Monday, July 22, 2019

Equality Also Means Economic Equality

I delivered the following presentation on July 21, 2019, as part of a pre-conference series of talks on Vital Connections. I will be offering a workshop on Mindful Movements in August as part of this conference, but this talk tries to center the conversation around the ways that economic inequality leads to poor social health and drives the fragmentation of community. It is lightly edited. 

CW: state-sanctioned violence, especially against immigrants and refugees; child sex abuse and predators; impacts of social and economic inequality; descriptions of ergotism (a disease)

There’s a complicated dance that we’re often doing when it comes to public speaking on topics of justice and social change. We want to be intentional about sharing important ideas and practices that can help us keep growing into the beloved community. We also want to speak from an awareness of what is happening in the world and our responsibility to act and live in a way that embodies a commitment to compassion and justice. It is not easy to choose what to leave out, and, as you know, I sometimes try to say too much. But this is one of those moments in history when important news and ongoing crises often demand a response. So I’m going off topic for a few minutes to say something more about the human rights crisis that continues to unfold along the U.S. border and in concentration camps and detention facilities across the nation.

Because, this week, amid ongoing protests and actions, Trump announced his solution to reducing the number of asylum seekers seeking entry to the United States: he is simply changing the rules so that most people can’t seek asylum. These are drastic changes, and lawsuits are already being filed. As Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project at the ACLU, explained: 
“The Trump administration is trying to unilaterally reverse our country's legal and moral commitment to protect those fleeing danger, … . This new rule is patently unlawful and we will sue swiftly.” ( ) 

But I want us to notice this as another example of both cruelty and underhandedness. Notice that there is no move to address underlying issues that create refugees. Instead, the rules are being changed so that seeking asylum is more difficult and even illegal. The cry from the right has consistently been, “We don’t mind immigrants being here, as long as they’re here legally.” But these kinds of moves show that for the lie it is. Seeking asylum was legal, but refugees were still feared, hated, and dehumanized. This is why Eleanor Acer, senior director for refugee protection at Human Rights First, said: 
"The president can’t stand the fact that seeking protection in the United States is legal, so he’s doing everything he can to make the asylum process as difficult as possible." ( )

These stories remind us why we need to pay attention every day to what is happening in the news, support organizations working for change with our time and money, and participate in vigils and protests and actions that let the world know that we will not stand idly by, especially when the news breaks, as it did in Springfield this week, that ICE will be opening a processing center here in our own city. ( )

We need to be asking ourselves every day:

My reflections this morning are not directly about this crisis, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all be reflecting and acting, this morning and every morning, in a way that brings to an end this nightmare of injustice and inhumanity.

Dehumanization Is Our Modus Operandi

In other news, it’s also difficult not to mention a name that you’ve heard again lately. I’m guessing that you, like me, have been horrified by the stories and accusations told about Jeffrey Epstein. The new stories are consistent with the old stories. In case you don’t know the history, Epstein pleaded guilty in June 2008 to a single charge of soliciting prostitution from children. That move was a calculated one, part of a plea deal that granted him immunity to other charges. Most importantly, it closed an FBI investigation that “was yielding more victims and evidence of a possible sex-trafficking conspiracy beyond Palm Beach.” As Julie Brown of the Miami Herald reported, those victims included about 80 people “who say they were molested or otherwise sexually abused by Epstein from 2001 to 2006.” ( )

We should probably also note that, though Trump now denies knowing Epstein, back in 2002, he considered it a point of pride: 
“I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy, … . He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it – Jeffrey enjoys his social life.” ( )

There’s a lot that needs to be said here, from the way Epstein avoided punishment in 2008 by serving a light sentence at the Palm Beach County stockade with his own security detail and work release ( ), and what that says about our justice system; to the way that the Epstein case is related to and impacts the important progress made by the #MeToo movement ( ); to the significance of the resignation of U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta because of the way he (mis)handled the Epstein case in 2008 ( ). Like the concentration camps on the southern border, Epstein’s story reveals a lot about the society we live in, and it is not an accident. These situations are the bad fruit, the inevitable consequences of a society that is built on imperialist-white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy. And the power and privilege accrued by those who have benefited from those systems is, in turn, used to protect those systems, even when it means tolerating and protecting men like Jeffrey Epstein and Donald Trump for years, decades, and even lifetimes.

