By Leo Kim
What happens when you learn that you’re a hypocrite?
That was the thought bouncing around my head as I fumbled around a row of black trash bags lining the street, dealing with the aftermath of a sudden eviction.
A few hours earlier, I had been at my desk at Justice Policy Institute’s office working when I got a call. “You need to get here right away,” a panicked neighbor told me. “The guy you’re subletting from is being evicted and the marshals are taking out everything.”
First, I thought it was a joke. There’s no way, I thought. It was too ironic. After all, I had only recently finished helping with research for JPI on the intersection of homelessness and the criminal justice system in Maryland.
Thirty minutes later, when I got to the apartment and saw my entire life in D.C. tossed indiscriminately into trash bags on the side of the street, I knew it was no joke. I had received no word of the eviction. No forewarning. But there it was.
It was quite a scene and on a busy Georgetown afternoon; I stuck out.
Most passersby tried to avoid eye contact. Some talked amongst themselves about what could have happened. A select few actually came up and asked me themselves, leaving with words that, while comforting, amounted to little more than “I’m sorry, I wish I could help.”
It was at that point that a man of about 50 approached me. Despite looking worn and tired, he told me that he wanted to help. He told me that something similar had happened to him, and he understood. If I needed anything, I should come get him— he’d be across the street.
This man, homeless, was the only stranger to offer me help that day.
All this started to get me thinking. What would I have done had I been one of the people walking by? After all, I should have known how swift and terrible something like this could be. I had spent the better part of a summer specifically researching it, and I knew that for most people, the same event would have been far worse than I could ever hope to comprehend. I knew from my research that homelessness could have devastating impacts and often lead to involvement in the justice system.
I, who could rattle off dozens of facts about the worst parts of homelessness, wouldn’t have offered substantial help. And while I’m sure there are better souls out there, I think most people would do the same— they did do the same.
So where does this leave me?
The thing is, I’m a little bit of a dork. But not just any kind of dork, I’m a philosophy dork. So naturally, that’s where my mind went.
There’s a theory in philosophy that essentially says that your beliefs are intimately linked to your actions. If you believe something, you’ll act in accordance with that belief. If you act in a way seemingly contradictory, we can say that you never believed that thing in the first place. After all, it makes sense to say a person who acts bigoted doesn’t believe in equality, even if they explicitly say they do.
Plus, if beliefs don’t cause action, then why would we bother teaching correct information? What’s the purpose of teaching people about global warming if we don’t think it’ll lead to positive change, to something happening?
So how would someone who believed in the inequity surrounding homelessness have acted in that situation? The obvious answer seems to be that they would have helped. But, contrary to my belief that people who are homeless need more than a few meaningless words, that’s exactly what I would’ve done, like so many did that day.
What conclusion did I have? I was a hypocrite.
I thought I had done all the right things to help myself become more understanding of the world around me— to become more understanding of the privilege I have that so many lack, of the obligation we all have towards one another. I had researched, written, and learned about the relevant issues. I had taken classes on ethics and waxed philosophical.
But at the end of the day, this intellectual education wasn’t enough to ensure that my beliefs translated into actions consistent with those beliefs. I didn’t have the right beliefs in the sense that we want them, beliefs in the sense that they matter in a tangible way. There was still a vast chasm separating my intellectual knowledge, and this visceral, acting knowledge.
It’s probably safe to assume that many reading this, like me, are interested in reform and have a genuine desire to—pardon the hackneyed expression— “be the change that they wish to see in the world.”
Yet, this isn’t something that can be achieved in a purely academic setting, as so many of my university peers may think. Rather, there needs to be something connecting you to the people the problem affects; it needs to be human, not solely intellectual.
Fighting this abstraction through personal involvement is important. With it, the divide between the two kinds of knowledge can start to inch closer and closer together.
When I came to my internship at JPI, I was told that my primary job was to “learn.” By the end of my internship, I realized that the most valuable kind of learning I did was unlike the academic kind I had become so accustomed to in the past 15 years of my life.
Getting a chance to meet those that the problem affected and becoming more personally conscientious of the issues at hand gave me something I could have never taken away from a report or a classroom. And this is precisely what we need if we are to become more like the person we all want to be, rather than the ones we so often are.
Leo Kim is a student at Yale where he studies philosophy and writes for the Opinion Section of the Yale Daily News. He is also a former JPI Research Intern.