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It Is Very Like a Wall

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Surely there is no single way to view and try to understand the human dilemma. What goes wrong with us, and what causes us to go wrong? Why do we harm each other? What are the sources of murderous rage, soul-tearing bigotry, and callous indifference to the pain of others? Why don’t we treat other people as we would wish to be treated? What evils within us cause systemic injustices in our societies?

Is the culprit greed? Fear? Selfishness? Pride? What about shame? In this quest for answers to what ails us as a species, we become much like the blind men encountering the elephant, as told in the ancient fable. It is very like a wall (the elephant’s body). It is very like a rope (tail). It is very like a spear (tusk). It is very like a snake (trunk).

On Facebook, of all places, I came across the suggestion that all our evils arise from the belief that some people’s lives are worth more than other people’s lives. Without denying the destructive powers of greed, pride, shame, fear, etc., I have considered this idea and found it useful, especially when viewing the forces of social stratification and the casual acceptance of flagrant inequalities.

Slaves and subsistence (or sub-subsistence) workers have long been expected by their masters to take pride in the success of the enterprise that grinds them down and breaks their bodies. After all the slaves and workers are, the masters deem, privileged to be part of something far greater than themselves. Did not Mr. Bezos remark that it was the Amazon workers and customers who made possible the grand venture into space? Are not the house slaves in Gone with the Wind proud to be part of the plantation Tara and share (in a very small, poor way) in its splendor? Indeed, in the fiction, those house slaves fight to preserve the stratified way of life that sanctifies their bondage as something right and good. They know their place, as those in the most elevated and comfortable places like to phrase it.

Think with me. How many evils – how many cruelties and deprivations – would be revealed as scandalous and unacceptable if we no longer believed that some lives are worth more than others? Are boys really worth more than girls? White people than people of every other tint of skin? Rich people than poor people? Those to the manor born than those to the scullery born? The owner than the workers who toil to make the profits?

What is behind of quaint question, “How much is he worth?” We expect an answer in dollars, and so we monetize the value of human life. For that matter, is the reader who had to look up the word “monetize” of any less value than the one with the broader vocabulary? From some of our standardized tests, one might be led to conclude we regard vocabulary as the grand determiner of educational and social stratification, of “place” in a hierarchy of human life.

Here I am tempted to turn theological because neither the prophets of Israel nor Jesus of Nazareth had any regard for social stratification or for the dismissiveness that overlooks the dignity and worth of all loved by God. Indeed, it has been argued well that God’s justice has a bias in favor of the poor and downtrodden. But for now, I ask the reader only to consider how many evils (things that do harm, that inflict cruelty, that justify indifference to injustices and sufferings), would be challenged and perhaps overcome if we did not, every day and in nearly every way make distinctions between the people worth more and the people worth less (or even worthless!).