One of the key components of these oppressive systems is the lack of empathy and compassion on the part of those in power. We are trained to believe that people like Jeffrey Epstein are exceptions, and, for those of us who are empathetic, it seems impossible to even imagine how someone could reduce another human being to an object. That folks like Epstein engage in this kind of behavior for decades seems beyond belief – how could you possibly treat another human being like this? But here we are, week after week, recounting the multitude of ways that humans do just that. And here we are, week after week, recounting the many ways that human minds can justify horrible decisions, including unjust and violent acts. Those psychosocial loopholes provide plenty of opportunity for oppressive systems to organize, justify, and profit from dehumanizing, exploiting, traumatizing, and terrorizing fellow human beings.

Differentiating Wealth, Empathy, & Justice

As it turns out, hoarding wealth is one of those ways, and it has created and empowered all sorts of injustice throughout human history. These days, we also have the hard data that helps us understand how this works; the science is already comprehensive and persuasive. Studies have repeatedly shown that:
  • increased wealth leads to decreased empathy,
  • wealth “can cloud moral judgment” and lead to unethical behavior;
  • wealthy people “are more vulnerable to substance abuse issues,”
  • both the pursuit of wealth and spending money can often be addictive and can qualify as a behavioral addiction; and
  • children in wealthy families “are at high risk for anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, cheating, and stealing.” ( )
And this is just a short list of impacts on wealthy folk. When a society becomes organized around the accumulation of wealth and power, all sorts of other things go wrong. Daisy Grewal, in Scientific American, reminds us that,

It’s temping to think that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to act fairly. After all, if you already have enough for yourself, it’s easier to think about what others may need. But research suggests the opposite is true: as people climb the social ladder, their compassionate feelings towards other people decline. / Given the growing income inequality in the United States, the relationship between wealth and compassion has important implications. Those who hold most of the power in this country, political and otherwise, tend to come from privileged backgrounds. … the most powerful among us may be the least likely to make decisions that help the needy and the poor. They may also be the most likely to engage in unethical behavior. … Although greed is a universal human emotion, it may have the strongest pull over those of who already have the most.” ( )

Since human beings, and our motivations, are complicated and complex, we can’t make broad generalizations about why individual people do specific things. But the data does tell us that, as a society, economic inequality has definite harmful impacts. And the greater the inequality, the more disconnection there is.

Some of the most important research on the psychosocial impacts of inequality is being done by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Richard is a professor emeritus of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham Medical School, and Kate is a professor at the University of York and a scientist with the United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health Research. They have “collected internationally comparable data from dozens of rich countries on health and as many social problems” as they “could find reliable figures for.” What they discovered could very easily be traded for the list of issues we are addressing in our reflections and activities for the Vital Connections conference:

Inequality is associated with lower life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality, shorter height, poor self-reported health, low birth weight, AIDS, and depression.” It is further associated with: “level of trust, mental illness (including drug and alcohol addiction), life expectancy and infant mortality, obesity, children’s educational performance, teenage births, homicides, imprisonment rates, [and] social mobility.” ( )

Pickett and Wilkinson “combined all the health and social-problem data for each country … to form an Index of Health and Social Problems … .” If you look at their graphs ( ) , you’ll notice, time and again, that nations with more equality have better social health and nations with more inequality suffer. The United States is the example par excellence, with its data represented, perhaps fittingly, far to the right, sky high in both income inequality and, as a result, health and social problems. They concluded:

The problems in rich countries are not caused by the society not being rich enough (or even being too rich), but by the material differences between people within each society being too big. What matters is where we stand in relation to others in our own society. … The importance of community, social cohesion, and solidarity to human well-being has been demonstrated repeatedly in research showing how beneficial friendship and involvement in community life are to health. Equality comes into the picture as a precondition for getting the other two right. Not only do large inequalities produce problems associated with social differences and the divisive class prejudices that go with them, but they also weaken community life, reduce trust, and increase violence.” ( )

It’s worth saying again: equality is “a precondition for getting” community right. “The problems in rich countries are not caused by the society not being rich enough (or even being too rich), but by the material differences between people within each society being too big. What matters is where we stand in relation to others in our own society.” Let me put this more clearly: we say that we don’t want a society that produces people like Jeffrey Epstein or Donald Trump, but people like Jeffrey Epstein and Donald Trump are what we will always get when we defend a society that promotes economic inequality. Fortunately, there is a very straight forward solution to all these ills, one that can help solve a lot of other issues at the same time: economic equality.

Greed and the Wisdom Traditions

As it happens, wisdom traditions have been speaking about and acting on this issue for millennia. I'm often asked to talk about Buddhism, and I was initially asked to reflect on Buddhist teachings for this conference. It's a reasonable request; I feel very at home within the Buddhist tradition and it has a lot of relevant things to say about greed, hatred, and delusion. But, as I re-immersed myself in the data this week, what kept coming to mind was not a Buddhist practice, but a Franciscan one.

