Last weekend, the TED Radio Hour devoted its program to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. Maslow developed his ideas as part of a 1943 paper on human motivation. Though the rankings have been criticized since then (note that apparently Maslow himself never actually used a pyramid to represent them), breaking down the different components of human motivation can be useful.
Though I studied international relations and diplomacy, a field that benefits from a frank understanding of the drivers of human behavior, I’d never encountered Maslow or his theories until fairly recently. I was introduced to them while editing a paper written by a brilliant out-of -the-box thinker in the education technology field.
Recently I’ve found myself thinking about the hierarchy of needs and what happens when the different needs of different groups conflict. Though I’d encountered this many times in passionate debates about education reform, this time my reasons for considering the clash of human motivation were more personal.
A few weeks ago, I was attacked at around 10:30 in the morning in the parking garage of our neighborhood library. The perpetrator had attacked a woman in an office building before coming into the garage, menacing a mother with two young children on the way to story time, and then trapping and groping me. The attack drew my attention to the increase of crime and homelessness in my previously sedate neighborhood and to the plight of addiction and homelessness in Seattle that has led our mayor to declare a State of Emergency. Last May, I was frustrated by our efforts to have the den of heroin-using squatters evicted from the vacant house next door, which was slated for development. Eventually the people were kicked out, but the police refused to remove the drug paraphernalia. Now, as a matter of course, you can find used syringes littering the green spaces of our neighborhood.
In the days and weeks following my attack, a drug-addled man tried to cut the throat of a local business owner with a shard of glass, a beloved elderly school crossing guard was attacked at a grocery store and later died from his injuries, a body was found near a dumpster, and there was an increase in car and house break-ins. One sunny Saturday, around ten days after my physical attack, I was verbally abused without provocation while walking my dog near the woods where I often go running alone. Shaken by the experience, I confided in a neighbor, who put me in touch with another neighbor who has been speaking out about public safety. I learned that neither of them goes running in the woods anymore. For the record, I haven’t either since the attack.
A small thoughtful group in my neighborhood and its environs has been speaking out about public safety, and this has earned them the derision of a local blogger who accuses them of suffering from a NIMBY (not in my backyard) mindset towards troubled populations. As is typical these days, the fights on social media can get vicious. During a neighborhood walking tour with one of those advocates and our city councilman’s legislative aide, he challenged her when she asked what sort of outreach and monitoring the city had in place for its growing homeless population, especially when lawlessness ensues. “We have to respect people’s right to self-determination,” he told her. Following that line of reasoning, preserving one person’s need for self-actualization could threaten another person’s need for safety.
For the record, the city does reach out to the homeless population, but lacks adequate resources for everyone. Some have called for a mind shift in determining the hierarchy of needs of at-risk populations.
The hierarchy of needs plays out in so many domains. My 11th grade daughter complains that her Humanities class is less interesting this year because it’s a repeat of the constant cycle of suppression and uprising that has played out around the world since time immemorial. Whenever my kids complain about a peer’s objectionable behavior, I remind them that most people want to feel “important and included,” advice about the youthful hierarchy of needs that we learned years ago in a class about weathering middle school.
Nicholas Kristof and others have penned mea culpas for contributing to the meteoric rise of Donald Trump. The media bears responsibility, said Kristof, not only for giving Trump unprecedented airtime and not adequately fact-checking him, but also for failing to take seriously the concerns of working class Americans, who have felt marginalized.
The 1 percent versus everyone else. Black versus white. LGBT versus straight. Law enforcement officials versus citizens. Freedom of speech versus racism and oppression. Everywhere you look it seems that to meet the needs of one group you must sacrifice the needs of another.
Writer Gregg Easterbrook, author of The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, says that pessimism has became mainstream, despite the fact that, for the most part, things are getting better. He’s calling for a return to progressive optimism. Easier said than done.
Accused of being an optimist recently, I now wear that badge with honor. What helps me retain my optimism is that, however you want to categorize and prioritize our needs, the common threads that bind humanity are the desire for safety, shelter, food, freedom of expression, love, and a sense of belonging.
My attacker is back on the streets, so I avoid the park where he hangs out, which is across the street from a mission that serves breakfast to the homeless and a nearby urban rest stop, both of which are trying to deal with ballooning populations. The library is adding lighting to its parking garage, but notes that several patrons have said they don’t feel safe in the building anymore. I’m educating myself and speaking out about the need to coordinate our city’s approach to addiction, homelessness, and public safety, so that everyone’s needs are taken into consideration.
Until we adequately address marginalization, in its many forms, we’ll have bigotry and shootings and bombings and Internet trolls, and lawlessness, frustration, fear, and pessimism.
There’s no immediate solution, but as a start, maybe we should all carry around pocket-sized copies of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.