The other day, I was getting a haircut at a place in town, right off Main Street. It’s a pretty nice place, which made the following events all the more peculiar. As I was getting my haircut, a drunk, homeless man stumbled into the salon and took a seat in one of the waiting chairs. He began to speak with customers—I couldn’t really hear what he was saying—and seemingly aggravated both them and management. My hairstylist was the first employee to go up to him; the combined smell of alcohol and filth made her walk away as quickly as she had walked up, finding the manager immediately. Then, the store manager began talking to him, pressing him to leave. He was fairly kind to the man and eventually convinced him to leave the salon. The nauseated face of the manager indicated his disgust.
Yet, discussion on the homeless man’s actions did not end there. The lady who was cutting my hair started to talk to her fellow hairstylists around her. “Did you see that?! It was so bizarre! I wouldn’t want to deal with him,” were some of the first exclamations used to describe her view of what had transpired. Interestingly though, the conversation evolved—it changed from being about what had happened to why it had happened. And this is when I began to start hearing more subjective, personal remarks made about that homeless man who entered the salon. Gross, a bum, worthless, deserving of the life he has—all used as descriptions for a man that no one in the salon knew at all.
Hearing all of this negative emotion and degradation of the homeless man, I started to feel sorry for him. Had he been drunk? Most definitely yes, but that does not mean we can start to judge his whole life. Lots of people drink; not everyone is homeless. Do we know how he came to be homeless? It might not have been because of his ineptitude; maybe he was a veteran who now has mental problems? Maybe he lost his job and all his wealth in the financial crisis and was so shattered that it caused him to become a wandering drunk? Maybe he was a victim of the capitalist system as discussed by Marx and Engels?
The fact is that we cannot make such harsh judgments on individuals whose lives have been dictated by forces they cannot control. In class, we are learning about Rousseau’s second discourse and his opinions on how society became as it is was in his day, which I believe is still applicable to our current society. Rousseau believed that the establishment of private property grossly enlarged the small inequalities that naturally exist due to individual differences of ability. Property, not dependent on skill, eventually created a system that emphasized the judgment of others based on what they “have.” “The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said ‘This is mine,’ and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody” (Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754). Here, Rousseau makes his argument that the Earth and it’s natural bounties belong to all individuals. Therefore, our current socioeconomic system impedes the existence of individual freedom because of the hoarding of property and resources by individuals undeserving of them. Ultimately, this has perpetuated a system that requires the wealthy to depend on the poor and requires the poor to appease the wealthy, which further restricts individual freedom.
While our current definition of property may be more abstract, I believe that Rousseau’s argument applies because the world including the United States—is divided economically. Economic inequality exists everywhere, and it is becoming a critical point of tension, shown clearly by the Wall Street and similar protests. To Rousseau, the neglected, exploited people of the world are obvious victims of the poor social contracts our society has continued to hold high. Many people who have wealth and power were born into their positions and in many cases are consequently unqualified. In addition, those who are in the system are slaves to it—office workers having to suck up to their bosses, bosses sucking up to directors, etc. Today, work is mostly done to appease others and attempt to either move up or prevent downfall; each day, individuals act in ways that neglect their freedom.
So, was the homeless man who walked into my salon a victim of our society’s social contract, our economic system, his own lack of talent or a combination of them all? When can we say that an individual’s role in society was selected entirely on his own accord rather than forced by society’s constraints? Or, were the people in the salon simply judging the man in order to validate their own status and make themselves feel higher.
Ultimately, I do not think that we can ever define an individual’s circumstances based entirely on his/her own actions and abilities. Whether we like it or not, our society has created vast inequality that has been sustained for generations. Rather than fight the people that are worse off, we have to fight the parts of our society that make them that way. To do this, we must first change those institutional aspects of society as well as the mental conditions of its constituents that continue to perpetuate our current system.