In this country, people tend to speak of other people and experiences in the abstract. This is understandable because it is not possible to know or understand the lived experiences of another person despite how empathetic a person may be. The problem with this reality is that it fails to connect how people have a solipsistic view of the world, which oftentimes denies the existence and validity of people who are outside of one’s knowledge of existence. Unless one is willing to take a big step outside of their comfort zone, and get to concretely understand where another person is coming from, everyone who is different will be seen as an abstraction and their humanity will seem nonexistent.
One example of this is when a mass tragedy or a contagion strikes and many people will suffer as a result. This concept makes the saying attributed to Josef Stalin ring true: One death is a tragedy, but a million is a statistic. At this point, people have been reduced to numbers and the only way they will speak in death is if their stories are heard. In many instances mass suffering is unavoidable, but in some cases suffering is preventable and it is unconscionable that society does nothing to preempt a mass tragedy. For example, if many people will die as a result of losing their health care, it is morally objectionable that a society would let that happen. The fact that this takes place is attributable to people being seen as abstractions, and not as real people deserving of having their humanity recognized.
Another sterling example of abstracting life experiences is the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Looking at this from the perspective of pop culture: he made one famous speech, had a few sound bites, was assassinated and then was recognized as a beloved hero who bought racial harmony to America. The truth is that he was incredibly unpopular until he became a martyr and the history of his work was bowdlerized for mass consumption. In reality he incurred the wrath of the Johnson administration by speaking out against the Vietnam war, he was chastised by a segment of the black population for stirring up the pot, and he was an advocate against classism. People would be shocked to find out he said this the following words in 1966: “You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about the billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of the slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry . . . Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong. . . with capitalism . . . There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” (See the “S” word by John Nichols for the context of the quote).
The task of those who wish to solve the problem of abstractions in society is to find a way to make abstractions concrete. Education is a big part of it but an open mind will be more effective in creating concrete experiences that will foster understanding of other groups of people. Joining a community group and having lively discussions is a great place to start. Organizations such as Making It to The Finish Line is a great place to start and we hope to expand making the experience of marginalized people more concrete.