Casting geo-blinkers off compassion

by | Nov 26, 2017 | decision making, effective altruism, models, philanthropy, social, social issues, world

Chances are you’re a geographist and you don’t even know it.

Suppose you care about people experiencing homelessness. You come across a local organisation (let’s call them “House the white homeless”) providing wonderful support, but they are actively excluding “non-whites” from their work. You’d probably hesitate to donate to such an organisation. You might even “like” a witty criticism of the organisation on the Facebook for their exclusionary ways.

This may have something to do with our value system. People in our social bubble claim to believe that we should treat all people equally, regardless of what demographic traits fell randomly upon them at birth. People are people, regardless of race, sex, sexuality, or any other  characteristic. But almost by default, most organisations we do support, including “House the white homeless”, focus on homeless people in our local area. They do not support the homeless in Bangkok, Bogota, or Bujumbura.

Why is geography-based discrimination acceptable while other forms of discrimination are intolerable “-isms” in modern progressive societies?

I don’t believe that this discrimination is about where the people are from, but rather where they are in relation to us. For example, when travelling through developing countries we seem to take our geographical care-bubble with us. All of a sudden Bangalorean rough sleepers matter too. As tourists, our empathy is quickly aroused when we see homeless people in the streets of Banda Aceh. But the care-bubble returns to its geographically roots when our holidays come to an end.

Similarly, when we’re back home, many of us support migrants experiencing homelessness as much as locals experiencing homelessness. Like our first example, I think a similar negativity would taint an organisation which works solely with local-born homeless people, let’s call them “xenohomeless”. So it seems that our compassion is not piqued by race or origin, but by geographical location.

Is the homeless woman in Buenos Aires any less deserving of a roof, food and warmth than the rough sleeper near your office? Can we understand her pain any less? Or is it that locals just have better access to emotional advertising?

I reckon we can muster compassion regardless of where the cause is. Compassion may be easier to muster for the people we see in front of us; and it may take a few seconds to bring up for those in countries we’ve visited, to remember what it felt like when we walked past them during our travels; it may even take some effort to muster for those we’ve never seen face-to-face. But I’m pretty sure that when we picture a person experiencing homelessness, we can sense their pain, regardless of what language their street signs are in.

Geographism is not just related to homelessness. It is relevant to most philanthropic areas. The argument above could easily be made for those in need of food, health, education, or any other philanthropic cause. If anything it is only understandable in context of homelessness as you often give directly to the person in need, while with most other causes there is an intermediary agency.

Where someone is lives is one of the biggest contributing factors to their level of need. It’s also possibly a defining characteristic to whether we help them or not (source needed). And while I doubt many of us can justify it as a means of discrimination, we let our geo-blinkers simplify our decision-making, ignoring the vast majority of the world and focusing only on what’s in-front of us.

We’ve come a long way to recognising humanity goes beyond ourselves, our race, and sexuality. Our geographic boundaries should be no different.



Feature pic made in part by elmago_delmar .