We are all created equal. This declaration stands at the center of America’s most cherished beliefs. But when I ask if I, and others around me, really demonstrate belief in this self-evident truth, the answer is “sometimes.”
There’s more to inequality than meets the eye. People everywhere cluster into groups of us versus them: our family versus theirs — our school versus theirs — our church versus theirs — our team versus theirs and so on. In fact, choosing sides happens all around us, and anything is used as an excuse, like how I dress compared to you, to how successful I am compared to you.
It’s almost as if there’s a collective conspiracy against equality.
When I was waiting tables in my early twenties, behind me I heard the German manager bark, “You! Come here!” I turned to see him glaring at me and beckoning with his finger for me to cross the room. I walked up to him and he pointed to a table and snarled, “Clean this up now!” I did as I was told, while fighting back tears. On my way to the kitchen, I heard him say to another waiter, “There’s something wrong with people who grow up without a father.” His intention was to humiliate me. He succeeded.
For the purpose of exploring what lies at the heart of discrimination and judgment, let’s suspend divisions altogether. We are all just people, born into vastly different circumstances for reasons we can never fully understand. Some of us see the odds in this global lottery and, for good reason, are thankful that we were born into western society. We know we are among the few lucky ones.
Millions live in abject poverty and die from starvation. Others live under brutal dictatorships, or are born or sold into slavery. Some face the horrors of torture and war. Responses to their plight span the full spectrum, from helping to indifference. Can anything we do really make a difference?
An individual can only do so much. Saying that “they” should do something only voices frustration and helplessness. In fact, thinking of any people as “them” reinforces separation, which is at the core of the problem.
Sometimes I’m able to see that I’m part of the whole human family. When I do, all of the children, parents, grandparents and brothers and sisters of everyone are mine. At those times, my heart opens.
According to Eric Berne, founder of transactional analysis, we sort people into who is okay and who isn’t. He said that this choice is an existential position chosen early in life and is revisited under stress. In his book “Games People Play,” he describes commonplace interactions that are designed specifically to prove who is inferior and who is superior.
For example, a wife might ask her husband if he had a busy day at the office. The question sounds innocent enough, but it’s loaded. He responds by telling her that he was rushing all day to get things done. She responds by accusing him of always complaining about his job and not caring about how her day went. He storms out of the room.
Winning is all that matters. Ironically, it’s a victory for both, because both get to be right. The opening gambit can come from either party and once the other person takes the bait, the outcome is set. The prize on both sides of the divide is being right. The real payoff, however, is in the juice — the feelings that accompany the victory.
Likening feelings to alcohol gives a sense of how this works. All alcohol intoxicates. No exceptions. The equivalents in the barroom of life are feelings of either inferiority or superiority, and they are equally intoxicating. People either drink alone or find drinking buddies.
Have you ever had someone invite you into a conversation aimed at putting another person or group down? They’ve just taken a swig from the bottle and have passed it to you. You’ve got the choice of drinking with them or leaving them to drink alone. This is the lure of gossip. When more people get involved, they validate each other and certainty increases along with justified actions, such as verbal and physical abuse. This is how gangs operate.
Choosing equality, which means giving up the need to be right, is choosing to stay sober.
To the best of my ability, this is the choice I want to make and keep making. This means being willing to be wrong.
I want to live in a world where I am treated with genuine respect as an equal. I want to live in a safe world, a place where I can walk anywhere feeling relaxed and at home and where people make eye contact without discomfort or embarrassment.
The creation of this world begins with me.
If we had true equality, the manager in the restaurant, all those years ago, would have asked me to clean the table without a hidden agenda. It was a small incident in the scheme of things, but the intended message cut like a knife into a scar that had been there for years.
If such incidents happen, my job is to not use what them as an excuse to drink the intoxicating juice of victim hood. The buck stops with me.
Saying no to either of the emotional payoffs is the key that opens the door to genuine respect for others. I can think of nothing more important that any of us can do in our spheres of influence. The ripple effect will take care of itself. As Gandhi advised “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Enough people choosing equality often enough, could shift the whole matrix of human life from conflict and war, to peace. There is no “them” who should do something. It’s up to us.