Francis and Clare lived during a time of economic and social upheaval, when artisans and merchants were rising in number and power, and the feudal system was in flux. They were acutely aware of the poverty and inequality that surrounded them, and fashioned a spiritual practice and community that sought to make space for a different way and a different world. The tradition tells us that one of Francis’ own changes of heart came at a moment when he embraced a leper, a story you’ve probably heard. He had previously been disgusted by the disease and repulsed by those who suffered from it, and he wasn’t the only one. Society then was, in some ways, parallel to society now, and they had learned to tolerate inequality by dehumanizing the poor.

When Francis was young, a drought had ravaged the land. Famine then combined with war, those nearly constant armed squabbles between cities and regions, which ruined both lives and livelihoods. Beggars were common enough, the fruit of inequality and violence. About one third of the population lived in comparative poverty, and about 10% of the population were just barely surviving. And then there were the lepers. ( )

We don’t have hard data, but many of the folks who were cast out as lepers in Francis’ day were probably suffering from ergotism, a terrible affliction also known as Saint Anthony’s fire. It began with an intestinal illness; if it progressed, you would suffer shingles, eczemas, ulcers, and blackened skin. Then, as Esther Inglis-Arkell describes it,

People would feel a pricking sensation in their arms or legs. This would turn to burning pain, and the arm would swell and redden before turning gangrenous and dropping off. You were lucky if the limb simply died without taking you with it.” ( )

These folks were shunned, pushed out of society, and lived in special asylums where they were, at best, reduced to objects of pity and charity. But what cannot be missed is the fact that ergot is contracted when someone eats grain infected by a particular fungus. Medieval folks recognized the fungus and its characteristic black spur, and they didn’t eat it. More accurately, they didn’t eat it unless they were so hungry that the choice was between eating it and starving to death. When food was scarce, the ergot-infested grain was a gamble, a known risk, but it could keep you alive to beg another day.

When Francis got down from his horse that day to hug the leper, or when he paused to give his cloak to a beggar, he was not just overcoming his personal aversion to a disease. Francis was rejecting an entire system that divided and dehumanized us. Francis intuitively knew that the “problems in rich countries are not caused by the society not being rich enough … , but by the material differences between people within each society being too big. What matters is where we stand in relation to others in our own society.” So Francis dedicated his life to to being on an equal footing with the poor and insisting that following Jesus meant radical equality. He worked as a manual laborer, he begged, he refused to own property.

The Order of Ecumenical Franciscans represents one attempt to apply such equality and solidarity to the present day, as a dispersed community of folks committed to living lives that embody values such as justice, peace, simplicity, and humility. The eighth principle of the General Rule is:

Christ chose for himself a poor and humble life, even though he valued created things attentively and lovingly. Let the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans seek a proper spirit of detachment from temporal goods by simplifying our own material needs. … We shall strive to purify our hearts from every tendency and yearning for possession and power.” ( )

This is the kind of spiritual and cultural practice that creates a space where we experience true equality, a place where connections can thrive. This may be a hard word to hear for those of us who enjoy privilege and relative luxury, but there is no way around it. We have developed an entire culture around the accumulation of wealth and power by dehumanizing humans and the earth, exploiting them and discarding them. Oppressive systems, like white supremacy, won’t go away until we “purify our hearts from every tendency and yearning for possession and power,” because giving up privilege and wealth, real or perceived, will always be a stumbling block. The same goes for all of our oppressive systems. We can’t pretend otherwise. Inasmuch as we cling to possession and power, we cling to inequality, and we create conditions that choke out community.

Letting Go into Joy and Justice

We have been talking about vital connections, in preparation for the Vital Connections conference in August. We’ll be dancing, singing, playing, drumming, drinking, eating, laughing, and sharing life together, and that is wonderful. It should be fun and refreshing; it should help us keep building trust and community. It’s important that we do those things, because they are part of our resilience. We need to do things like this that can help sustain us as we work for change. 

But the goal is not to get everyone to sing and dance more; the goal is to fashion a just, compassionate society. We need an end to economic inequality, to white supremacy, to patriarchy, to exploitation and bigotry of every kind. Because, lurking behind all the disturbing social trends that we’ve been talking about over the last weeks, we find that inequality is what drives social disconnection, isolation, addiction, and a host of other ills. We don’t want a temporary fix, something that just helps us pass the time and accommodate injustice. 

So let’s sing and dance together, eat and laugh together, make art and tell stories – let’s make vital connections, yes! But let’s also be intentional about doing so in a way that dismantles white supremacy, tramples the patriarchy, and, as the dear mother of Jesus put it, sends the rich away empty and pulls the mighty from theirthrones