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Cultural differences (a tale of prejudice)

Published on 17 March 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

The internet washes up all sorts of flotsam. Along the way, comments attach themselves to an innocent photo, affording me an opportunity for a rumination on cultural differences. I’ve received this photo both from people in Europe and the US


Europeans sent it to me with the comment: how clever – we shared a smile. I nodded pensively – I would not have come up with such a ingenious solution. This is the generic comment from the US:

Subject: Too lazy to stand in line to get their welfare check!

Now, don’t tell me that welfare recipients aren’t innovative! No reason to stand on your feet waiting to get your check. Just put your flip-flops next in line and go back and sit on your ass and play games on your iPhone. What a great country!

Let me tread lightly on the fact that nothing in the photo indicates its location (Europeans tell me it is Haiti); nothing in the picture indicates what people are waiting for. For all I know, it could be the post office, or the dispensary. Now back to the comments. Some people use this photo to celebrate inventiveness; others use it to stigmatize – what a cultural difference! The comment from the US casts the world into two camps: “We, the righteous” and “them, the cheats”. Nothing wrong with basking in being right and on the sunny side of life – as they used to say in the 60s: “more power to you.” Let me ask: why should one pair the pleasure of being “right” with an invidious condemnation of other people as “cheats”? The US likes to portray itself as the “land of endless opportunity”. The comment, however, reveals people’s perception of life in the US as a zero-sum game. Transfers to the poor necessarily cripple personal success. In the race for the elusive opportunity winning is all – consolation prizes are inherently unfair.


Here is the personal comment with the circulating photo: “I can not feel sorry for the majority of these people. This is America and had the same opportunities as me in getting off their ass, going to a school, (hopefully one not run by Liberal professors) get a skill and go to work. … But you know most drawing a Government check are not really needy.” Let me again tread lightly on the assertion: “most people are not really needy”. Certainly the writer has no basis for it. Let me also skip the issue of transfers to the rich. Tax loopholes for particular interests in the US amount to about 500 billion US $ – not a bad welfare check, I’d say. This is just the tip of the iceberg. What worries me most is stigmatization. This simple photo, which shows human infinite adaptability and ability to solve problems, is used to spit venom on people who did not draw the grand prize of life. As if we all could draw it; or as if life’s lottery could provide winning numbers for everyone.[1] This stigmatization harks back to: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” (Matt.13:12). What the “haves” are taking away from the have-nots is their right to dignity in dearth.

[1] A WANDERER I enter the waiting room in a station. Not a breath of air. I have a book in my pocket. Someone’sw poems, traces of inspiration. At the entrance, on benches, two tramps and a drunkard (or two drunkards and a tramp), At the other end, an elderly couple, very elegant, sit Staring somewhere above them, toward Italy and the sky. We have always been divided. Mankind, nations Waiting rooms. I stop for a moment, Uncertain which suffering I should Join. Finally, I take a seat in between And start reading. I am alone but not lonely. A wanderer who doesn’t wander. The revelation Flickers and dies. Mountains of breath, close Valleys. The dividing goes on. Adam ZAGAJEWSKI

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