All the People in the Room

Look at all the people in the room.

What makes an individual?

Talk to each person. Ask them anything, and they recount their personal experiences. They give autobiographical accounts of their lives and knowledge. They are creatures defined by episodic recall: they see the world and define themselves by the perspectives, traditions, and stories they have accumulated along the way.

However, if you were to dissect any one of these people, you would find a stunningly complex arrangement of biological materials, like billions of afferent nerves transmitting signals from sensory neurons. As a traumatic brain injury or Alzheimer’s disease might exhibit, our memories, personalities, and identities are inseparable from the physical composition of our brains.

What makes a person the person that they are? Their experiences and memories? Or the physical materials that make the retention of memories and recall of experience possible?

Are you the result of the story you have lived… or the neuronal connectivity that has sensed, remembered, and constructed the narrative of ‘you’ so far? If your hippocampus is starved of oxygen, or if your prefrontal cortex is damaged by a severe blow to the skull, do you become a different person?

Are you made of your memories or your materials? Is your unique identity and consciousness — the idea you have of ‘you’ — a result of the ‘hardware’ of your brain or the ‘software’ of your memories?

Or is it a false dichotomy?

What is are memories and stories without neurons?

What are neurons without sensations and experiences?

Just look at all the people in the room.

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Don’t mind your own business

I’m walking home on Wednesday night. It’s about ten o’clock.

“Leave me alone! Don’t touch me!”

I hear a panicked woman’s scream about half a block away, coming across the street, from the far side of a parking lot. At a distance, I see three people, two men and a woman. The woman is obviously trying to get away, weaving her way through parked vehicles. Evasive manoeuvres.

I divert my path and head towards the trio with a quickened stride. I am extremely self-conscious of the fact that I have zero plan of action. It is like walking into the final exam for a course you never attended. But worse.

But ignoring the situation is clearly impossible. You can’t ‘unhear’ a scream. To walk away is to be an accomplice to whatever is happening over there.

The three individuals are now moving in the opposite direction. The woman makes an attempt to cross the street to create more distance between her and the two men, but one of them keeps pace with her. He attempts to constrain her by the arm, but she pulls away and trips over the sidewalk curb. By now, I am rushing over as quickly as I can. The third man, following behind more slowly, arrives at about the same time I do. All three individuals appear to be in their early twenties.

I have no idea what to do. Social convention does not provide a clear script for confrontations like this. So I approach the woman and ask, “Are these men bothering you?”

(Let’s be honest: I probably heard that question in a movie or something.)

The woman does not hesitate. “Yes!”

Several things suddenly happen all at once:

The first man — the one who had followed her across the street first — lets out an exasperated grunt and throws his hands in the air, looking at the woman angrily.

The second man — the more aloof of the two — steps forward. “It’s ok, man. I’m completely sober.”

“We’re all co-workers,” says the first man.

I have no idea what is happening. “Do you feel safe?” I ask the woman, not really sure what else to say.

She replies, “No. I, I’m not… I mean, yes. No, it’s my birthday and I just…”

I suddenly realize that I was talking to an extremely inebriated individual.

“You need to feel safe,” says the second man to the woman.

It only took a millisecond for me to see the situation in an entirely different light. What first appeared to be two men assaulting a woman in a parking lot suddenly became two co-workers trying to get their intoxicated and belligerent colleague home safely after a birthday celebration.

Paradigm shift. It’s lingo and jargon, but there is probably no better description for what just happened in my mind.

While driving past, a paramedic had witnessed the woman wrestle free from the first man and fall on the curb. He had parked the ambulance just down the street and now arrives at the group on foot. The woman grows agitated at the sight of personnel in uniform, and hurls several insults at the paramedic, despite his reminders that he is not a cop, and merely concerned for her safety. She is not a happy drunk. Not at all.

It is obvious that she is so stoned that her present unwillingness to cooperate with her concerned colleagues extends to just about everyone else in society. The paramedic radios in the situation. It is clear that the police are about to get involved.

“I don’t have to deal with this shit,” says the second man, the most sober of the three. “I’m out.” He disappears down the street.

The first man — the man who I originally thought was the primary ‘aggressor’ — stays with us, unwilling to ‘abandon’ his friend to two strangers (namely, the paramedic and I). This, for him, is obviously a bar night gone terribly wrong. He is admittedly at his wit’s end, aware that continuing to ‘chase’ a screaming person through downtown is an ineffective tactic, but currently without recourse to a better solution.

We wait. Trying to keep the woman preoccupied and distracted, in an attempt to dissuade her from wandering off. But at the first sign of the police, she takes off again, with her colleague following her, against more protest and yelling. The paramedic and I chat with the officer briefly, before he continues after them, around the corner and out of sight into the night.

With the police now involved, the paramedic and I talk for a minutes and then go our separate ways.

