The New Social Darwinism: Deserving Your Destitution

By Asma, Stephen T. | The Humanist, September-October 1993 | Go to article overview

The New Social Darwinism: Deserving Your Destitution


Asma, Stephen T., The Humanist


Recently while teaching undergraduate college student in downtown Chicago, I had occasion to reflect upon the demonization of the homeless. I teach "useless" things like philosophy and literature (subjects that have never fared very well in a nation built upon the Protestant work ethic). While discussing Plato's "myth of the cave," I asked students to come up with personal examples of people who might be enslaved by their own false beliefs. As my illustration, I quoted Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he uses Plato's metaphor to discuss emancipation. Freedom, he argues, must be won not only for African-Americans but also for the enslaved minds of the racist oppressors. I argued that "the racist" might be a good example of the prisoner in the cave, exposed only to semblance and shadow.

A young woman raised her hand and explained that she had a perfect illustration of the captive soul--"a homeless person." This confused me, but she explained that homeless people were lazy, no-good burdens on society. These homeless people were fundamentally "confused," according to her analysis; like the prisoners of Plato's cave, they were deluding themselves and living under the falsehood of selfish desires. If only they could be led out of the "darkness" of their parasitical natures, they might come to see the "light" of gainful employment.

She was then joined by a supportive young man who buttressed her insights by pointing out the "shiftless bums" whom we all had to pass on our way into the college building. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought I heard Plato laughing--or perhaps crying.

That night, my wife, who works at a primary school in the rural part of Illinois, related a story about the school's lunchroom policy. Apparently, some of the poor children who receive discount lunches (often, their only meal of the day) had some extra nickels and dimes and wanted to purchase an ice-cream or some such treat. A bitter, overweight, red-faced teacher erupted in moral outrage and demanded that some policy be developed to prevent this egregious injustice: "These people have been riding the gravy train too long! And now with that Clinton in office, it will only get worse" Despite one or two objections, a policy was soon enacted to stamp out this selfish freeloading.

That same night, after leaving a downtown nightclub, I witnessed three suburbanite-looking teenagers dropping bottles from an overpass onto a homeless man. He was trying to sleep in a cold alleyway with nothing but a piece of cardboard for protection. The teenagers ran away giggling at his misfortune, and one of them shouted, "Get a job!"

Any one of these events seems enough to shake someone from their everyday state of unreflective coma. But the convergence of all three on the same day virtually pounded the problem into my head.

"The problem" is what underlies these three symptomatic events. It is buried deep in the presuppositions of the Western capitalist geist and I shall refer to it (perhaps none too originally) as social Darwinism.

It should be immediately noted that social Darwinism, as it was referred to in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, had almost nothing to do with Darwin but everything to do with Herbert Spencer. Spencer, who is now never mentioned (perhaps because his ideas have become entrenched in what we call common sense), was a philosopher, economist, and sociologist whose life spanned almost the entire nineteenth century. Spencer and his thinking were born out of early nineteenth-century British industrialism, but nowhere did his ideas take greater hold than here in the United States. His major works were published in serial form by such magazines as Atlantic Monthly and Popular Science Monthly.

Spencer was an evolutionist who wrote about the progressive development of society from a "lower" to a "higher" condition. Social development was understood to be just another example of the unfolding universal laws of progressive development. …

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