the unseen forces of inequality

Posted on December 29, 2011


What determines who is normal and who is not?

How do we as a society determine that this person or that person deviates from “the norm”?

And how does this inevitable “deviation” from the norm end up having value assigned to it by society?

For example, if a person is highly coordinated and can run fast, this is a deviation from the norm. And if this person is able to use this deviation to play football or some other sport, then there is a positive value assigned to that person and chances are they will eventually make a lot of money; more than the norm.

But if a person reads and processes information slowly, then we generally label that “deviation” in school so that they can receive special services. Those people are labeled as “Special Education Students” and are assigned a negative value in society. In other words, they are “devalued” based on their “deviation” from the norm. This is one of those deviations that society does not value. This student will grow up having a very difficult time graduating from school and getting a job. They are devalued as citizens and largely ignored and marginalized. Society tends to wall them out by walling themselves in. We hang out with those that are the same as us, share the same values, have the same opportunities, and have the same status as ourselves. We tend to fear difference. By adopting such an inward focus in life, people that do not fit our inward focus are largely invisible, unseen and unheard, by the normal citizens and by the system at large… that was created by the “normals” to serve (and invisibly dominate) the “deviants”. The authors of these systems, the “normals”, though, have very little understanding of the issues the “deviants” struggle with on a daily basis.

Case in point: I worked at Union High School in Grand Rapids MI for six years in special education as an Employment Training Specialist during the late 90s and early 2000s. The school educated students in grades 9 through 12. There were 1500 students enrolled there. 300 of them were special education students that all had some sort of disability. I was curious about the graduation rate of our students. The data that we reported at the state level was very scanty and showed that we graduated between 85 and 90 percent of our students. But at the end of the year, I noticed that we only graduated 35 special education students (out of the 300 in the four grades). The actual “dropout” rate of special education students was not followed. In other words, it was not visible. This whole group of students, 20% of the 1500 students at one of the four high schools in Grand Rapids was invisible, deemed not important enough to pay attention to. This was 10 years ago. Since then, data has been collected showing that over 50% of special education students dropped out of school every year .

Interestingly, when we look at the employment rate of people with disabilites, we see clearly the results of the devaluation of the deviation of having a disability. Of those adults that have disabilities, statistics show that about 35% are employed; leaving an unemployment rate of 65%.

The stories and the data are myriad. We devalue those that deviate from normal when they are judged to bring negative value to us. This is not a conscious process. It is extremely unconscious and invisible for most people. That is how it is sustained. If it were visible, we would be too appalled to allow it to continue. Those that live more consciously may be opening their eyes to see these inequalities. But most of the people in society understand that this is the “way of things”. “We have not caused this.” “This is the way it is.” “AND this is a land of opportunity. Those that really wanted to be successful in life can be successful.” By pinning blame in the person (the deviant), we can efficiently wash our hands of our inherent responsibility in creating the belief in our society where all people are not created equally; and hence not treated equally.

What are these unseen forces at work?

In physics, the Second Law of Thermodynamics says that all things, when left unattended, tend toward chaos. This is the case in all natural systems. Social systems are natural systems that follow the natural laws, although the result is not as apparent or as measurable as with physical systems. This also applies to individuals. Each of us is made up of a myriad of complex systems that, if we do not pay attention to them and tend to them, we fall apart; emotionally, physically, spiritually, intellectually, and on and on. The same law applies to societies.

The key here is “unattended”. If we do not tend to things, they fall apart. What does this mean?

How do we “attend” to things that we care about and we do not want to see fall apart?

Another  way to look at it is this: What we pay attention to, grows. This has been proven in strategic management and change management theory, psychological theories of motivation, AND in quantum physics.

Communities do not have a natural tendency toward compassion, equality, or inclusion. These natural systems tend toward the opposite, if we do not attend to them, the result is the chaos and destructiveness of labeling people as undesirable deviants that then become objects of devaluation, marginalization, exclusion, and ultimately oppression.

“A person is oppressed when they are held back, either physically or psychologically, from the goals they aspire to, and the norms of society … oppression is closely linked to devaluation and loss of power.” (Al Condeluci, in “Interdependence”, pg. 16)

So how do we attend to what is precious to us? Our physical, emotional, and spiritual health? Of our communities and ourselves?

We must wake up. We must become mindful about who we are, what we are doing, and the consequences of what we do and how we do them. We are all connected. Everything that happens to one part has resounding effects through the whole; individually and as a community.


Mindfulness is how we stop things from disintegrating. The power of intention is what halts chaos and brings about life-giving communities made up of life-giving individuals.

Mindfulness of compassion: Who do we care about? Who do we see? Who is invisible to us? Who have we marginalized? Do we associate with those outside of our safety and comfort zones? Do we understand the struggles of those that are different than us? Do we spend time listening to their stories? Do we bother to see them … daily? Or are those that are different from us, “out of sight, out of mind”?

Mindfulness of equality: Do we believe that each person comes here with gifts? And that in using those gifts, they find meaning in life? Do we presume competence in all people? Do we believe in the potential of each person? Do we believe that if even one person is not given the opportunity to use their gifts, our community suffers profoundly?

Mindfulness of inclusion: What are our boundaries of comfort and security? What do we think about those “deviants” in our society? Do we exclude certain groups of people? Do we consciously include people that we are uncomforable with? Do we make ourselves uncomfortable in order to become boundary spanners? Do we bring people into our inner circle that are difficult to be with?

Often a good life and a good community do not exist because we have NEVER intended it.

“Safety in a community gets defined by how the most marginal person in the community is treated. We all believe that if people could see into our hearts and know who we really are, we too might be rejected, so we notice how those at the margins are welcomed.” (Emily Sander)

“In true community we will not choose our companions. For our choices are so often limited by self-serving motives. . . .

Instead our companions will be given to us by grace.

Often they will be persons who will upset our settled view of self and the world.

In fact, we might define true community as that place

Where the person you least want to live with lives. . . .”

(Parker Palmer, 1977; as quoted in Practicing Peace: A Devotional Walk Through The Quaker Tradition)