Rock & A Hard Place: Scroll vs BuzzFeed, Urban Poor vs Urban Broke
An unstoppable force meets an immovable object and a thousand think pieces are born.
If you just rolled your eyes at yet another piece trying to ride the coat-tails of the #UrbanPoor trend, I feel for you, dear reader.
Feeling for you hasn’t stopped me from going ahead and writing this, however, so strap in.
To recap, BuzzFeed carried an anecdotal piece that spoke with sympathy about the struggles of urban millennials in glitzy corporate offices; those who must skimp on necessities like food and rent to keep up appearances, which here means high-end clothing and strategic socialising at expensive cafes.
The admittedly ill-considered use of the phrase ‘urban poor’ to describe these new-age creatures caused much ire on social media, culminating in a scathing Scroll article, written by contributor Irshad Daftari, that champions the cause of real poverty.
There are many things that Scroll’s slightly self-righteous rant gets right. Urban poverty is a quantifiable, horrific epidemic that shouldn’t be appropriated by an obviously middle-class demographic to talk about their financial woes. Like some Twitter users have suggested, ‘urban broke’ is a far more suitable term.
The archetypal working-class figures Scroll cites- Dharavi’s child laborers, the children of domestic help, drivers who pull double shifts- are all ensnared in a vicious, often inescapable cycle of an economic system that severely undervalues physical labour. To compare their misery and the urban millennial’s 300-rupee sandwich woes is indeed proof of a complete lack of perspective, and really, even basic human decency.
This is where the friendly neighborhood straw man comes in.
A straw man is a logical fallacy where one misinterprets one’s opponent’s argument to refute it. This is essentially what Scroll is doing to BuzzFeed.
BuzzFeed’s nomenclature (‘urban poor’) is both inaccurate AND unfortunate but Scroll’s single-minded focus on the term misses the crux of the article. Gayatri Jayaraman, the BuzzFeed contributor is not lamenting the destitution of this millennial class or agitating for higher pay or asking us to shed tears for youngsters who choose to spend rent money on luxurious clothing.
She is instead cutting through a noxious cultural atmosphere that pressures youngsters to live beyond their means. The choice to write it is as an anecdotal, first person account is telling, her sympathy is born out of identification with people who are new to the world of offices and appointments, who make boneheaded financial decisions due to peer pressure. She acknowledges that these choices are born of a privilege a tiny percentage of the country’s population has access to:
In a country where genuine hunger is ubiquitous, this brand of it comes via lifestyle choices. Somehow, we’ve built a culture that places such immense value in appearances that we’d rather spend a lot to appear full than spend a little bit to buy food.Gayatri Jayaraman
India’s poverty is a naked, dancing spectacle. Only those hermetically sealed within impossible high-rises can block out the hungry, the homeless, the crippled. In the face of this ache and want, issues like the one Jayaraman brings up seem like so much privileged, whiny twaddle; a first world problem, if you will. Well, so are things like anorexia and cyber bullying but this does not make them less important.
I believe in hierarchisation of problems. Actual destitution, real poverty should obviously be our first priority when it comes to finding solutions. But let’s cultivate hearts and minds big enough to not dismiss other, less pressing issues out of hand. We don’t have to make it an either/or situation.
Sympathy, brotherhood, a patient ear- let’s give these freely whenever we can.
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