A Review of
Aporophobia: Why We Reject the Poor Instead of Helping Them
Reviewed by Julie Germain
One strangely cold (for San Diego) day recently, I stood under a bridge talking to a client of mine who experiences homelessness. Wind whipped off the bay, chilling us both to the bone. As I spoke to my client, runners and walkers strode past on the Embarcadero, staring at my client’s home, a sleeping bag on concrete. After conversing with my client, I retreated back to my car and warm house while my client was left to the elements. In my daily work as a case manager working with people experiencing homelessness, I encounter both the poor and those who reject them. I never had a name for this phenomenon until reading Adela Cortina’s Aporophobia: Why We Reject the Poor Instead of Helping Them. Her book gives name to the contempt so many (everyone?) holds for the poor. I will admit, before working as a homeless service provider, I too felt disdain for those unable to “contribute” to society, but, as Cortina points out, this is a learned behavior that can become unlearned with time, practice, and humility.
Without a name, aporophobia is unable to be addressed properly. Cortina coined the word from two Greek words: aporos, poor, and phobos, fear. She makes the case that aporophobia is separate from xenophobia. We don’t often despise those foreigners who come as tourists or live as expats. “What is offensive,” she writes, “is that they are poor, that they are here to complicate things for people trying to defend their way of life, for better or worse – that they bring with them problems, not resources” (xx). I have seen those who deride people experiencing homelessness; they are often people who think the majority of homelessness is caused by a lack of ambition regarding work ethic and can be easily solved by giving people jobs. Most of my clients’ experience of homelessness, though, has been caused by trauma from a broken relationship. No amount of hard work will raise them out of the poverty in which they now live. The solutions to their problems are complex but not unobtainable.
Through the study of hate crimes and hate speech, Cortina investigates the underlying roots of aporophobia and if our behavior toward the poor can change. To counteract aporophobia, Cortina contends that humans must move toward the quality of active respect, “…[A]ctive respect is the virtue that actually triumphs over intolerance. A person who respects others is extremely unlikely to promulgate intolerant speech acts that may harm them” (37). If we respect and dignify the poor, refusing to make them “the other,” then we can move toward a world where we can see their vulnerability and understand that we are all linked.
Cortina takes a deep dive though psychology and discovers why humans so often reject the other. She looks at Freud, Darwin, and others to find out what role the brain plays in generation after generation rejecting the poor. The brain does not operate in moral neutrality and has been conditioned by nature and nurture to despise the other. These chapters were heady and dense for me, a few years removed from academia and not a student of the sciences. Still, I appreciated Cortina’s thoughtfulness in exploring all areas of how to overcome rejection of the poor. The gist of her argument is that the brain is malleable “and can cultivate openness to the other, to any and all others, through compassionate recognition, which is the essence of universal hospitality” (144). We can teach ourselves how to recognize and love the poor.
In the final chapters of the book, Cortina looks toward a future where poverty is eradicated and hospitality is universal. Poverty, she states, is a lack of freedom and that lack of freedom hinders not only the poor themselves but also the world in which they live. To counteract this lack of freedom, systems must be put in place for the poor to achieve freedom. “Economic institutions that eliminate poverty and reduce inequality are the best way to eradicate aporophobia” (122). What is needed alongside these institutions is institutionalized hospitality. Hospitality, by and large, is an individual response to helplessness, but in order to help the many there must be an institutional obligation to hospitality. Universal hospitality should run through every vein of individuals and organizations in order to fully assist the poor.
Cortina’s final point is that our world needs to produce caring people who will take up the causes of the poor and push against our collective aporophobia. Schools and public life should be oriented around a responsibility to help the poor. “Educating for our time means shaping compassionate citizens who cannot only adopt the perspectives of those who suffer, but can commit to helping them” (145). We must be the ones standing under the bridge beckoning both to those sleeping on the concrete and those passing by that the world doesn’t have to be this way. We can all find protection from the elements; through education and social services, we can defend the poor and fight back against aporophobia.
Julie Germain lives in San Diego and is a case manager for people experiencing homelessness. They enjoy woodworking and being outdoors. As a lifelong participant in the Stone-Campbell Movement, they are an elder in their local church. Hailing from Oregon, they have lived in a myriad of places including East Tennessee and Tanzania. Julie earned an MDiv from Emmanuel Christian Seminary.
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