If I believed everything I worked for was in peril, how hard would I fight to keep it safe? Would I lash out at the people I thought were after my slice of the pie? Would I convince myself they were inferior and undeserving?
On Saturday, the Free Press launched its Bottom Lines/Dividing Lines series. Over the next year, we'll look at the growing gap between Winnipeg's rich and poor. Reporter Mary Agnes Welch and I kicked things off by examining Winnipeg's social and economic picture during the 1919 General Strike and contrasted it with today's reality.
We found a city with a distinct underclass, one defined by race, poverty and neighbourhood. In the coming months, Free Press reporters will examine the contrasts in specific parts of the city, the difficulty finding affordable housing, the hardships of aging in poverty and a host of other topics.
Reaction to the series was swift and, in many cases, harsh. In the online world, anonymous commenters slammed a welfare recipient who lives in poverty in what was once the mansion owned by late Free Press editor John Dafoe. Some felt I should have provided more of Steve Swartz's story; others believed they'd read enough to judge him.
Here's part of what I posted Sunday after scrolling through 300-some comments:
"Steve Swartz... lives in John Dafoe's old mansion. That's why I knocked on his door. He was kind enough to answer... Swartz wasn't asking for your pity, understanding or scorn. With any luck he won't read comments by people who know nothing about him but think they should judge him anyway.
"He was injured several years ago and his hand nearly severed. Could he be retrained? Has he made poor choices? Should he be living in a crappy place because he's on welfare? Many of you have debated that and come to your own conclusions... Swartz opened his door and he became game for the bloody-minded. He won't make that mistake again.
"This weekend's articles were the beginning of a series the Free Press believes is important. We need debate on policy, on social change, on whether we believe (as parents once did) that our children will have a better life than we did. It's a conversation happening around the world and I invite you to join it.
"Constructively, creatively, I'm hoping we can reach an understanding more complex than puerile insults and cheap shots. We need to. If it's always us versus them we have to be prepared for the day when there are more of 'them' than there are of 'us.' "
It wasn't just this series that got the knives unsheathed. In Tuesday's paper, Carol Sanders reported on a protest against the elimination of the Interim Federal Health Program. It provides temporary health-care coverage to eligible protected persons, refugee claimants and others who do not qualify for provincial or territorial health insurance.
Here's what one online commenter said:
"Advocates for refugees, meanwhile who advocates for the Canadian? Enhancing the culture that they chose to leave, we pay for special schools, the list just continues... taxpayers are asked to keep footing the bill.
"Why is it everyone wants to come to Canada and then insist on having what they left?"
In this case, the man featured in Sanders' piece "left" his leg in Congo following a machete attack. Canadians benefit from socialized medicine (as flawed as it may be), subsidized education, freedom from war and most violence, and the ability to practise our faiths and cultural beliefs without fear. We are all privileged.
If it's anxiety about their futures that is the root of the online community's wrath, we need to continue the conversation. Turning neighbours into caricatures and social programs into examples of the government favouring the lazy is easy. If we are divisive, we will be divided. If we are tolerant and respectful, we will be rewarded.
The hard work comes in understanding the causes of poverty and turmoil, in working toward solutions and in realizing we are all 'us' and all 'them.' Our places in this world could change in a heartbeat.