Thursday, March 29, 2007

"much too umble"

posted by k

Tiny Tim has a lot to answer for.

That bright humility and gentle forbearance offers an unlikely model to oppressed people: a little boy, on crutches, doomed to die of poverty, joyfully pronouncing, “God bless us, every one.”

Of course, Tiny Tim wasn’t intended as a role model; he's in the story to refute Malthus’ definition of the “surplus population” - a drain on the economy and allowed to die. Tim had to be virtuous and charitable because he embodied values beyond the economic structures of society. Scrooge is converted from Malthusian economics to charity.

Uriah Heep in David Copperfield illustrates the dangers of expecting gratitude and humility. His humility is a fake – a ruse to gain wealth and power.

But there’s still an expectation that marginalised people should display extraordinary gratitude and virtue. I don’t know how often I’ve been told that I shouldn’t give money to rough sleepers because they’ll spend it all on cigarettes, drink and drugs. If I were homeless, I reckon I’d like a drink or two – or more. I might even try drugs as a means of temporary escape. And if I were a smoker, I’d find it hard to give up my addiction while begging in an underpass.

There’s considerable criticism of the behaviour of asylum seekers. If I’d been tortured – or if members of my family had been murdered – I might be grateful to the country that gave me asylum. But I might find it hard remember the rules of politeness in a new country and a new language. I might even be so traumatised that I’d behave very badly indeed.

If I lived with prejudice on a daily basis, I’d become angry and suspicious. It wouldn’t turn me into a nicer person. Some saintly people endure prejudice without resentment. I admire them but I it’s not prejudice that made them so good. They are good people despite the prejudice.

If Tiny Tim had been made to wait in the rain while bus-drivers refused to let him on because of his crutches, he'd probably have smiled sweetly. If shopkeepers had been rude or insulting or thoughtless, he'd probably have drawn a trite moral. And without the intervention of ghosts, Christmas magic and Charles Dickens, nothing would have changed. I'm pleased to see that Elizabeth McClung at Screw Bronze! isn't taking bad treatment by Victoria Transit so lightly.

Human beings who suffer oppression, prejudice and discrimination have the same human rights as anyone else - or they should have. They are not required to become exemplars of virtue. We - oppressed and oppressors together - are required to change society. And sometimes, those of us who are lucky, may have to surrender a little of our comfort.

The asylum seeker who asks directions may struggle with English. The new hostel for rough-sleepers may be on the way to the theatre. The bus may be a couple of minutes late because it stopped while a woman steered her wheelchair into place. There may be bigger adjustments too: abolition of torture, food and clean water for all, redistribution of wealth, real democracy, a just society. These things cost. Most of us have some privilege or comfort we fear to lose. The advantages - wider knowledge, deeper understanding - have no obvious monetary value. But Dickens was right in this: some values are more important than economic success.

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