As I continue to walk home, I reflect on how seismically wrong I initially was about the whole situation. From across the parking lot, I had entirely misjudged what was happening. My frame of reference had ‘defined’ the situation in my mind: to the point that I did not even notice how drunk the young woman actually was until asking her a few questions. Heuristics are powerful, powerful indeed. It is amazing when you catch a glimpse of your own automaticity at work.

At the same time, ignoring those initial instincts to intervene and ‘get involved’ would have been irresponsible, selfish. For as much as my intuitions and hunches were incorrect, acting on them was still the right thing to do. To ignore the impulse to intervene would be to rationalize myself into an excuse for just ‘minding my own business’ (possibly to the harm of someone else).

In hindsight, I think I did the right thing: I asked questions. Just two questions, but adequate questions to counter-check my own blinding biases in the moment. (Clearly, the worst possible approach would have been to assume the role of a ninja, vigilante, or righteous liberator from the outset. Had I not asked any questions, my initial response could have been categorically inappropriate for the actual situation.) I can’t pat myself on the back for calculating this approach, but the lesson learned will doubtlessly inform my tactic, response, and assumptions next time.

Don’t just ‘mind your own business’… but do start with questions.

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People with lived experience

Many of us use the term ‘people with lived experience of homelessness’ instead of referring to people as ‘the homeless’. I think the rationale for this is good. It does not make sense to define the identity of another human based on their housing status. I do not define or label my so-called ‘housed friends’ by the fact that they can afford rent or pay mortgages. The state of ‘houselessness’ is a chapter in a person’s history of accommodations — like my own current address — and not a definition of their individuality or identity.

The intent for referring to ‘persons who are experiencing homelessness’ is to separate the individuals from the conditions. There has been an analogous movement in medicine for a long time: it is arguably more appropriate to say a person ‘has diabetes’ than to say a person ‘is a diabetic’: in the first case diabetes is a circumstance, in the second case it might be construed for an identity.

I was in a meeting a few weeks ago and someone said that the proposal on the table would have an adverse effect on ‘people with lived experience of homelessness’. Another person grimaced and recoiled before going on to spew forth a litany of generalizations about these ‘people with lived experience’, in much the same way one might foolishly make universal assumptions about all people who have diabetes. I was taken aback: it was strange to hear someone use terminology originally intended to reduce stigma as a vehicle for stigma.

Then it struck me, the term ‘people with lived experience’ only changes semantics, not attitudes and assumptions. Whether you say people experience homelessness or are homeless, the fundamental question is what you presume and presuppose about the concept of homelessness itself. Psychologically speaking, the influence of our syntax is quite limited here: rejigging the subject and predicate of a sentence does not somehow automatically override the feelings and beliefs we have internalized about the nature of homelessness. Even though the new term grammatically reframes homelessness as a condition instead of an identity, it nonetheless continues to carry the assumptions, biases, and stigmas of its speakers and hearers.

Consider the implications here: the phrase ‘people with lived experience’ can easily be used as a cognitive-linguistic short-cut for an extremely complex set of circumstances. It can be as presumptive as the terminology it was created to replace; it can be as equally typecasting and prejudicial as referring to people as ‘the homeless’, ‘those people’. Given time, a phrase originally intended to reduce generalizations and identity-imputing stereotypes can itself become a plug-and-play term for conventionalizing and pigeonholing. Language is impossible to nail down: any description can become a label, and any label can become a self-fulfilling inference. What these labels mean in society, hearts, and minds is more than the sum of their syntax.

We swim in an ocean of these labels. Terms like ‘vulnerable populations’, ‘high-risk groups’, and ‘low income bracket’ begin as attempts to differentiate people’s circumstances from their personal characters, but they can just as easily grow into new labels for the same old biases. Automaticity sneaks up on us. What do we unconsciously assume about other human beings when we call them ‘vulnerable’? Will the people of the future consider our use of the term ‘high-risk’ to be pejorative?

The point is simply that any word (or sequence of words) can become stigma. No terminology is future-proof. No matter how well-intentioned, sensitive, or ‘politically correct’ it might be, no phrase is guaranteed to remain benign forever. We never permanently solve or reframe social inequities or injustices by simply changing our language: we only adapt our words as best as we can in the climate of interpretations and preconceptions we find ourselves. And our language, being human language, will inevitably be readapted again later.

So let us use words carefully — especially our carefully crafted, institutionally approved terminologies and definitions. These deserve the utmost caution. The more easily a phrase slides from our lips into the ears of others, the more we collectively, en masse, presume to know. May we occasionally dare to forego the temptation to bracket ‘certain demographics’ so that we might, instead, tell longer, more complex stories… stories that even our most grammatically sensitive terminologies leave unmentioned.

Even more important than our words is the manner in which they are interpreted.

We should pay as much attention to what people hear as we do to what we say.

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An Evening

She said: “It’s a beautiful evening, isn’t it? Just about perfection.”

“I know!” he said. “Too bad it’s supposed to rain tomorrow.”

Then they went their separate ways: one to enjoy the evening and the other to spend the evening dreading the disappointment of tomorrow.

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