I have heard the expression “oppression Olympics” to pejoratively describe the ways in which we rank, prioritize, and categorize different levels of privilege and the overall standing one has in society. The term trivializes what is a reality for all but a few people in the world. That reality is the one where you are not at the top of the social, economic, cultural, or political food chain. You are always looking up at someone. There are a handful of people who are continually told, through media and cultural and other messages, that they are at the very bottom of the food chain. Those at the top hear their lessers complain and scoff.
I have heard, too, from many successful, wealthy, and powerful people that their lives are hard but in a different way. They will argue that they are oppressed in a different way than the poor, than the people who work for them, or (insert a people group here). Oppression is a feeling everyone knows and recognizes, and the least in society do not own that feeling in some special way – that is essentially the argument. I have witnessed business owners talk about how hard it is to have employees ask for a $0.25 an hour raise, healthcare, or the break time mandated by the federal government. Being forced to pay a 17% tax rate on dividends, rather than 15%, is the “oppression” felt by those with a lot of money. I am not being sarcastic, sardonic, or exaggerating when I share, conversations about a 2% tax rate increase on specific types of earnings or giving employees a 3% raise every year – many businessmen will give me a very similar talking point. “It’s not just the number, it is the message that it sends. We are second class citizens. We are constantly under attack.” That kind of thing.
It isn’t good form in the helping profession (ministry, clergy, pastoral work, counseling, social work, private care) to trivialize one person’s oppression and to affirm another. If someone is sharing their burden or their pain, there is a good and fair expectation that you listen, hear them out, and affirm their pain.
What I want to say flies in the face of that. To those at the bottom, you feel oppressed because you are. Your life is hard. To those at the top, you feel oppressed because you have a lot of sycophants and liars who want to flatter you, the annoyances you feel are “hard” because the rest of your life is incredibly easy. Those at the top of our political, economic, social, and cultural strata are not oppressed unless we are open to a definition of that as only a subjective, internal “feeling.” By any other measure, those who live off capital gains, who own multiple houses and trust funds, those who have a whole staff to keep their lives simple and easy – by any other measure, those are the Kings of our society. We are in a time where the Kings of our world are oppressed by their own measure, in the same subjective way as those who serve them. Heavy weighs the crown, the saying goes.
I want to give permission to those of you who are in the same kind of conversations that I am, where a relative, a mentor, an acquaintance will complain. Their talking points usually follow one of these ideas.
- They (the bottom of our society) should be grateful.
This is usually coupled with some kind of “crab mentality” reasoning. At least they aren’t living in some developing, third world country, or in prison in Bangladesh working forced labor for 20 hours a day. This idea is used to silence any kind of talk about helping those at the bottom of our society. It was wrong when southern slave owners said it to their slaves, and it is wrong now for the same reason. Our oppressors don’t get to silence us by calling us ungrateful.
- They just don’t understand how difficult it is to (insert massive resource, provision, privilege, position, etc).
Is it difficult? In the sense that there is a lot of responsibility when you have a lot of things, yes. Those in these positions, the trust fund grandkids and those who have a burdensome (read: rich) family legacy, have the ability to step away from this “difficulty” at any moment. They could live below their means, or they could give away their excess, or step down from that challenging position. The CEO could go back to the sales floor, or back to school, or otherwise do something different. The key difference is, a CEO has a whole spectrum of options (moving down) that nearly anyone else does not (moving up). The same is true of where one lives, the car they drive, the places they shop, their vacations. Those at the top can easily move down, simplify, trade places, cut back, have less, etc, and those at the bottom do not have any other option. The burdened, oppressed rich could trade places with any of a billion people who would take what they have and enjoy every minute of it. But they won’t. No rich ass businessman is going to move out of the gated residence into an old apartment to even ‘try’ the other way of life. It’s too comfortable on the hilltop, it’s too easy, it’s too great to be king. That’s my whole point. The “you don’t understand the difficulty” is just empty rhetoric. It’s meaningless and hollow to say how hard it is to have too much.
- It’s not my fault they don’t have what I have.
Here’s why that’s not true. We live in a zero-sum game as a financial system. If you have a dollar, I don’t have that dollar. We can all agree on that much. If you have a dollar, that’s not “our dollar.” Beyond that, there are people who are born with a lot more. Just as some people are taller, some people are genetically and biologically predetermined to be smarter, have more energy, are healthier, etc. That much I think we can all agree. Where there are two (or more) camps is, there are rules, written and unwritten both, to keep people in their place. What you have is almost entirely because of the family and situation you were born into, and serendipity. Luck got you what you have. Is it your fault that someone else doesn’t? In speaking to a very very small group of people, yes. If you have the capacity to hire lobbyists, offshore money into untraceable accounts, and change the financial regulations of an entire industry, then yes it is your fault. There are a handful of people who have rigged the game so that they always win. There are quite a few people outside of that group who benefit from how the system is rigged. We don’t live in a meritocracy, and we never really did. We don’t have a pure capitalistic system, we don’t have the logic and rationale of a free market governing us. What we have is the same as has been in place for all of human history – there is a “good ol’ boys club,” there are insiders and outsiders, there are backdoor deals done that give the elite an edge over everyone else. There are wholly different legal systems for corporations who break the rules, and there are different applications of the law depending on one’s race, social connections, and finances. Whose fault is that? We know. Who wrote the financial rules? We know that, too. This is just one of the many examples, a google search will help you fill in the rest.
- Life is hard for everyone.
No, it’s not. This is a moral and philosophical statement, since I can’t objectively measure every individual’s life, how hard it is and such. But my statement is still true as such. Some people have it very easy. Some people have it so easy that the typical middle class person cannot imagine such a life. Being able to live entirely off of residual income is something a few people can aspire to, but the life of private airports and controlling world governments with money is a whole other thing. There are degrees of that kind of power, but my whole point is this: Oppression isn’t a universal feeling that everyone gets. There is a Fox News ideal of “it’s hard to own a business” that really appeals to their key audience (read: old people). There is a talk radio appeal to the idea that the government is out to get the rich and all of this kind of nonsense. I want to highlight that the elite in this country have it better than anyone else in the world, and better than most people in all of human history. The level of difficulty for someone living that life is zero. It is nothing. The subjective individual difficulty of having a lot of money is a meaningless comparison to the person who is living on the street because of medical bills. There is difficulty (waiting in line for a $6 coffee) and then there is oppression (dying in prison because you can’t afford an attorney and there’s nothing you can do about it). There is “life is hard” (the IRS wants to count your year’s biggest sale for the previous tax year) and there is life in oppression (your bank opened up multiple accounts without your permission and there’s nothing you can do about it). There is oppression (the plastic friends I have told me so) and there is oppression (the police shot your son and there’s nothing you can do about it).
Life is hard for some. There are a few at the top who have it incredibly easy, despite what they may tell you. Here’s to you, reader, I invite you to ease the burden of those at the bottom and to tell the truth to those at the top.