Tolerance tested… again

16 04 2010

It seems that the thing most likely to make me write is a serious challenge to what I proudly think of as my liberal tolerance.  Which is one of those good-and-bad things, in that it’s good for me to have my sometimes-inflated opinion of my liberal credentials knocked down a peg.  The bad part is that, for now at least, my readers (oh please let it be plural) have to put up with a certain rut in my writing. 

And another bad part being:  people like today’s challenge are out there, and they’re not alone.

Maybe a month or so ago I had the experience of sitting at a cafeteria table next to a woman who was having a Very Bad Day.  Been there, had those, understand wanting to vent.  Actually venting is another thing entirely.  Because after she had gone through the litany of the things that had gone wrong, she then focused particular venom on one coworker.  At length.  For at least twenty minutes until I decided I couldn’t take it any more.  I don’t know the woman, and I don’t know her coworker.  Point is, this woman doesn’t know who her coworker knows.  I could have been the best friend, a lover,  a relative.  I’ve wished several times since that day that I had said something to her about how she should perhaps rein it in, because you don’t know who’s listening.  But I didn’t.

Reason again today to wish that I had.

Apparently that type of public venting is a way off life with her.  Today I was treated to a monumental display of privilege, in which she outlined all her very simple solutions to the mortgage crisis and unemployment..  In a nutshell – all those people who got $600,000 mortgages they couldn’t afford should have known better!  And if people go on strike or otherwise protest working conditions, those people can be replaced!
 
I don’t know how many times I heard the phrase “those people” today.  Those people are on welfare and doing nothing for the money.  Those people should be working.  Those people shouldn’t get tax credits.  Those people need to learn to live on less money. 
 
I really did come perilously close to making a scene in the cafeteria.  “Those people” are US.  They’re our friends, our families, the people we share a society with.  Those people who are underwater on their mortgages?  Are just as likely to be underwater on their $120,000 home that they’re trying to afford on multiple minimum-wage jobs.  They already know what it’s like to live on less money.  They don’t dare protest bad working conditions, violations of labor laws, abusive managers, because they know they can  – and will – be replaced.  They live in fear of one of their children getting sick, because they can’t afford the medical care. 
 
The story I heard about the striking sanitation workers…  “These guys were striking and they made more money than I did!”  Because, you know, a white college-educated woman just automatically deserves to be making more money than some (likely a person of color) garbage man.  Apparently that adage about learning to live on less money doesn’t apply when we’re talking about her. 
 
Privilege is one damned powerful drug.  It can destroy your empathy and alter your perception of reality, to where you think how you see the world is the only world there is.  I’d like to say that I don’t want anyone to suffer – but this woman?  I’d dearly love to see her lose her job through a corporate downsizing.  Find out what it’s like to look for a job for months, watch your savings dwindle away, your house go into foreclosure, and your health benefits end.  See how it feels to have to ask for help, to know the sorrow and shame of being on the receiving end of charity. 
 
I am angry and appalled and so very sad. 
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