Compassion is Not a Zero-Sum Game

CW: Descriptions of multiple types of systemic abuse and personal crises. Be safe while reading!

The Poor People’s Mass Assembly and Moral March on Washington is happening today. It has been planned for two years to draw attention to the plight of the poor and of systemic racism in the U.S. I wish I had known about it earlier, but I’m glad I at least learned about it today. I want to lift up their call thatwhen you lift from the bottom, everybody rises.

Because I have seen more than a few examples this week and last from clearly well-meaning white and economically privileged individuals unintentionally hurting members of one marginalized group because they aren’t a member of another. I am glad Facebook celebrated this week when the Supreme Court affirmed that LGBTQ individuals could not be fired on the basis of their identity. I was heart-broken when trans individuals lost their healthcare shortly before, and the internet did not react with the same level of outrage (at least that I could see.) As far as I understand, the latter ruling does not retroactively fix the former. A trans individual who is unemployed – like 1 in 4 Americans are – can still lose their Medicaid just because they are trans. I am saddened that when autistics noted that seeing puzzle pieces and “Autism Awareness” displayed as “positive” symbols was triggering – as they have long histories of eugenics and of forcing physically abusive solutions to “appearing neurotypical” onto autistics behind them – that some of the same individuals who were calling out systemic racism resorted to harassing autistics on a public Facebook feed because “the puzzle piece is just a symbol, and symbols don’t matter, so stop making this about you.” I was saddened that noting the problematic history of one symbol being concurrently elevated was seen as an attempt to divert attention from “the important” social justice causes while those same individuals (absolutely rightly!) celebrated the toppling of racist statues. I am saddened that I have seen heated debate today over whether it is the “right time” to demand economic justice, when individuals of marginalized identities are so much more likely to also be poor exactly because they are of marginalized identities. We are in the midst of a new Great Depression perpetuated by a system that has already killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, disproportionately from marginalized groups, in a pandemic and called it “freedom.” If now is not the right time, as we fight for the soul of our America, whenever will be the right time?

And, I am saddened that I have seen more than one example of real humans I know virtually and/or in person who are in dire straits – facing imminent eviction or life-threatening medical complications of chronic illness – attacked on their own feeds for posting desperate requests for help or just requesting a virtual kind word. Because it is “thoughtless” to call attention to their trauma(s) when “others have it so much worse” right now, and anything other than focusing so much on others that they publicly state their own crisis is irrelevant by comparison makes the person in crisis the bad person. One’s own social media feed should always be a safe place to scream out one’s own heart-rending terror at facing homelessness, medical crisis or ongoing abuse without being told “it could be worse.”

I’ve seen some upsetting examples recently of real, non-celebrity individuals who are in active crisis attacked in support groups or on their own Facebook walls by other well-meaning individuals because the crisis they are in “doesn’t matter” since they are only marginalized on one axis instead of multiple. It is absolutely true that being being poor or disabled is even harder if someone is also of color or LGBTQ or a refugee. But it is, as I’ve often heard in therapy, “true but not kind” to tell someone who hasn’t eaten for two days that their child’s empty belly doesn’t matter just because it could always be even worse for them. If someone doesn’t have a roof over their head, they simply deserve compassion, not to be told their existential crisis is undeserving of compassion because it “could be worse.” An existential threat to someone’s existence always deserves compassion. Period. Being cruel to a real-life human being in real-world pain because they “could have it worse” is just being cruel. Period.

There are so many legitimate bastards in America for us to call out who are the reason that so many Americans are in crisis that I don’t see what purpose it serves to make life harder for anyone who already has it hard (even if it can always be harder.) There’s an entire system to dismantle and a soul of America to save, and that means there are more than enough ways to lift up Americans on the absolute bottom rungs of the intersectional ladder without having to silence those who are just a rung or two above them.

It makes me sad to see different marginalized identities unintentionally pitted against each other to earn the compassion of others because I know that turning those “at the bottom” against each other is how the racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, fundamentalist, nativist, male, 1% fascist system stays on top. They convince us that compassion is a zero-sum game, when the most amazing thing about compassion is that it is an infinitely renewing resource that we can extend to all who are marginalized. We can – and must – overtly state that Black Lives Matter and not stay silent when trans folks lose their healthcare. We can – and must – fight to free children from cages on the border and also stand up against Islamophobia. There are many policies we can (and I would say “must”) support, like housing-first, Medicare for All, Universal Basic Incomes, alternatives to use-of-force in policing, psychiatric facilities and group homes for crisis situations and more that would lift up multiple marginalized groups on the bottom rungs of the American social ladder at once.

