The myth of the ‘lazy beggar’


Fundamental attribution error and reality


We have it, because we deserve it. They don’t have it, for no conceivable reason other than sloth and stupidity. The upper class has conveniently embraced this pernicious myth, and whispers it to its children when the unwashed masses come knocking at their car windows.

Allow me to clarify certain things before I go further. I have a cushy, upper middle-class life, and most of what I have produced as a writer in the last five years, has been fuelled by pricey cups of Café Americano at high-end cafes across the Twin Cities. I do not claim to represent the poor, or declare a greater understanding of their situation better than they do themselves.

However, I am acutely aware of what is known as the ‘fundamental attribution error’. I get to watch it in action every time an upper class uncle of DHA or Bahria attempts to explain the psyche of the beggar, with the air of Sigmund Freud. Or an elite aunty from Sector F struggles to explain to me the stupendous threat of the all-powerful ‘beggar mafia’; a phenomenon so insidious and baneful its mention comes with an implied thunder-strike, and the legendary theme of ‘Z Horror Show’.

I intend to do the opposite, and psychoanalyse the upper class instead.

The ‘fundamental attribution error’ is, simply put, a propensity to consider the behaviour of another being solely the product of his personality, while explaining one’s own behaviour in terms of external “situations”.

In other words, you’re fat because you’re simply lazy, and I’m fat because my ‘situation’ is completely different, plus 41 other very good reasons.

A beggar displaying a fake medical report to swindle an extra Rs50 out of you by deviously tugging at your heart strings is the embodiment of evil. But you probably have excellent, complex reasons when you lie to a police officer who stops you for crossing a red light, or cheat on your examination, or commit tax fraud. Verily, the only real difference between a rich man and a beggar is that the rich man doesn’t need to beg.

The upper class mercilessly reduces the poor to dumb, lazy caricatures wholly, or at least largely, responsible for their own suffering. After all, we all know the story of that one baba who came to this city without a rupee in his pocket, and through years of hard work and perseverance, has now become a crore-pati who owns a chain of posh garment stores.

And we all know that that one baba out of ten thousand is a rule and not an exception. Why can’t all beggars be like him? Surely if Bill Gates can work wonders in his garage and launch a multi-billion dollar enterprise, we middle-class people can also become super-rich with enough willpower and determination. What’s stopping us? We’re too lazy and corrupt, probably.

Our classism and disdain for the marginalised is embedded in our everyday language. “Third class”. “Low class”. “You smell like a faqeer (beggar)”. “She looks like our massi (female house servant)”.

It’s understandable to regard highly a labourer rather than a beggar. But allow the poor the same complex “situational” excuses for their condition that you allow yourselves when explaining your lack of productivity, weight gain, or other everyday failures.

An able-bodied poor person who labours instead of begging for money is clearly worth our admiration. But one could empathise with a person choosing to beg at a street intersection instead for the fear of exploitation by the employer in a country where the safety and health of the worker is uninsurable, and the wages earned are simply not enough to cover his and his family’s expenses.

Begging, after all, is not as easy and enjoyable as the elites make it appear. The pretense that running around the streets — in scalding heat, freezing winds, or unending rainstorms – begging for money is an “easy way out” is outrageous. Try it! It’s actually not that fun.

It is true that beggars often organise to get the most out of begging. Misery loves company. But surely we’re not suspecting all of them to be a part of a ruthless mafia that drugs babies and chops off body parts, like in a movie you saw at the local luxury cinema. Hopefully, we do not expect that to happen any more than rich people who refuse to pay workers their salaries, molest their house staff, and make use of bonded labour for profit.

Not to mention that for many of these people, employment is not even an option. How many of us would hire a transgender – a “khusra” – to work at the office reception? What range of work can a man without legs apply to?

These are the marginalised members of the human race who are out on the streets in the first place, largely because of the society and the government’s criminal negligence. Yet, we manage to muster the audacity to flare our nostrils and wag out fingers at them for their allegedly “shady” efforts in trying to survive on the footpath.

Men and women raised in financially stable households, with education and every conceivable luxury handed to them on a platter – people who don’t have the skill set to survive half a day out in the street without a trusty ATM card – gather in gated communities to psychoanalyse the poor, pass judgment, and then shake their heads at the horrid indignity of begging.

Could anything in existence be more “third class” than that?


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