Some stories are self-contained. They exist completely and entirely within themselves, and the messages they convey -- and their author's purpose in conveying them -- are intended to be fully appreciated by their audience in the immediacy of the moment of reading.
This isn't one of those stories.
A few years ago, we spent some time in Jamaica. The commercials you've no doubt seen extolling its virtues as a tourist paradise aren't lying: from its beaches to its mountain-ridged interior, the country is a staggeringly beautiful place. What the commercials don't tell you, though, is that Jamaica, as a society, is afflicted by two virulent ills: crushing levels of poverty and deeply entrenched homophobia. We went to Jamaica to work on strategic planning with a nonprofit committed to eradicating the latter of those two ills -- but as we walked the streets of the capital city of Kingston, we found it impossible to ignore the former.
We use the word "ignore" intentionally here, and we'll tell you why. For a number of reasons (not least among them the communal ethos embraced and advanced by the very influential Rastafari movement), Jamaican society, despite all that afflicts it, is one in which the humanity of its members is openly recognized. This insistence on recognition of the individual as integral to the societal whole is a common theme in the nation's art -- as the subtext, for example, of Bob Marley's "One Love/People Get Ready" -- and is expressed openly (and, to American eyes, jarringly) in the way Jamaicans interact with their impoverished fellow citizens.
We were told, prior to arriving in Kingston, that we would see a substantial number of poor people on the street -- which is not all that much different than the situation in many American cities. We were told that many of these people would talk to us: perhaps to ask for money, perhaps simply to engage in brief conversation -- which, again, is not terribly different from what one finds in America.
But then we were told that, should someone living on the street speak to us, under no circumstances should we walk past without acknowledging them. Under no circumstances should we ignore them. Under no circumstances should we pretend we didn't see them, or that they weren't really there.
We were told that we must make eye contact. We were told that we must speak directly to the person, even if to say we had no money to give them. We were told that we must speak in the same respectful and pleasant manner we would use to speak to a colleague or a friend. We were told that to do otherwise would be gravely offensive to the dignity and humanity of the person who addressed us -- the person who, while perhaps poor or unemployed or homeless, was nonetheless a human being, and important, just like we were.
Think about that for a moment.
Think about the last time you walked down the street of whatever city or town you might live in. Think about the last time you passed by a man or woman who asked you for a small amount of money for food, or for shelter, or for no specified reason at all.
Did you speak to that person, sitting or kneeling or lying on the ground below you, as a human being with the same inherent dignity and value that you possess? Did you speak to him or her as an annoyance to be rid of? Did you speak to him or her with disdain or disgust at their temerity to intrude on your day with their despair?
Did you speak to him or her at all? Or did you look somewhere else and pretend you didn't hear a voice? Pretend you didn't see a face? Did you look somewhere else and pretend there was no one there on the ground at your feet?
Did looking away make the person go away?
Are there communications insights to be gleaned from what you've read here? We think there are, and we imagine you do too -- but that wasn't our purpose in telling the story we just did.
We told you that story so we can tell you another one.
It's coming next, in the sixth installment of "Strong Language."
People get ready.