The majority of those fighting for social justice have intersectionality as a core tenant. It is all of our duties as individuals who have privilege on any axis to name that privilege and to overtly pledge to use that privilege on our own social media and among our own social groups to lift up others without speaking over them. It is hard to navigate privilege, trauma and intersectionality. Even here in this post I am not entirely sure how exactly to state that I am saddened that I have seen some poor white people and disabled white people recently told on my own newsfeed that they should stay silent about their own very real individual and very immediate existential crises without it unintentionally seeming like I am ignoring the fact that it truly is harder to be black and poor or black and disabled than either alone.

I even suspect part of the reason I have seen unkind words to individuals in crisis on social media who “could have it worse” is exactly because those being unkind to them want to make the world a better place, yet don’t quite know how to speak out intersectionally because the system has for too long forced Americans to internalize fallacies that compassion and justice must be zero-sum games and that there is only a finite amount of justice to go around for the marginalized while the Mitch McConnells laugh. And, thus, I can’t help but look at those recent Facebook examples and feel like by attacking any individuals with marginalized identities who are facing imminent existential threats that we are making it so much easier for the system to create those existential threats in the first place. I can’t help but want to remind everyone that it is possible to fight for justice for the poor, the disabled, people of color, LGBTQ folks, Muslims, immigrants and a whole lot of others at the same time, by name. Because I fear that if we don’t, we are only playing into exactly what the Donald Trumps, Mitch McConnells and 9th Circles of Hell of America want us to do so that the system never has to change for anyone.

I am white, and I am of middle-class economic means. I am neurodiverse and chronically ill. There are marginalized identities that I know I will never understand what it is like to belong to first-hand and whose voices I must lift up because of it. And there are traumatizing experiences that I still have nightmares about that truly were existential threats and also simultaneously reinforced to me that intersectionality is very real.

For those who haven’t read my blog for years on end to have previously read my own anguished words while in existential crisis, I am the legal guardian of a non-verbal neurodiverse sibling who needs ongoing medical care beyond what it is possible to provide economically or physically at home. In 2018, an abusive, systemically discriminatory and all-in-all horrific system in a state I call the 9th Circle of Hell managed to 1) evict my sibling from one group home because his medical needs made him not profitable enough to want to bother to keep caring for 2) nearly kill him in the replacement group home through deliberate medical overdose 3) resort to physical abuse when the medical abuse failed to do the job 4) retaliate against us legally for daring to try to stop this abuse 5) allow additional group home providers to refuse to take my sibling after we’d “won” by substantiating the original abuse itself because we’d proved my sibling had been traumatized and “traumatized” is a valid reason to discriminate against the disabled in placement in care facilities in the 9th Circle of Hell 6) be so un-transparent that we were completely unable then – and now! – to ever find out what other prior abuse allegations had been substantiated in the one and only desperation placement that we were forced to accept blindly or lose any chance at continued at future placement entirely in a state with waiting lists years long 7) have that desperation placement itself turn out to also be so neglectful that the state itself (which is saying something in that state!) closed it 8) have that same state itself be so incompetent in their closing of it that they left vulnerable populations without any power or heat in November for days and 9) find out that same system in 2019 managed to have gotten other vulnerable individuals killed in the ways I originally feared would be the fate of my sibling. Even after every way we had tried to speak out on behalf of everyone in the system.

2018 was an existential threat year. I would not wish on anyone even just one of the desperate experiences I had in that year of frantically wandering around a very public subway station crying on my cell phone for three hours trying to convince a group of indifferent white, upper-income, non-disabled ER doctors from the 9th Circle of Hell to admit my sibling and run the appropriate tests to demonstrate that he had been subjected to the aforementioned medical abuse before it killed him. I had done the research myself (because I had learned the hard way that in Hell no one else would care enough for a “drain on society” to do so), and I had realized that the symptoms my sibling was displaying were life-threatening. I was white, economically and educationally privileged, and I only just barely managed to convince those damned indifferent ER doctors how serious the situation was in time to do something about it. I only just barely managed to convince them that a non-verbal disabled person could be in life-threatening danger instead of just engaging in the “typical” bizarre “behaviors” that “those types” are wont to do. That was in March. And by that November I was frantically crying on the phone again trying to ensure that my sibling was picked up and medically cared for while others were shivering in the cold with the lights off due to new and different systemic abuse.

I do not doubt that white privilege is real, and I do not doubt that economic and educational privilege are real. Because I do not doubt that my own lingering nightmares about those times in 2018 that marginalization of the disabled and systemic abuse almost ended in disaster for my family remained almost at least in part because I happened to be white, well-educated and relatively economically privileged. I do not doubt that it took every ounce of white privilege and economic privilege that I had in 2018 to ensure that all of those nightmarish experiences only almost ended in tragedy instead of did end in tragedy. I know that if I had been black or brown – or too poor to afford a lawyer – that that might very well have been just enough for those white, wealthy discriminatory asshole ER doctors to dismiss me out of hand and send my sibling away without hospital admission, instead of just fighting me for three hours until they finally gave in and admitted him. I know that because I have seen enough public health data to never doubt it. I know that because marginalization, systemic injustice and existential threats are very real for multiple groups, I know that the non-verbal disabled are too frequently lost to tragic “accidents” that aren’t really accidents at all, and I know that because intersectionality is crucial to name that the black and brown disabled are lost at the highest rates of all.

