I wish there were more homeless people for me to run into in front of Gourmet Heaven at 3 a.m. asking me to buy them hamburgers. Really, I do. It’d be great. More people homeless, requesting hamburgers.
Sure, right now I co-direct Shelter Now, a grass-roots political action and community organizing coalition whose goal is ending chronic homelessness. We’re a great bunch, and I recommend you join. But my relationship with homelessness is more complicated than that.
I’d love to get rid of it. But if it weren’t for the homeless, I’d be less than who I am. I’d still identify as some form of liberal, study cognitive science, go for long runs, write the occasional News column and live the good life. But my well-equipped robot twin brother could do the same stuff.
I, unlike him, have the special gift of consciousness. I pay $4, a homeless lady gets a hamburger, and I get consciousness, a mind, a thinking thing. No longer am I clamped to a chair in some godforsaken cave.
The sorts of experiences that mismatch with normality are the ones that make us think, fundamentally. The realities we assume — that people live in homes, that anyone can afford a hamburger — are heavily constructed. On the one hand, constructs are useful; mental life would be one continuous, turbulent flux if it weren’t for the categories that biology and society provide to us.
On the other hand, it’s shocking how easily and uncontrollably we fall prey to them. I may, for instance, say I believe in the evolutionary descent of man, and that thought is reducible to brain waves, but I don’t go a day without knowing, implicitly, that humans are a categorically unique species, and that my mind is some immaterial force. I can’t help it.
It’s a cultural epidemic. The work of psychologist Richard Nisbett, author of “The Geography of Thought,” suggests that Westerners like me, compared to East Asians, have a habit of splitting up our perceptual and conceptual universe into salient objects and discrete categories. For those, however, in so-called contextualized cultures, the world is a canvas filled with intricate designs, where independence is just an illusion and humans are defined not apart from nature — and, therefore, as a special class — but as fluidly attached to it.
When we see people who are not of the extravagantly dressed, unflinchingly well-spoken, distinctly Yale variety, there are two possibilities we can embrace. The first, far more objectionable option, is to follow the signals given off by our abnormality detector; reconcile the conflict by creating a new, subhuman category; and slot these people in it. In its extreme form, this can lead to the grossest oppression, whereby whole groups of people are stripped of the qualities by which the West has essentialized humanity, made unworthy of common moral concern.
The second option is more acceptable, and actually a lot more interesting. We could look at people who defy our conceptions of what it means to be human, and think: Maybe we’re not so human ourselves! That is, maybe nobody’s human. Human is this monster, this beast that we’ve created. Homo sapiens, beyond passing the biological species test, has become a marker of social stature, a benchmark of normality, a descriptor of naïve reality.
Seeing a homeless person is a lot like transferring to Yale from somewhere else: Confronting the other gives you a truer, more conscious sense of reality. Take it from me; I’ve done both. All you Yalies, coddled from Day 1 with your freshman counselors, FOOT trips and ice cream socials, take Yale for granted every single day.
Yale is your — our — life, so much so that we often forget it’s here. Really, this place is anything but reality. Each day goes by, and there are 50 classes to be excited about taking next year, 10 clubs to regret not joining and 5,000 new amazing people with whom to make friends and collude in the future conquering of the world.
At the end of my first year at Yale, I’d like to think I’m at least a little bit conscious. I’m conscious that homelessness advocacy serves homeless people — real people, just like the rest of us — and conscious that being at Yale is a privilege. Sometimes it takes a late-night stroll down Broadway or freshman year somewhere else to get there.
James Cersonsky is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College.