Pope Francis said that inequality is the root of all evil.
I have a hard time thinking anyone knows the root of ALL evil, but I think I can see the point he was making.
No one is better, or worse, or more or less deserving of compassion (or a fair wage) than you or me.
One of the Buddha’s closest disciples was a former murderer, and Jesus befriended traitors.
“Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
I can’t imagine saying that while someone nailed me to a cross.
Jesus was practicing true equality, seeing his torturers and his supporters as equally worthy of forgiveness and love.
Although we like to elevate the importance of personal responsibility in America, evidence overwhelmingly supports the idea that evil acts are almost always engendered by evil circumstances and broken systems.
In the infamous Milgram experiments, average people were encouraged to shock a “learner” to the point to near death for no real reason, except that the researcher asked them to keep turning up the voltage, even though the subject was screaming in pain and complaining about a heart condition. The “teachers” (the people who administered the shocks) met the “learners” (the people who received the shocks) prior to the experiment, which was set up to seem as if the roles of the teacher and the learner were randomly assigned on the spot.
Milgram and his staff estimated that 3 to 5% of the subjects would continue issuing the shocks to the maximum voltage.
The results surprised even the most cynical researchers; More than 65% of the subjects continued to shock the learner up to the maximum of 450 volts, even after silence indicated that the learner might have been killed. (In later versions of this experiment, 90 percent of the subjects went along with shocking the learner up to the maximum voltage.) All of the subjects continued to issue shocks up to 300 volts, far beyond the expectations of the researchers, who assumed that most people would stop when the subject started to cry out, if not before. This experiment was used to demonstrate the innate human tendency to obey authority, and explain some of the abhorrent behavior exhibited by concentration camp guards in Nazi Germany.
The lead guard from Abu Ghraib, who is still in prison, was a fastidious man who worked more than twenty days in a row on the dangerous nighttime shift in unimaginably stressful, filthy conditions, even sleeping in a dirty prison cell during the day.
Experts warned the military repeatedly not to open a prison at Abu Ghraib, which was the site of the some of the worst atrocities in history. The soldiers were ordered to act as prison guards and encouraged to “soften up” prisoners, without any proper training or support.
I think I am practicing the root of all evil when I forget that the soldier from Abu Ghraib could be me. Yes, he and his comrades were wrong when they tortured and killed prisoners, but I think it might be even worse to point our collective finger at a soldier who seems to be just one more victim of the violent descent into madness that was Abu Ghraib.
I am fanatical about animal rights, but if I had to stand on a bloody factory floor and prod or kill 200 cows an hour for ten dollars, I would probably grow impatient with the animals and become abusive.
Who else but the animals could I blame if they weren’t moving fast enough to meet my quota, or if the noise and the smell started to bother me?
We live in a world that is ruled by inequality.
An American CEO who takes advantage of the slave wages paid to foreign workers, and those of us who buy the products made by workers in a crumbling Bangladesh factory, are both practicing inequality.
Like most of us, I fail each and every minute at my feeble attempts to practice equality. I always want to judge and punish the offender or ignore the oppressed, instead of engaging in the superhuman effort it takes to let go of being right or entitled.
I don’t want to loosen up an entrenched system or change a long-standing paradigm, especially when it serves me and my ego.
But what if the research is right, and we are all equally capable of good, and bad? What if we are all equally deserving of clean water and a reasonable living circumstance? What if the families of underpaid or unemployed or even just lazy or criminal people do not deserve to be punished by poverty?
I work harder than they do, plus I am law-abiding ( sort of, unless I am behind the wheel of a car, of course) so my children deserve more, right?
Are people who make one or two dollars a day really happy to have a job?
Tell me again, why exactly is it ok for people to have so much less than me?
It’s just as damaging to see others as better than me.
I’ve had the lucky experience of befriending and being in close contact with people who are famous, and much richer than me. It is not easy at all to remember that we are equal.
I wonder what would happen if I tried to understand and learn more about the nature of badness and differences within myself and others, instead of judging and clinging to the idea of being right or wrong, or good of bad, better or worse, and most especially, more or less deserving.
“Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.” Any takers out there?
Jesus also said this:
“Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.”
When I judge the factory farm worker or the prison guard, I am not practicing mercy any better than the man kicking the downed cow or the soldier posing with a broad smile and a thumbs-up signal next to her frozen human quarry at Abu Ghraib.
Conversely, when I feel inferior next to someone better than me, I am not practicing mercy for me, or for them.
For today, I am going to do my best to forgive myself for my complete inability to practice equality, and try to remember that I am not better, or worse, than anyone, or anything.
That is a hard pill to swallow. Yet that is the nature of true equality, a worthwhile, yet impossible goal for most of us.
It seems like I just have to see a starving child and her parents as partly responsible for their condition, or at the every least, that it is not up to ME to do anything about it.
After all, I’m “blessed,” “fortunate,” “smart,” or “hard-working,” not just a mindless player in a rigged game, right?
Hmmm…Evil and inequality are very challenging concepts to address, much less understand. There is far more to say than I am saying in this post, but I wanted to see if I could at least broach a basic understanding of the pejorative nature of inequality.
Thank you so much for reading my post.
(I am not making excuses for evil-doers, only seeking to why people engage in evil acts. Your experience and your reactions to evil or offense are perfectly valid and understandable, no matter how they might seem to me or to anyone else.)
Have a beautiful, productive, and generous day.