Miserere mei, Domine

For my cold has still not gone away.

I recently had a piece of mine published in my friend’s e-magazine, The Hypocrite Reader, which was a fun little time. You can find it here. It’s entitled Homo homini lupus – Man is a Wolf to Man – which is slightly ironic since a day after it went up someone stole the front wheel off of my bicycle. That, I will admit, was slightly frustrating. Man is an Irritation to Man. Hell is Other People at Breakfast. Something Else Pithy Here as Well Because Tricolons are Rhetorically Important.

A ‘hypocrite’ is a weird concept, by the way. What should we care, really, if a person’s inward nature is not properly reflected in outward appearance? Medieval monks were obsessed with it, writing more rants about those who profess piety but do not truly follow the required precepts inwardly than I could ever read. I should probably admit that this is in no small part due to my old friend Anselm of Canterbury, who solved the problems in St. Augustine‘s doctrine of the human will by determining that it was not the deed but the motivation for it that actually mattered. That’s bound to get people all hot and bothered I suppose, although it’s certainly not the cause.

We like to judge others. It’s a great way to feel superior, to feel affirmed and upright, to feel like your life is not a shambles (see what I meant about tricolons?).  We like to believe that people get what they deserve, and this, in essence, is our problem with hypocrisy. Someone else is getting praise they don’t deserve because their actions are hollow. We like to believe the opposite is true, too, particularly in the US. Bad things happen to bad people, and oft evil will shall evil mar. I pick on the US no only because it has a proud tradition of blaming people for their own misfortunes (see The Cholera Years for a great history of this), but also because we continue that tradition right up to the present day.

The United States is the Great Meritocracy, and one of the defining aspects of any group which believes itself to be a meritocracy is that those who are successful in that group believe they deserve the rewards of that success. There’s also this: those who are successful believe those who are not deserve their lot, as well. Shocking news: there’s no such thing as a true meritocracy; the playing field is never totally level. And yet we here in These United States are, by and large, militantly opposed to such a suggestion. The idea that every effort in a society is necessarily collective, that the truly self-made man is a myth is not an idea that goes down easy.

I bring all this up because of a shocking quote I came across this week, and by shocking I mean gut wrenching, disturbing, and terrifying (tricolon!). In a piece defending libraries in the UK, Neil Gaiman said this:

“I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read.”

If you’re not outraged by this, you haven’t understood it. Never mind the broader implications of systematic bias. What kind of person knows this and then continues to work in that very industry, uses this information to model how they’re going to lock people up and not dedicate their lives to putting a dent in that number? What sort of priority hierarchy is that? (I like to judge people too, you know.)

But back to the implications of systematic bias. Being able to read doesn’t stop you from becoming a criminal, but obviously the literacy rate is so well related to rates of incarceration that people are willing to invest billions of dollars on that relationship. Literacy rates are, in turn, tied to the quality of education and instruction, which is tied to the relative size of the tax base, which is tied to the affluence of the population. That you were in a place and surrounded by people who educated you in a way to enable you to read this blog means that you have had advantages many millions of your fellow citizens have not had. We call this “privilege.”

People often get hostile when they are told that they are privileged, that they are not completely responsible for their own success. “Should I feel guilty?” they often ask, sarcastically. This is a stupid, self-centered question. Why should I want something from you? You can feel guilty, if you like. I personally don’t see the benefit in it. You should feel mindful. You should be aware. The indisputable fact of the advantages you have received in your life is not something to turn inward, but outward. It does not necessitate atonement, but compassion and understanding.

Paul, I think, said it best: “….you will not take pride in one man over against another. What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you brag as though you did not?” (I Cor. 4:6-7) Or, as Louis C.K. so aptly summarized, “The only time you need to worry about what’s your neighbor’s bowl is if you’re checking to make sure they have enough.”

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