What Price Humanity? Systemic Injustice, Human Suffering

Born in Sudan, Asima fled violent conflict in her homeland and sought asylum in Britain. Poorly educated, unemployed and vulnerable, she relies on state benefits, which are conditional and inadequate, to survive.

At the beginning of October her father had a stroke. Thanks to the kindness of a friend who paid her airfare, Asima visited him in Ethiopia. Upon returning to London, she discovered her rent payments had been stopped by the local authority because she’d been abroad longer than the 28-day limit. In fact she was away 30 days, two days over the regulated time.

The effect of this decision is that Asima will fall further into debt, may well be evicted for rent arrears and could be made homeless. The anxiety that enshrouds her will intensify, despair deepen; it is another blow in a life littered with pain and distress, reinforcing a view of systemic injustice. Whist the rich and privileged are legally allowed to stash millions away in off-shore accounts to avoid paying tax, a poor refugee is penalized if she strays over the narrow lines of control within which she is forced to live.

Slaves to the System

Asima’s story is a small example of the petty systemic injustice that impacts on virtually everyone and is destroying the lives of millions of people throughout the world.

Based on an outdated, corrupt ideology, the socio-economic systems that govern people’s lives are broken totally and need to be radically overhauled. Inherently unjust they punish the most vulnerable, reward the privileged and wealthy and promote divisive, unhealthy values that have penetrated into all areas of life. Throughout the world we see evidence that the old order is in a state of terminal decay, and yet corporate politicians, lacking vision and unable to respond to widespread cries for change cling to the doctrine of the past.

The driving ethos behind the current systems of governance and business is commercialization; a poisonous market-led monster, which dictates government policy, determines how businesses operate, and fashions the rules that govern how organizations of all kinds engage with people and the natural environment. Human beings are regarded as little more than sources of revenue; their capacity to spend, to invest and consume determining how they are treated, respected and valued. Driving virtually every decision within the suffocating confines of the ideal is an addiction to profit, market share and short-term gain.

In such a world, if a human being – Asima for example – makes a mistake, is unable to pay for whatever they need, or cannot understand the constraints of the system they are trapped in, she, or he, will be punished; beaten – metaphorically or actually – socially expelled, forced into destitution, their cries for compassion and justice ignored.

The omnipresent threat of penalties aids the creation of an atmosphere of fear, resulting in epidemic levels of anxiety and related mental health issues. This pervasive fear allows for the perpetuation of debilitating systems and policies, such as the housing regulations that Asima fell foul of. Fear of authority, fear of failure, fear of being punished, fear of more extreme poverty and increased social exclusion: all such forms of fear are cultivated. The motive is control; it is a great deal easier to manipulate a fearful populace than a fearless, contented, empowered one. The effect is to reduce life to a torturous ordeal in which simply surviving is the daily goal of existence.

Rights For Sale

As a world community we have established a variety of international agreements that enshrine principles of fairness. Chief among these is that triumph of brotherhood, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 25 of the charter makes clear that every human being, irrespective of background or income has a right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” However, within the existing Paradigm of Misery these rights are reserved for those who can afford them. Like everything else in this monetized world, they are Rights for Sale.

In countries where some level of welfare support is provided, only the bare minimum is allowed: Second-rate accommodation, cheap, unhealthy food and, more often than not, poor education and inadequate health care. The limited support that is provided is conditional on strict regulations, as set down by National and local government, being adhered to: Violate the rules, for whatever reason, and that squalid room you and your children are living in could be taken away from you, the children potentially placed in care.

Administrators of policy are forced to make decisions within government imposed constrains that deny flexibility and crush compassion. A subtle process of dehumanization takes place within such environments: Allegiance to the system is paramount and overt expressions of kindness and understanding are discouraged; after all, if the rules were breached then the flood gates would swing open, abuse of the system would occur (abuse of individuals of course is permitted) and chaos would ensue, so we are told. Well, look around — north, south, east and west: Chaos Reigns.

Dehumanization, together with concentrations of power, creates an environment in which a range of abuse can take place. It begins in small ways, perhaps unnoticed to anyone other than the victim. Initially the disadvantaged and vulnerable are disrespected, disregarded and ignored, then verbally insulted and dismissed. From here it is a small step to being able to physically assault someone, a push becomes a slap, a slap turns into a punch, and so on, until ultimately the perpetrator has become so divorced from their own humanity that gratuitous violence and murder (including genocide) becomes possible.

Abuse and exploitation of the most vulnerable in society, whether in the form of inferior accommodation, education and health care, mundane poorly paid employment, domestic/slave labour and prostitution, or child labour and trafficking, flows from and is maintained by systemic social injustice.

We live in a time when inequality of wealth, income and influence is thought to be greater than at any time in history. Inequality strengthens social injustice and with it the existence of The Privileged and The Disadvantaged. Of those who have influence and feel they are entitled to everything, and those who expect little, receive even less but need most. Government policies are fashioned by The Privileged for their own benefit. The Disadvantaged, having little or no voice, are ignored, allowing the Cycle of Containment to be maintained, change to be suppressed and social divisions to deepen.

Sitting at the center of this socio-economic tragedy is an economic ideology that is not simply unjust it is inhumane. Compassion and human empathy are pushed into the shadows in the Neo-Liberal paradigm, selfishness, division and exploitation encouraged. The system promotes short-term materialistic values and works against mankind’s natural inclination towards unity, social responsibility and cooperation, inherent qualities that are consistently made manifest in times of crisis, individual hardship and collective need.

Asima will appeal against the local authority’s decision, but has been informed by the bureaucrat in the Town Hall that the only acceptable reason for an extended stay abroad is the death of a family member — a stroke is apparently insufficient.

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Graham Peebles is a freelance writer. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org  

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