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It’s always “them”

There was a stabbing last night in the town where I live. I don’t know the full details of it, but it happened downtown. The local newspaper has been adopting social media as a better way to get the news out. Not very many people buy the printed edition of the paper anymore. Anyway, the newspaper posted about the stabbing on their Facebook page, and it was very interesting to see the reactions and comments of the readers.

It never fails in this town that there will be the very outspoken proponents that the town is “going to hell” and that things are not “the way they should be” anymore. People are proud to write that they have moved away from the town and that they would never move back in. Yet others say that it’s “those people” coming up from Baltimore, coming over from Philadelphia, or coming down from New York City.

It’s always “them,” isn’t it? It’s never “us.” We’re okay. There could never be anything wrong with “us.” We’re perfect. We’re outstanding. We’re awesome!

And we have awesome ‘staches!
Photo credit: Eduardo Amorim / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

When I was in college, I took a class on academic research. For two semesters, we had to research the Holocaust and write a pretty long paper on our research. Since the whole of the Holocaust was such a big topic, the professor allowed us to pick a theme or topic within the Holocaust narrative and research it. I did my research on the medical experiments carried out by the likes of Mengele and his colleagues. It was very brutal for me to read all those things at the age of 17 and not come away thinking that my future in science could turn me into a monster. However, the more I read about what happened, the more I understood that it was not monsters that did those things. It was people. Plain, old people with families and friends and ambitions did those horrible experiments that left so many dead and disfigured. That scared me even more.

It’s very much human nature to be afraid of human nature. I’m not trained in psychology or psychiatry, but I’ve seen and heard enough in my life to know that people will blame everything and anything outside their control (and outside themselves and their community) before blaming some internal problem when something goes wrong. As it happens, the stabbing in town turned out to be a man stabbing his father to death because, according to police, the perpetrator wanted to go back to jail. It wasn’t a person from one of the nearby cities. It wasn’t a person of color. So the comments have changed.

Now, it’s not that someone from the cities came and tarnished the town. Now, it’s someone with a psychiatric disorder, or someone “poisoned” by the drugs that are brought in from the nearby cities. Again, it couldn’t possibly be someone like us, the rest of the residents in town. Oh, no, no, no… It has to be someone else. Someone different. I’m almost reminded of the dog looking over at the cats when I catch her in the act of eating something off the table.

“It wasn’t me. It was them! THEM!”
<credit <Photo credit: zoomar / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Mom used to tell me that jail are full of innocent people. She didn’t mean that literally, of course. She meant that everyone in jail is innocent in their own minds. They’ve convinced themselves that it was outside influences that drove them to commit their crimes. It was the hunger that made them steal cash. It was the addiction that made them hold up a pharmacy. It was the way they were looked at that made them hurt or kill someone. They’re all innocent.

I’d like to be able to take the extreme view that everything people have happen to them they had coming to them because of their actions. I can’t, though. In that world, all fat people have no self-control and eat because they’re irresponsible or don’t work out because they’re lazy. Also in that world, the addict can quit any time and the unemployed can find a job doing anything. It’s an easy world to live in because, if we just do what we need to do, we’ll achieve utopia. The other extreme is just as ridiculous. All poor people are poor because “the man” is keeping them down. All alcoholics can’t help themselves. The government, NGOs, and charities need to throw all the money available at these problems and the problems will get better and go away.

I don’t live in that world, and I don’t walk around with that mindset. I can’t, especially if I expect to be competent in any way in my career in public health. The epidemiologist in me makes me take the outliers and the means/medians/modes into account in the analysis of a problem. Issues like crime, hunger, and disease are multi-faceted and not easily fixed by one action. The diabetic will not wake up tomorrow and flip their lives around to the point where they’ll go to bed without diabetes. Same thing goes for the hungry and the addicts. And no “white knight” will come to the rescue and erase all these problems. While we have some control, we don’t have all control.

And I’m okay with that.

Featured image credit: Great Beyond / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

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