I made a plea for funds on my fundraising page recently. This happens a lot, because I have a lot of financial need at present.
I wrote something within that plea about being a human being, and therefore deserving basic human rights. And not long after, I felt this unsettling feeling in my gut. I felt that feeling because I realized that making this statement means that I believe that some of the people who know me do not understand basic human rights. I realized that some of the people I know do not think all people deserve life and health and safety.
That is the worst feeling!
I am making an argument for my dessert of life to people who know me.
Seriously, let that sink in for a moment. People I know need to be told that I deserve life.
It is hard for me to imagine that others think existing on the most basic level is not a right. It is even more difficult for me to conceive of, because many of those same people are insistent on the rights of a fetus. Before your life is viable, you have rights. After being born, you cease to have those same rights? I find that concept difficult, if not impossible to argue.
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights lays out a number of rights that all human beings deserve, simply because they are human beings. One of those is the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of a person and his or her family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care, and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his or her control.
This right, that is offered for all who are human, is denied me on an ongoing and regular basis. I’ve been living without that standard of living, and without that security for the last two years while I wait for my disability hearing to occur. And I have been living without that standard and that security for pretty much my whole life.
Obviously, I don’t count childhood in the financial failings of the system of social services, so my adult life has been plagued with poverty and lack of security. But I have been without life, liberty, and security of person since childhood, since I was not free and not safe during that time. Life, liberty, and security of person is one of the rights expressed by the declaration as well. And I didn’t have that. I still don’t.
And I am not alone in my lack of life, liberty, and security of person. Millions of people share this state alongside me.
We make all manner of excuse for why this life and liberty and security and standard of living and equal pay and recognition and participation in government and freedom of thought, expression, religion, and peaceful assembly are not offered to all humans. And all of them are inexcusable responses to the failures of our society to meet these standards.
At this moment, in the United States of America, there are children being gunned down in the streets, and unarmed people of color being murdered in the name of “feeling threatened” by the police. There is a violent response from law enforcement to the peaceful protest of indigenous peoples on their own land. There is humiliating punishment, torture, cruel punishment, and slavery within our prison systems (that are privately owned and income generating). People are not protected from arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile. Political refugees are being refused access and protection. There are millions assumed guilty until proved innocent, instead of the other way around. There is arbitrary interference with privacy, family, and home with the NSA listening in on the American people.
All of the above are in direct conflict with the declaration of human rights that the UN puts forth. All of the above are not acceptable. And all of the above are excused by claiming moral failure or some form of action that pretends to nullify the humanity of those without adequate human rights.
So, at this point, I am offering the whole of society a command: STOP.
Stop treating me and others as though we are not human. We are human.
Dehumanizing happens in many ways, but at its core is the idea that we make someone seem like less of a person in order to ignore the responsibility we have toward other humans. We take an individualist stance, and we find reasons to say that people deserve what they have received on an individual level, so that we can ignore systems of injustice and refuse to change, share, care, or relate to others.
I sometimes feel like I live in a society of toddlers. When you are a toddler, you don’t yet understand that the world is not revolving around you. As an infant, you cried and someone responded. All the things were about you. And then, suddenly, you are thrust into social interaction, and all the things are not about you. “Mine!”, becomes your war cry. And all the adults are telling you to share, to respect boundaries, to not harm others, and to see your life in community instead of seeing it as a place where your voice is met with immediate action and all the things are meant for you.
The society I live in is struggling with the concept of sharing. Adults are still using “Mine!” as the war cry. My woman. My home. My paycheck. My desserts. My right to take and never give. My parenting style. My business. My tax breaks. My neighborhood. My border. My ego. My viewpoint. My voice.
But that isn’t how a society works.
We cannot be a group of individuals all working toward our own interest and ignoring the interests of others and believe that this manner of being will lead to justice and equity. It won’t.
It cannot. Because society is not just a bunch of people doing their own thing.
The word society originates from the Latin word “socius”, which translates into the concept of “companion”. A companion is one with whom you are a friend, a partner, a complement. Companionship requires the consideration of others, and the partnership between parties. Somehow, we have forgotten that those within our communities are companions, partners, and friends. Somehow, we have supplanted the idea of “individuals in a space” with the original meaning of “society” that includes companionship.
Our concern ends at those we consider “close”, both in relationship and in common interest, and we no longer extend our concern to those we see as outliers or strangers or “threats”. The comaraderie of society ended as the shift from the 16th century meaning was made and we began to look at life in the way of the toddler, by fighting to keep our individual self at the center of the universe. Society became a group of individuals sharing the same space, and lost sight of our responsibility to one another.
