In Praise of Specificity

Specificity is a form of compassion.  The most compassionate people I know deal in details.  Their eyes take in the sticky residue on the floor where a toddler will plant the hand that goes into her mouth.  Their concern about housing leads to questions about cockroaches and rats.  They see the faint pesticide cloud breaching the edges of the field that borders on migrant laborers’ homes.

In his remarkable book The Working Poor, David Shipler models this kind of compassion in his close attention to the daily decisions and weekly crises of people whose every choice involves a tradeoff.  He invites readers to sustain their attention to specifics long enough to feel what they “see.”

I can’t help, in this pre-election month, contrasting his humble, careful portrait of the poor with the abstract rhetoric about poverty that wins points for candidates—or worse, stereotypes the poor.

One of the most convicting phrases I heard in graduate school was when a friend worked herself to a place of quite justifiable outrage about “affordable middle-class morality.”  By that she meant holding people to standards that could only be met by people with choices:  cleanliness, preparedness, “good” parenting, social grace.  These standards are hard, sometimes impossible to meet without money, or in a state of grinding fatigue, or when chronic anxiety and depression deplete one’s inner resources.

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