden to the 1%.

It is, however, a testament to the power of rhetoric that so many people buy the absurd idea that the poor and powerless are somehow the victimizers rather than the victims.

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