“Us” Versus “Them”

11Aug08

I spent the morning contemplating, of all things, racism in politics, after a New York Times article announced that while only 5% of pollees admitted they themselves would not vote for Obama because he’s black, 19% said they knew someone who would not vote for Obama because he’s black. Even adjusting for those who personally don’t give a shit whether he’s black or neon green, but who happen to know some seriously, if subconsciously, racist fucknuts who vote (like I do), the data seems to indicate that the unspoken racism in this country is still alive, well, and virulent – and enough to throw an election.

This of course got me on to other subtle forms of oppression, like sexism, which got me onto a pet subject: prisoners’ rights.

I cannot separate criminals into “us” and “them” because the division is false nonsense designed to make “us” (always the noncriminals) feel somehow morally superior to “them,” when in fact we are not. Criminal choices are still on the scale of possible human choices. As long as they remain there, “we” are every bit as capable of making those choices as “they” are. We may make socially and morally “better” choices by taking the noncriminal options, but doing so does not make us superior beings.

The “us/them” divide on the criminal question is highly tempting, though. Not only does it give us a sense of moral superiority, it gives us a sense of security. There is enormous comfort in being able to say “that person isn’t human; a human would never do that.” It allows us to be something other than the criminal is, in a very solid sense…but, unfortunately, a false one. Because criminals are human.

Humanity is an inherent quality. It’s not a privilege. One can lose one’s privilege to voting, property ownership, liberty, or even life in some cases; but it makes absolutely no sense to talk about losing one’s “privilege” of being white, or male, or six feet tall. (To be clear: I’m talking about legal privilege, not social privilege: certainly there’s a HUGE social privilege in being white or male in America, and whether one can lose it is a fascinating question, but not one I’m getting into here.) One IS white, or male, or six feet tall, or left-handed, or whatever. Similarly, one IS human – hence the term “human being.” To pretend that being human is a “privilege” that can be abrogated is nonsense – of a shockingly dangerous kind.

Because when we make humanity a “privilege” to be retained or lost, what safeguards us from giving up our own humanity in the pursuit of revenge? What possible meaning could “justice” or “equity” have if the very rules of the game, that everyone is a human being, no longer exist? The fundamental notion that everybody has basic rights, regardless of what they may or may not have done, makes a stable social order possible. Without it, we might as well be animals; without it, neither good nor bad have any meaning. The only meaning is in might; compassion, mercy, respect, honor, decency – all of these evaporate. When we gain any pleasure from stripping from other people the same values we seek to punish them for violating in the first place, we ourselves become subhuman – and worthy, in a world of people and not of laws, of the same punishment.

Naturally, I don’t mean to say people should not be held accountable for their actions. I was a major thorn in the side of folk (of all colours) who wanted to blame their parents or their friends or society or the cop or the judge or me for the mess they’d gotten themselves into. (We’ll leave out for the moment the people who really were in that mess because someone else had mis-identified or framed them.) But there is a HUGE HONKIN’ BRIGHT LINE between telling people “you have acted unacceptably and you must accept the consequences of your misbehavior” and “you no longer deserve to be treated as a sentient being.” We have no moral authority to enforce law unless we ourselves follow it, including – especially – during that very enforcement. (Or, as one felon of my acquaintance so eloquently put it, “Everyone owes the State five years of their life.”)

So where does this intersect with racism? On the very big and very-much-alive field that once you’ve divided humanity into “us” (superior) and “them” (inferior) on ANY set of criteria, you’re in grave danger of making the division on any OTHER set of criteria – including race. You may do it subconsciously, but you’ll do it. And you’re never safe from any “ism” until you’ve purged ALL the “ism”s, until you can accept that ANYONE, even your racial/sexual/gender/ethnic/religious/sized/handed/felon-status opposite, is also human.

That’s a hell of an uphill battle. But I submit that it is worth fighting. Indeed, it may be the only one ultimately worth fighting – at least, if you ever want to get to the core of what it means to be human.

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