Don't smoke. Don't do drugs. Don't break the law. Don't drive drunk. Don't get yourself in debt. It's the standard mantra of the teenage years. Everywhere we go, in schools, in public institutions, hospitals, PSA's and ads, we are constantly reminded that these are plainly and simply wrong things to do. And it's, of course, justified – drunk driving, for example, is a bad thing to do. But in the process of the media pounding these ideas into our heads, admittedly for good intentions, it also plants the idea that those who are either affected by or have done these acts are also, by association, bad people. In the process, I think these ideas put a virtual barrier in many of our minds, separating “good people” – those who don't drink, don't smoke, don't skip school, and don't do drugs, from the “bad people” – people who smoke, do drugs, get in street fights, use vulgar language, and otherwise get involved in the taboo acts of the media. Never mind that “good” and “bad’ are unimaginably ambiguous ideas; the vast majority of these people we so remorselessly condemn in the media and in education don't find themselves in their situations because they wanted to, or even because of anything of their own fault. Rather, they are the victims of their circumstance.
The United States as a whole does a pretty good job at being a democracy. It's equally attentive to the opinions of many minority groups of economy, ethnicity, sexuality, and educational standing*. But unfortunately, it doesn't bridge the gap between the poor or the disprivileged and the rest of the society. And by this inaction, there is a virtual but still very real and influential wall separating those who have the ability to speak for themselves from those who, by circumstance and lack of attention, are passively silenced. And unfortunately, those in this minority also happen to be those we condemn so easily by condemning their circumstances. Perhaps I'm introducing a bias from the public education system, but when a school teaches you that “smoking is bad” but doesn't explain why smokers choose to smoke, or when the public tells you that “teenage pregnancy is abominable” but doesn't explain how people end up in these situations, we're naturally lead to associate the people imprisoned by their situations with their circumstances. In other words, when an institution teaches that “drug abuse is bad”, it ought to also teach that the people who are inflicted with this circumstance aren't so because they chose to be – who does that? – but because fortune wasn't on their side. People are not defined by their actions, nor should they be imprisoned and judged by them, and we ought to be taught this effect of circumstance.
It's one of the shared thoughts of cancer survivors and those who still struggle with it that they are often defined and judged by their condition, rather than as a person. In other words, when we meet an otherwise “normal”** human being, we judge them by their age, education, work ethic, personality, etc. But when many of us meet someone we know to be a “cancer survivor”, the focus shifts. Our brains are somehow wired to define them by their uniqueness or differentiation from the rest of society. The same thing happens to immigrants, gay and transgender people, and, of course, celebrities. We tend to define a person by their main difference, rather than the much larger commonality of humanity.
Unfortunately, I think this is also the case for people defined by their circumstance. When we're taught that smoking is bad, that drug abuse is horrible, that underage sex is a terrible thing to have, and we shouldn't drop out of high school or college, We're naturally lead to make the (admittedly reasonable) connection that smokers, addicts, dropouts, and teenage parents have made “bad decisions,” and consequently that they are “bad people”. That would be true in an ideal world where everyone was born equally privileged, into an identical family, getting the identical education and healthcare, having identical economic support, and avoid all judgements. But in case you haven't gotten the memo, that world also doesn't exist. And in this imperfect world, people make mistakes and take chances, especially when their supposedly negative choices can keep them from depression, living in the streets, losing a job, or being bullied into a mental breakdown for another day.***
Here's the bottom line: we don't live completely orthogonal to our conditions. Some of us are worried we can't afford to get the next new iPhone, but others worry to pay this month's rent. Some of us may get worried that the math test earlier today might drop the grade by a few percents, but others are deciding whether or not they could afford to go to college. Some of us have to text our friends that we can't make it to their grad party next Monday, but others worry about whether or not to talk to someone about their friend with a chronic depression. There is a human being somewhere in the world, worried about how to make it to the next month or the next week, not because they made a bad decision, but because they can't do much better under their circumstances.
When we say “drug abuse is bad” but forget that these individuals are still people, with capacities to love and a desire to be successful and a people and ideas they care deeply about, we're guilty of judging the victims of unfortunate circumstance by nothing of their own choice.
* It might not be acting properly on those voices, but the voices are definitely loud and clear. We don't make a coordinated effort to actively silence a group.
** BIG AIR QUOTES AROUND “NORMAL”
*** Of course, this post might as well be another huge generalization, and that's a criticism it (and I) deserves. But at the same time, I think it's also important and real.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, The rights to become.
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