April 3, 2013

Addressing the Roots of Inequality.

If you looked at a word cloud for the past week in the US, the word “equality” would surely be one of the biggest.

The US Supreme Court’s hearings on two same-sex marriage related cases have put equality in the spotlight. Why is it always such a big battle?

I believe that the roots of inequality go back to the simple, but overwhelming and pervasive, fear of scarcity.

We can look at war throughout history and see that war most often happens as a battle for resources—and often for the best resources. So, it’s not just good enough to have enough, one must have the best or the most.

This goes back to a fundamental survival fear and ingrained memory of scarcity that even if we have enough right now, the next famine is just around the corner.

I got a personal view of this once when talking with a very wealthy and successful businessman about scarcity. We were seated in his million+ dollar home with his luxury cars out front, and he was practically yelling when he said, “All I worry about all day long is where my next meal is coming from!” That fear of scarcity is so fundamental that even when someone has been very successful at overcoming it materially, the actual fearful feeling is just as strong as it ever was.

This fear becomes the basis for comparison and competition.

A leader or group feels that there isn’t enough for everyone, so they need to secure needed resources for themselves, their families, their tribes, their nation. But, if everyone is equal, what right do they have to take resources that belong to everyone or even take them away from someone else?

They find some characteristic that sets their group apart from the others and then, to justify taking more resources, they paint the other group as “less than” on the basis of that characteristic. And, so, you get justifications like, “My religion is better than yours,” “My skin color is better than yours,” “My country is better than yours,” or even, in our modern, simulated warfare called sports, “My team is better than yours.”

And, this comparison/competition is aided by intense feelings of “I don’t matter” and “I’m not good enough” on the “losing” side.

This comparison and competition issue has become embedded in our humanity to such a level that we do it everywhere, and we even take it for granted.

Many people even see it as a plus. Those who win are the strongest and the best, so they deserve to have the most, right? And, those who are weaker or don’t always come out on top don’t deserve as much, right?

While that might seem a given or logical, when you apply it to societies and especially when you add in the understanding from my “worry about where my next meal is coming from” friend, you have one group that keeps piling up more and more resources (and therefore, power) by squeezing others out, from their fear that there is never enough.

When the inequality gets too great, when the less powerful group has less than they need to survive on, they begin to fight back.

And, when the feeling of “I don’t matter” gets triggered at a level that can’t be buried any longer, the main feeling people experience is anger. Put these two factors together and you get major societal upheavals like the French and Russian revolutions. The American Civil Rights movement was also motivated largely by one group of people not having enough to live on.

At the end of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King’s focus was increasingly on economic injustice, because it was impoverishing the group he was working to lift up. And, he had to constantly work to channel the anger of his group into non-violent means. Of course, not every comparison and competition ends in a battle for the most desirable plot of land or even economic inequality.

Since these survival mechanisms of comparison and competition have become part of being human, we see them even in places where the “other” party isn’t taking anything away from anyone by being equal.

Marriage equality is, in my opinion, a perfect example of this. Two gay people getting married does not lessen anyone’s heterosexual marriage rights.

We’re looking at big societal movements here, while my work with clients is very much on the individual level. But what we see happen at an overarching level often has parallels at the individual level. I work on these same roots of inequality—comparison, competition, not mattering, not being good enough—with my clients all the time.

And, as they peel away layers of these negative, survival-based feelings, they see greater equality happen in their own lives.

Clients who have always felt they had to win to survive begin to relax and allow others to be themselves, to do things in their own way. They say things like, “It’s so much easier to be around people now that things don’t have to be my way all the time.” And, clients who work on the “I matter” issue begin to be seen, heard, and respected for what they have to offer, effortlessly. They say things like, “For the first time ever at work, my boss asked for my input and said that it was invaluable.”

Although I work with people on this individual level, I think we have to work on a societal level for equality, also.

Every human being has a unique and important contribution to make to society, and we can only realize the great tapestry of those contributions when each person has the opportunity to voice their uniqueness in the world.

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Ed: Bryonie Wise


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