I’ve studied social justice for some time now. I’ve lived a life that denied me basic human rights for even longer than I studied. And I can tell you, both from an academic research standpoint and as a person affected by the way we view rights, that being a bunch of self-interested individuals who pursue our own agendas in the same space is not working. The increases in crime, in protest, in outrage, in violence, in refusal to help and share and identify with others, are all symptoms of the problem of that individualist thinking.
We need to find that understanding of society and companionship once more. We need to see all human beings as deserving of the basic rights that the United Nations has put forth. We need to look at all other humans as equal to us in their humanity, regardless of race or religion or poverty or moral failures or any other standard we might assign to others in order to dehumanize them, and to justify our lack of companionship with other human beings.
We need to treat humans as human. We need to care for each as we might care for the one we consider our closest companion. If you wouldn’t treat your friend or partner in a particular manner, then you ought not treat any human being in that same manner. Would you leave your partner homeless? Would you submit your partner to torture? Would you deny help to your best friend when they lost their job suddenly, or became ill? Would you tell your child to “deal with it” when they are profiled, policed under different standards, and denied education? Would you find excuses to allow the harm of those closest to you?
If the answer to those questions is “no”, and I hope the answer is no, then the answer should remain “no” when that person in the scenario or circumstance is not your partner or best friend. We should refuse to allow that treatment to any one of our companions—any person in our society. We need to begin thinking of our society as our companions, our partners, and our complements. When we work together, we create good things for all. Symbiotic relationship doesn’t apply only to the nature channel’s programming. Society is a symbiotic relationship, and each individual within it should benefit from the others.
I once had a conversation with a man on the bus who was in tattered clothing and appeared to be transient. We talked about his kids, and about his previous experiences, and about his life now. He lives in a tiny room above a bar, and he has a sign in his window that says, “Piano lessons, classical” and has his phone number below. He has that sign because he was a concert pianist. A talented and well-traveled, educated man was sharing this conversation with me. He told me of the places he had been, and the people for which he performed. He was famous in cultural, musical circles. And now he was without resources, because playing the piano doesn’t necessarily pay well anymore. When people pass him on the street, they think of him as a bum, a drain on society, a dirty or bad or frightening threat to the wellbeing of “good, clean, responsible” citizens. But he isn’t what they imagine. And if they could see him as a comrade, as a companion, or as a friend, as I saw him, they would enjoy beautiful tales of extraordinary fame and fortune. They would know, if they could see him as their equal, that he was more accomplished than anyone else on that bus.
But they don’t see him as an equal. They don’t offer him the human rights to housing, clothing, food, medical care, and social services. They don’t offer him more than a look of disgust, or the ever-present tactic of pretending that he doesn’t exist.
I’m not offered the human rights to housing, clothing, food, medical care, and social services either. I’ve been disabled for a few years, and I still haven’t been given resources to survive and remain safe. I don’t have what I need to live—to stay a human being and not become a pile of ash—unless I plead with people to meet my needs on an almost daily basis. The pleas are met with resources, thank the Divine. But those resources often come from the same six or seven individuals. The rest of my acquaintances ignore the pleas, or offer reasons that I do not deserve resources or should “get a job” to gain resources. They don’t seem to care about my rights as a human being. They don’t seem to believe that I deserve the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his or her control. They don’t seem to believe that I have the right to live.
I do have that right. And if you would treat me as your companion, your comrade, your complement, you would see how much I, as a human being, have to offer, and the importance of offering me life.
You hear much about “the system” or “systems” of late. People whom I stand in solidarity with are being oppressed and denied their basic human rights. We have created ways of acting within society that cause systemic damage, meaning that the whole of the society is affected. We have created a society where individualism, racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and all sorts of other “isms” are infecting every part of the whole. And many think that the answer to this problem of an unjust system is to spew forth more hatred and division and insistence upon individualist approaches to finding solutions.
But when the whole is affected, you cannot simply treat one part of the disease, leaving the sickness to spread in other areas. The whole is affected. And the treatment plan needs to begin with addressing the whole, not a part. The cure for our society’s ailments begins with adherence to the declaration of human rights. We need to stop being toddlers and grow into compassionate adults, who share and work together and have concern for others. The way to justice and equity is clearly spelled out for us—life, liberty, and security of person. The way to justice and equity is seeing people as human beings, and treating them as such.
Descartes stated that thinking was the basis for being—I think, therefore I am. But I believe that he was off by just a bit. I am, therefore I am.
Being is what makes us worthy of being. Living is what makes us deserving of life. Existence is what demands I receive resources to maintain my existence.
That is the whole argument.
And none of us should need to plead for our lives, no matter who we are, what we look like, where we come from, or what we do or do not accomplish. We should be offered a basic standard of living because we exist.
We are human beings.