I know it, and so I have never doubted that white privilege and economic privilege are real, that it is my obligation to keep using mine as a shield whenever and wherever possible to try to counterbalance marginalization everywhere, for all marginalized groups, and that I must remain vigilant in 2020 not to let it lull me into failing to show the same kindness to any marginalized group facing any existential threat today that I wished had been shown to my family by the 9th Circle of Hell in 2018.

I know that having privilege means that I need to try to figure out how to discuss difficult topics such as privilege itself and how to show compassion to all without failing to name the struggles of those specific others who have been the most silenced. I know that having white privilege means I need to name explicitly that Black Lives Matter. I know that having economic privilege means that I need to explicitly support a march to recognize the struggles of the poor. And, I know that knowing what systemic abuse, trauma and existential threat feel like means that I somehow need to make sure that I speak up for anyone facing an existential threat who isn’t being shown as much compassion as they should be in ways that honor intersectionality and the fact that “all trauma is valid” without sounding like I condone those “All Lives Matter” assholes.

I know I don’t quite know how to do that sometimes because there are so many specific types of lack of privilege that I cannot – because of my own privilege – understand directly.

While I don’t know what all existential threats feel like, I know what some existential threats feel like. And I cannot imagine looking at anyone facing any type of existential threat at the hands of the system and going “your trauma doesn’t matter.” So, I will do my best to keep reminding everyone that compassion isn’t a zero-sum game.

Because I know the nature of intersectionality is that there are far too many ways to be marginalized in America, and that each additional marginalized intersectional identity makes what is already so very hard with any one alone that much harder. And I know that the nature of the U.S. system is that each additional marker of intersectional identity makes it just that much easier for the system to kill you, and that the system is so unjust that having any one marker of marginalization alone makes it too damn easy for the system to kill you already.

I will try to keep speaking out to say that an existential threat to any marginalized group is an existential threat to all of us. That the trauma of our neighbors is always deserving of our compassion and use of privilege on their behalf, and that we can lift up multiple of our marginalized fellow humans at once. (Or, at least I have to believe we can or it would be too depressing to think about).

If we silence each other, we give voice to the system. Existential threats are existential threats. They are real, and they are terrible for anyone going through them. If we look at anyone going through crisis and go “it could be worse, so you don’t matter,” we make it even easier for a system that has already clearly demonstrated it wants to destroy the marginalized to do so.

Compassion is not a zero-sum game. Those of us who have privilege must name it – and use it as a shield for all of those who don’t. That means speaking the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Eyad Hallaq and Johanna Metzger and Nicolas Chavez and Kelly Thomas. That means naming that the average lifespan of an autistic is only 54 – or 36 if they are also non-verbal or deaf or have other health problems. That means naming that at least 69,550 children were held by ICE in 2019. That means naming that 45,000 Americans lost their lives unnecessarily each year to treatable medical problems because they didn’t have healthcare before the passage of the ACA, and that Congress has voted at least 63 times (that I can document in a quick google search) to return to those days. That means naming that 121,000 Americans have lost their lives in a global pandemic, yet half of America doesn’t even have the common decency to put a strip of cloth over their mouths to try to save the additional 80,000 – disproportionately black and brown – lives that even the most conservative models predict will be lost before October.

And, it means naming the pain of that friend on Facebook who can’t pay the rent, or who had to choose between paying for medications or paying for food. And, it means believing that friend who tells you they were assaulted and never received justice. And, it means not telling that friend who is experiencing thoughts of suicide that they are “selfish” for feeling that way.

It means not dismissing anyone in a fight for their life simply because “it could be worse.”

It can always be worse. It probably will get worse if we don’t all take this moment in history to fight for the soul of America to the full extent that we have the privilege to do so.

It’s bad enough already for too many.

So, let’s not give the system what it wants by turning on each other. Because it has never been in doubt to me from my own experiences at the hands of the system that internal divisions strengthen the system, while internal solidarity is the way we win.

Take action globally wherever you can. Use what privilege you have as a shield for those who lack that type of privilege. Name the many kinds of existential threats that exist in those times when you aren’t facing one. Hang on and try to survive when you do face one, and be gentle on yourself because you probably lack the cognitive resources to do much beyond “hang on” in those worst of times.

And try not not shame anyone just trying to survive a system that could care less if they live or die, or claim that their personal existential threat is not real.

Try not to accidentally silence some voices as we lift other voices, and first and foremost try to be kind.

Because we are going to need all of our voices before the end of this to make a dent in the system as it stands.

Need a recap of anything I’m talking about in any post? Check out my Glossary of Terms

3 thoughts on “Compassion is Not a Zero-Sum Game

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