Saturday, January 12, 2008

Meet the parents parents parents parents

The reason we allow over a billion people in the world to live in abject squalor is because we think they are different from us. We think they do not feel the way we would in the situation that they do not know of any better. The only way to increase our efforts to help them is to help us think of ourselves and those we love in a similar situation.

In the program "who do you think you are" the broadcaster "Jeremy Paxman became teary-eyed after discovering that his impoverished great-grandmother Mary Mackay had her poor relief application revoked by the parish because she had had a child out of wedlock."

There is a connection between how we view the past and those in the third world. As L P Hartley said "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there". If we can see our families in the past living in the same squalor as the bottom billion today we can empathise more with the poor. It is hard to imagine that our own great great grandmothers did not feel and suffer like we do.

This can be done statistically using programs like gapminder to show how our country had similar levels of poverty (by various indicators) in the past. A more visceral experience can be gotten from the census of 1911.

Here you can see your own great grandfathers writing. See how many of his children died in infancy. See how many of your great aunts were sent to work in their early teens. See how many of your family were cramped into the same house or room.
By showing that our ancestors had the same problems as the poor today we increase our empathy for the poor and might start doing more to help them.

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