The study of empathic difference between rich and poor is very new and very interesting. I’m still mulling the implications, meanings, contexts and potential outcomes of this kind of research – and there’s a growing body of it, notably in brain structure studies. Researcher are interested in the difference between Conservatives and liberals, women and men, Black people and Caucasian people suffering from psychosis, in finding ways in which we are the same and different.
Much of this research makes for uncomfortable reading, and the resulting reviews by peers, media, interest groups and individuals all add to the richness of debate. Some people maintain their opinion strongly, most don’t care and I propose that almost all of us don’t change our minds about much at all.
For me, it makes instinctive sense that people who must decipher others in order to remain safe, to ask for favours, who cannot afford to write debts off, who live in complex, multiracial, crowded communities, will be more likely to develop empathy. This is not to say that The Poor ™ are more loving and understanding than anyone else, just that there’s more exposure to many different ways of ways of being in poorer areas.
It is stressful to live too closely to so many people and that stress can cause or exacerbate psychological fragility, which, apart from a general increase in population density, is one of many, many reasons why there’s more violence in areas of less privilege. Individuals in an overcrowded envionment really do need to know how to read other people and groups, quickly, know how to diffuse or avoid confrontation and quickly build relationships.
Less affluent people are most likely to experience large cultural changes. This is why so many of the people who admit to voting for the BNP are poorer – because whatever the statistical truth, there is a feeling of being overwhelmed by difference. They are certainly unheard: for years, white working class people have been called racist or ignorant because they’ve objected to and felt powerless against their neighbourhoods being altered in ways that more affluent people have no experience of. Whatever our individual beliefs on the validity or otherwise of these perceptions, where an existing community feels threatened by new arrivals there are consequences for those new arrivals, whether Irish, Black, mentally ill, on probation, homeless or suffering drug and alcohol problems, overcrowding, poorly maintained buildings or simply the lack of a view.
Unless there’s a colossal, (almost) unthinkable alteration in the way we live, rich and poor will always have very different experiences: a weeks worth of morning coffee for one person is one fifth of a weekly income for another. That’s simply a matter of fact. And it’s one that counselling refuses to take on board.