“Why do you care so much what happens to some people in Yemen?” several people have asked me. “Don’t you care about Americans?!”
“All injustice is interrelated,” I’ve fumbled in reply. “The injustice Yemeni people experience is symptomatic of the same illness many Americans endure. To care about one is to care about all.”
I haven’t satisfied a single person–myself included–with this vague answer, so I’ve kept searching for a better one. As a former negotiator, I know I won’t receive any concession I can’t describe.
I sought and found a story, something that might breathe real life into the abstraction that “all injustice is interrelated.”
Imagine the earth is a single enormous iceberg, and all who live upon it are penguins. Some penguins live nearer the center, and others nearer its edges.
Penguins in the center are doing very, very well. In fact, 1% of the penguin population has managed to hoard for itself almost half of the iceberg.
Another 7-8% of the population has claimed most of the iceberg just outside that. Because the 1% with the greatest control isn’t content with its already massive claims, a portion of its members aggressively works to keep other penguins out. More than that, they forcibly push against existing boundaries, expanding the portion of land they describe as their domain.
As members of the second circle are forced back, they displace the 90% of penguins who occupy the fraction of total iceberg remaining.
Those penguins nearest the second circle are most comfortable, comparatively; those furthest toward the iceberg’s edges, the most precariously situated.
The edges have become so crowded recently that the ice there is crumbling. Penguins there are falling into the ocean left and right, because the boundary ice was never meant to sustain so many penguins, not even briefly.
Penguins nearer the center shuffle and mumble in their penguin language, “It couldn’t happen to me. There’s still so much ice between me and the sea. That ice was brittle and frail, but this ice here will hold up me and mine forever.”
Penguins actually in the center don’t appear to care much what happens to those penguins on the edges. By aggressively policing the borders of their portion, they’ve carefully placed themselves outside the hearing range of howls of desperation from those anguished penguins who’ve been pushed over the edge.
If the penguins in the center were ever outside the center, they’ve forgotten what it felt like to live there. They’ve forgotten what it felt to constantly fear falling into the ocean, your children alongside you.
Center penguins are lost in the illusion that the iceberg can be owned. They’ll do everything in their power to perpetuate this illusion. Those outer penguins were never good enough to deserve the inner sanctum, they tell themselves; if those other penguins fall off, it was because they simply weren’t as worthy.
As long as the mass of penguins forced off most the iceberg fails to appreciate the might they’d derive from joining together, the center penguins are safe.
If the earth is an iceberg and its people penguins, the poorest people in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iraq–for example–are the penguins on the periphery, screaming for help as the overburdened ice crumbles beneath them. Poor Americans who can’t afford a meal a day, let alone three, for their children? They’re screaming, too. People incarcerated for victimless crimes wail as their families fall into the abyss, but the center penguins have insulated themselves far too well to be bothered by any of it.
The problem isn’t that penguins are accidentally stumbling into the water forever. It’s that they’re being forced there by already safe penguins with an insatiable need for more.
The only hope for penguins outside the ever-expanding center circle is in understanding, to start, that the 1% didn’t obtain all they protect by deserving it, earning it, or accidentally stumbling into its asserted possession. They claimed it, in many cases, by aggressively displacing others, demanding for themselves anything and everything as far as their eyes could see.
Once the displaced realize there’s no good reason a fragment of the population should dominate the iceberg while others are forced into the freezing water at its edges, anything and everything may be possible for the majority and their hatchlings. For now, many simple struggles to hang on to the iceberg.
For those penguins as for Earth’s people, all injustice is interrelated. If any person is forced into the water without consequence, all people everywhere are at risk.
The system that treats any person’s life as dispensable is a horrific system that doesn’t actually value life.
The next time someone asks me why I care about some people in Yemen, I now know exactly what to say. “99% of us are being pushed to the edges of this crumbling iceberg we all call home. Those already lost shouldn’t be considered anomalies, but among the first to be discarded.”
When people of Yemen, Flint, Michigan, rural Arkansas, or anywhere are treated as disposable, anyone, anywhere may soon enough be treated as disposable. It’s simply a matter of time before the idea of what’s disposable is redefined to meet new needs.
No life is disposable to me. No life is worth more or less than another, though some lives are–for now, atrociously–treated as if they are worth more. So until all the 99% understand the advantage in our numerical might should we reject divisions created by the center to keep the center strong, I’ll keep dreaming up analogies.
I’ll keep hoping I might find the right words to help even one other person understand that a system valuing life in Martha’s Vineyard over life in Yemen is a system worth casting into the ocean, forever.