Wednesday, May 28, 2014

If You Are Silent About Injustice...

Let me tell you a story: a few years ago, I was returning a bathing suit and Target. The young girl working behind the return counter was not particularly friendly, and was almost reluctant to take the bathing suit back, despite the fact that I had never worn it.  Finally, though, she processed the return, and handed me back my money--this was back in the day when everyone paid with cash.

I take it, and leave to rejoin my mom, who is browsing the clothes section, munching on some popcorn, as we were apt to do when browsing Target back in those days. (Now, I can hardly ever get her to go to Target with me since 'Wal Mart is cheaper.'). Anyway, as I join her, I go to put the money in my pocket, and glance at it to discover that the woman who processed my return gave me an extra $20. Not only did she give me my money back for the bathing suit, she ended up giving me an extra $20.

Let me just remind you that this girl was not that friendly to me, and I was pretty broke as a college student home for the summer. Anyway, can anyone guess what I did?

1) Kept it. I needed that $20.

2) Returned it.

As tempting as the offer was (when is a 'free to you' $20 not at least tempting?), I chose #2. I walked back up to the return desk and told the girl that she'd made a mistake.  She seemed flabbergasted by my response--in fact, she kept asking me if I was 'sure I wanted to give it back'?

Of course I was sure.  I weighed the options--on one hand, I would have an extra $20.  On the other hand, when the registers were closed down for the night, she & anyone else who happened to have used that register would be in trouble--or at least on probation. So, there wasn't really a choice--at least, not for me.

She thanked me profusely, and put it back in the drawer and was, of course, extremely pleasant to me. 

One more story before I get to my point: in 5th grade, there was a class field trip to a water park that we had to buddy up for. There was a group of four of us, and all three wanted to be my buddy. I really struggled to pick a buddy--I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings, and I was stressing out that I was put in a position where I would potentially hurt two of my really good friends.  One of the girl's mothers remarked to my mom "Boy, Natalie must really be loving her life right now." 

But, the truth is: I wasn't--not in that moment, not when I was faced with having to hurt someone's feelings.  That was not then, nor has it ever been, something pleasant for me--having the power to choose and hurt someone else has never been a requirement for 'loving my life.'

I don't remember who or how I picked now--I just know that I felt really terrible having to choose.

Anyway, how are these two stories related?  I guess they're about perspective.

In the first story, it would have been really easy for me to look at the situation from only my perspective--and keep the $20 erroneously handed to me by a rather rude clerk.

In the second story, the mother's perception is what she would have felt in the situation, not what I felt.  Like so many things in life, it comes down to perspective.

It comes down to what we feel or would feel (as in the case of the mother), and too often we do not stop to consider what the other person must feel. 

I'm not ashamed to admit that I was a bit of a teacher's pet growing up-- it wasn't something I intended to happen, but when it did, I was thrilled.  Aside from being bullied by Ms. Jackson, I was generally well-liked among teachers.  I did my homework, I did well, and I actually enjoyed being in school. But, I never stopped to think about how other kids perceived this--or whether or not it was fair to them. It benefited me, and therefore I didn't really think twice about it. This is one kind of situation, where a person (in this case me) simply doesn't realize that something is wrong, and therefore remains silent about it.

But, there is another kind.  A more insidious kind. The one where you realize that you are receiving preferential treatment (specifically to the detriment of someone else), and you stay silent, or let it pass.  This is different altogether--you are no longer a passive participant in the favoritism, you are absolutely an active participant.

Recently, I was having a conversation with someone about a course of action they'll take in the future.  I'll spare the specifics, because they're not important--but, it got me thinking about people-- and how many of them operate.

It's often pretty easy to speak out when you feel wronged--when you see an injustice and you're on the wrong side of that injustice, it's usually pretty easy (for most people) to speak up and say 'Hey! That's not fair! Why am I being treated so poorly, when this person over here is being treated so wonderfully?'

This is, of course, not easy for some people--but it is for some.

Rarely is the reverse true.  Rarely does someone who is on the 'good' side of an injustice or favoritism speak up and say 'Hey! Why am I being treated so much better than this person over here?'

In either instance, it's not right--the difference in treatment of individuals in either circumstance is not okay, but we are fundamentally less likely to speak up about it as long as we are on the 'good' side--or, rather, the side that is benefiting. 

For instance, if we notice a bank error that takes money from us, we are on the phone with the bank immediately, trying to get our money back.  However, if we notice a bank error that gives us money, we are likely at home, crossing our fingers that no one notices.  We don't pick up the phone and say "Yes, excuse me, Chase Bank, you've credited my account an extra $125." Or, if we do, the response is nowhere near as immediate as if Chase Bank erroneously took $125 from the account.

Why is that okay?

There are a thousand answers, some of which might even make a compelling case for why it's okay to respond like that.  But, the truth of the matter is: it's not.  It's not okay.

If you are silent while an injustice is occurring (even if you benefit from it), you are no better (or at least not much better) than the person or entity perpetuating the injustice.

Or, at least, that's my perspective on this.  I'm still learning to speak out and up for myself--and hopefully someday I'll learn how to better do that for others.

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