Friday, July 20, 2012

The Power of Voice

Two small black and white lemurs have the ability to scare away a whole army of predators--and after seeing these two docile, innocent-looking creatures in action, I believe it.

Today, Jennifer and I had our first parents-on-a-school-field-trip experience as we accompanied Tyler and his pre-school to the Yorkshire Wildlife Park in Doncaster, South Yorkshire. Retaining a heavy conservation mission, the park's ultimate goal is to help endangered species and to, when possible, return them in greater number to their native habitat. Currently, they are raising two rare Amur Leopards with this intention in mind.

And as Tyler and Jen and I saw various species--tigers! lions! meerkats! camels! wallabees!--the most fascinating creatures we encountered today were the two docile, innocent-looking bland and white lemurs. After eating, these two lemurs came close to one another and began shrieking louder than a chorus of toddlers having tantrums. Their shrieks rose to the highest alto equivalent, and the lowest bass depth. The shrieks went on, and on, and on.

I watched wordlessly, unable to pick up my jaw.

When the black and white lemurs were finished, the Lemur Expert--a young man whose affable nature and resistance to palm oil because of its destructive sourcing from Madagascar for hair products for Western consumers made him imminently engaging--told us all that this practice was a cultural tradition passed on through the generations of black and white lemurs.

If the sheer volume of the cries weren't enough to scare away predators, the variability in pitch and tone would be enough to make predators think that more than a dozen animals were gathered there rather than just two. In essence, their voices could carry enough power to translate into action--to make predators firmly believe that there'd be no point in attacking.

Contrast such lemur lobbying for life with many of our own visions of protection.

Recently, I finished Jonathan Kozol's groundbreaking book Savage Inequalities. Essentially, Kozol documents with clear facts and zero drama the essence of inequality in America' public education system. Schools in wealthy suburbs often have as much as double to spend per pupil in each school system, while schools in poverty-stricken areas (both rural and inner-city) have far less materials, resources, and sometimes class sizes that double those of their wealthier counterparts.

I was sharing some of my own passion for justice in this area of school funding with a friend on the phone, and he asked a great question, "What would you say to someone who says, it's not my responsibility to ensure that a poor five-year old kid I don't know gets the same education that a wealthy five-year old kid gets?"

I thought about his question for a while, and then realized how often hypothetical questions like these form the basis of a lot of individualized thinking. The essential premise is: it's not my responsibility.

Tax dollars for welfare, education spending, medical insurance? It's not my responsibility.

However, an interesting thing happens when marriage and abortion arise. Then, the stance transmogrifies into It IS my responsibility. Regarding these issues, arguments for protection of life and protection of marriage are promulgated.

What I find fascinating is that such protection is a veiled attack--and what's more, it doesn't cost any real money or any real sacrifice. It doesn't even cost any change in social order, class hierarchy, or systemic understanding. Essentially, it's cheap and easy to attack homosexuals and women who go to an abortion clinic and then claim to protect life and protect marriage.

Ultimately, what I shared regarding my friend's hypothetical question was this, "Isn't someone who asks a question like that saying that life is more valuable in the womb than out of it?" How can someone be outraged regarding abortion but watch a five-year live in poverty and receive an education unequal to her wealthier, suburban counterparts? Isn't that a death as well?

How can someone deride homosexual marriage under the guise of protection, yet not protect a woman's right to live without domestic violence, rape, unequal pay, or unaided childcare?

The answer--as it so often does--amounts to complexities of money and patriarchy. So much of society is predicated upon ways in which those with wealth and power can maintain wealth and power, and those in poverty remain in poverty. The education system, as Kozol writes, bolsters this inequality. Our society becomes more just only as those with wealth and power are willing to fight for those without them.

It's cheap and easy to throw punches. It's difficult to use one's own money and agency towards the ends of creating a more just society. But America is an experiment that is, theoretically, built upon the latter and not on the former.

Even two black and white lemurs are able to raise a chorus of shrieking so loud that the predators wouldn't dare come close. In our current climate, how can we raise our voices to that same effect--so that equal education, counseling services, domestic abuse prevention, community improvements, and the welfare of all children become the new moral imperatives?

How can we use pitches high and low to make the case for the five-year old student who also deserves an education--who deserves the same kind of protection of her life that conservatives are so forceful about in the womb, but seem to forget once she's been born?

If we are going to protect life and love, then we do so by opening our arms wider, not closing our fists around our own money and power tighter and tighter. And even a few black and white lemurs shouting out such a message of equality and justice can scare off a whole army of predators. I've seen it happen.