I used to live in Belo Horizonte, the capital of the State of Minas Gerais, Brazil. As in most big cities, there is a lot of social inequalities such as homelessness and people suffering from hunger. Once I was coming back from work, and there was an African Brazilian man eating rotten food from a restaurant’s garbage bags. It was heartbreaking to see that human being looking for food in the garbage with so much food being wasted in Brazil daily. In a country where one of its main economic activities is the exportation of agricultural goods there should not be people going hungry. It was also uncomfortable to realize that people were coming in and out of the restaurant and even did not realize that there was a man eating from the garbage bags. When I saw that scene, it reminded me of a poem that we had studied in 5th grade and that I would like to share with you:
The Animal (Translated from Brazilian Portuguese Language)
Author: Manuel Bandeira
Yesterday I saw an animal
On a filthy hallway
Searching for food between the garbage
When finding anything
It did not inspect or smelled
Just swallowed with voracity
The animal was not a dog
Or a cat
Or a rat
The animal, oh my Lord, was a man!
I believe that in order to reflect on justice, fairness and equality one has also to consider the problem of indifference. I always questioned how can an individual be truly happy due to his prosperity if he walks on the streets and see children begging or homeless people searching for food in the garbage? How can someone who is fortunate and prosperous close his eyes to reality and keep living happily as if everybody else had the same life conditions? A way to explain and answer to those questions is through the concept of indifference and the sociology of the stranger. Rudolph Stichweh (1997), in his article, ‘The Stranger on the Sociology of Indifference’, explains how modern society is no longer a membership organization. Indifference can be defined as the status of not being a friend nor an enemy of one another. The state of being indifferent is part of people’s everyday activities and its macro-structural consequences in modern society translates into people’s unwillingness to care for and about others (p.3-4). It seems like a lot of people are not affected by social inequities; there is a generalized state of numbness in which individuals carry on with their lives when witnessing others in painful situations. In other words, there is a trivialization of social problems in which the other is simply ignored. An example of that is the picture shared below, in which a blind man drowned while swimming in a famous Brazilian beach in Rio de Janeiro. His body was not removed by the police for a while and irrespective of that, tourists kept smiling, enjoying the beach, taking pictures as if there was nobody there. Such indifference caught the photographer’s attention. He then decided to publish the picture and raise awareness on the subject.
Stichweh, R. (1997). The Stranger – on the Sociology of the Indifference. Thesis Eleven,51(1), 1-16. doi:10.1177/0725513697051000002