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Giving fish to men

No fishing for poor people "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime." We've all heard it, and we have a general idea of what it means. As an instruction manual, it gives you two choices for helping people: either do it for them, or educate them so they can do it themselves. There's no third option, but a lot of people add one anyway.

The defacto version is:

"Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime. Or just judge the hungry man for not knowing how to fish: that way you get to feel superior and still not help him." [1]

I've seen this idea crop up on Facebook quite a bit lately. I blame Bernie Sanders.

No really. Some in the far right and Libertarian circles think Bernie is bringing forth the next Bolshevik revolution, which means more welfare, which means giving money to poor people. Since that's communism, we can't do that. But, if we don't do that, then some poor people will go hungry and get cold.

Letting people die would be a hard thing to hold in your conscience… unless they… deserved it?! Yeah! If the poor people had gotten themselves into their dire situations through making poor decisions and being lazy, that's 100% their own fault! So there are no guilty consciences for not helping people who have fallen on hard times, just clear rationalizations of why helping them is useless. Why should we help that hungry man? Isn't he just facing the consequences of his poor decision of not learning to fish? He's lazy, he wouldn't fish even if he knew how! [2]

But real life isn't that clear. You see a hungry man who's not fishing: maybe you're not obliged to give him a fish, maybe you're not obliged to teach him how to fish, but pretending you know why he's not fishing is just lazy thinking.

There're any number of reasons why someone might not know how to fish. No one ever taught him, remember? How many skills do you know which no one helped teach you, even a little, if only by example? And of those skills, are they applicable to all situations you might find yourself in?

Maybe the man was raised in a desert, and doesn't know fishing is even a thing he can do? Very few people would come up with a workable scheme to fish without learning by example. Or maybe he is learning how to fish, but it's not working yet. Does he have access to the equipment? There's a whole lot of people who were never taught how to fish. And a whole lot more who know how to fish, but there are no edible fish left in the only lake available. And some people are physically or mentally incapable of fishing.

Of course, "to fish" isn't supposed to be literal (duh), but it's even more abstract than just "job skills". It's also about life skills and social behavior. Some people have shitty parents who never taught them right from wrong. Some people live in terrible places where learning and "doing right" is actively punished. It takes time and teachers (literal and figurative) to unlearn bad behaviors, so that kid who commits crimes at 15 because that's all he ever knew might need a little more time to learn to, uh, not do that.

There just might be some stories behind that hungry man.


But, again, it's not really about the hungry man, it's about the person judging the hungry man. You don't know how a person got to the point they are right now. You can't judge. You don't know if they're on their way "down" or "up". To assume the person "messed up" to get where they are is uncharitable, in several ways. What if external forces put him where he is? He made all the right decisions, or at least the best decisions he could make, but he still ends up in a bad place. You really don't know.

And what if he did make a poor decision or two along the way? Well, the consequences of "messing up" or "making a poor decision" varies dramatically depending on where you started, how old you were, and what decisions you faced. Obviously, a kid with rich parents can afford to make quite a few bad decisions -occasionally obscenely bad decisions- and recover due to their parents bailing them out, sometimes literally. A kid with poor parents might end up broke(r), dead, or in jail for the very same poor decisions. Kids in the middle are between those extremes. And let's not fool ourselves: a 16-year-old kid "downtown" has different decisions to make than the kid from the suburbs. Should I sell drugs? Should I join in the violence, or go greatly against my own self-preservation and stand up to it?

It's easy to say "I was raised poor and didn't sell drugs or steal cars when I was a teenager!" But you didn't have the same parents or neighborhood, or a million other things. You didn't face the same decisions. It's easy to not take heroin at 25 when you weren't addicted at 16, and it's easy to not sell drugs when it's not even an option for you because your father didn't run his dealing business out of the living room when you were 11. I'm sure if you were born and raised in early 1800's Alabama you'd have been an abolitionist, too?


I've made a huge number of poor decisions. Some very poor indeed. But I was a white kid with a "couldn't hurt a fly" demeanor about him. So when, for example, I got drunk in college and thought it'd be hilarious to sneak back into the bar with a friend after it closed (using the credit-card-in-the-door trick), then the owner came back unexpectedly and discovered us, I got a polite dismissal instead of being arrested or shot like would have happened if I "looked dangerous" (read: darker-skinned or poorer-looking). So my "poor decision" became just an embarrassing "this one time we were so wasted…" story instead of a "then I got kicked out of school and couldn't get a job because I was convicted of attempted burglary…" story.

I've fallen backward and easily into most of my success. I was smart (after childhood anyway), so I got scholarships and I never really had to study… until I got a year or two into college, then I barely knew how. Despite having no study skills or work ethic, I muddled through without doing much besides drinking and skipping classes (and have a cumulative 2.3 GPA to prove it), and then managed to get a good, high-paying job anyway because fuck-if-I-know. My "poor decisions" hurt me, but not all that much. Someone else could have made those same decisions and gotten what I deserved.

Where you end up sometimes has a lot to do with where you started. My wife likes to say "We were born on third base and congratulate ourselves on homeruns when we cross homeplate." It's close, but I think it could use some tweaking. I think people are born on different fields with different rules and different number of bases. Some people have easier rules, some harder, and sometimes the rules are just different. Do you know if the hungry man started with everything and lost it because his parents never taught him how to live, or started with nothing and still has nothing even though he made the best possible choices?

This is not a "boo hoo, help the poor!" message. Donate to charities if you like, or don't. Work for increased government assistance, or don't. That's up to you. All I'm asking is that you all drop the idea that you can tell when a poor person "deserves" it, or even that it matters.


(See also: Part II))

2016-02-12 #skeptical-zen  

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