Monday, January 4, 2016

The Homeless as Objects of Amusement

Hey, remember this guy? The homeless piano man? 

Almost 17 million views on youtube.

Or how about the homeless man who sings just like John Legend? 

6 million views on youtube.

Or the homeless guy with the "golden radio voice"? 

35. Million. Views.

All in all, these seem to be lighthearted, even uplifting stories about people in dire situations. For the man with the golden voice, it has even led to a second chance at life and a lucrative career

This is an amazing outcome and by far the best case scenario of all these "homeless person has hidden talent" videos. The power of social media can be amazing sometimes and I'm glad it worked out for him.

Despite the positive outcome in this one case, however, these types of videos remain one of my pet peeves. Besides the fact that the vast majority (like, 99.99%) of these stories don't end with a homeless person finding a career, the stories upset me on a fundamental level. Essentially, these videos, and the accompanying articles/blogs/talk show appearances that follow, boil down to: "OMG We Found This Bum Who Can Actually Do Something Worthwhile! By Watching This We Are Making the World A Better Place!" 

Basically, the stories reveal that as a society, we don't view the homeless as real people with real talents and interests and histories and lives. We view the homeless as bums, as beings who lack any social skills or talents or abilities; losers who can't get it together enough to find consistent shelter. Stories about a homeless person with an unusual talent become so popular because we simply don't believe that it's possible. How could someone with such a talent not find gainful employment? It scares us really, because we think our talents or intelligence will keep us from ever living on the streets. It's comforting to believe that all homeless are dumb, talentless folk who just can't cut it in civilized society, or that something is inherently wrong with them. It makes us feel better to believe they've ruined their lives because of drugs or a lack of effort. 

While it may be true that drugs have caused a lot of people to become homeless, oftentimes drug abuse is a symptom rather than a cause, and there is no specific "type" of person that this can happen to. That scares the shit out of us. Plus, drugs aren't the only issue. I wont even get in to the homeless vet problem because that has so many factors to consider (including the absolute failure of our government to protect those who serve, PTSD, etc.). There's also mental illness and our society's failure to adequately deal with it. Then there's the simple fact that nearly 50% of Americans are one emergency, or one missed paycheck, away from financial ruin. The homeless we all see in almost every urban center in America could very easily be us. Without the financial support of my parents, it probably would have been me at some point.

So, while part of the popularity of these stories comes from the fact that we want people down on their luck to succeed and get their life together--I truly believe there is a lot of good in our human nature--a bigger reason for their popularity is because there is part of us that simply can't understand how someone with such a clear talent could be homeless. These videos prove that talent isn't always rewarded, sometimes people fall through the cracks, and by watching these videos and sharing them, we feel like we have corrected that wrong. Unlike the uncaring society that we live in, we (as viewers) have finally seen the real person beneath the dingy veneer of homelessness. We are brave by sharing these videos. We, unlike the rest of the cruel world, see this person for who they really are! We usually just walk past them and avoid eye contact, but not this time! We might not actually be doing anything to solve the problem of homelessness, but we are finally looking at (a small percentage of) the homeless as honest to goodness human beings. Yay us!

It all reeks of self congratulation. The worst part about these videos, though? The worst part is they prove that people and society will only care about you if you have some crowd-pleasing talent. People don't have "inherent worth," they don't deserve your respect just because they are living, breathing thinking, feeling beings; they have to be able to entertain you in order to be treated with dignity. Dance, homeless monkey! Sing! 

And maybe that is the true reality of our society, or the world at large: people don't have worth until they prove it by some external act. That's certainly how most of society treats people. I just wish it wasn't the case. Everyone has worth. Everyone has value. Everyone deserves a second chance or a helping hand. 

Maybe that truth will manifest itself one day, but until then...did you see that homeless guy who could tap dance the entirety of Beethoven's 5th Symphony? FUCKING AMAZING!

I Love You All...Class Dismissed. 

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