on navigating the underworlds of civic inhumanity

Jeremiads, it seems to me, are worthless in a society tone deaf to critical thinking. Diatribes, too, when they already pass for daily fare and there are no consequences to anyone except over-stimulated ears, under-stimulated brains, and hearts gone entirely missing from the fray. Naming names and a lickety-split outing of those who misbehave, equally common and ineffective and sometimes ill-tempered to boot. When a serious issue needs serious reflection, though, writing is still the tool to which I turn.

Recently I’ve encountered two structural shifts in this society that have affected me personally, both in areas that even ten years ago did not function quite as mercilessly as they do now: willfully negligent (verging on fraudulent) health-care billing practices and a deeply dehumanizing academic job search process. I know these terrains well and have documented the abuses and lack of accountability—as well as the rare humanities—I’ve met with in both sectors, and I’ve read and lived enough to know that my experiences are not unique or unusual. Yet I am flummoxed as to why these widespread inhumane practices are the norm and remain so thoroughly unchallenged. For whatever cockeyed or even logical reasons, far too many institutions of higher-ed and health-care are mired to their eyebrows right now in corporate-speak and systematic dehumanization. And since these willful practices are creating nightmares for ordinary people? More of us, I believe, need to speak up. With some heat.

Fast op-eds or essays or blog entries or even diatribes and jeremiads will not suffice. For one thing, few of them seem effective anymore. They reach people who already care and would do something if they were positioned to do so, but often fly way out of left field over the heads of anyone who could shift an organization’s cultural personalities and behaviors. The faceless bureaucrats behind any unkind or cruel behaviors are seldom accorded a hearing there, either. Getting an institutional representative to speak on the record, of course, is part of the problem, because systems thrive best at inhumanity when they can suppress information and intelligence and the off-chance that one of their staff might opt to act with human decency or, worse yet, accidentally flaunt the otherwise hidden petticoats of deliberate deceit or guile. And the PR or HR ‘statement’ that is rolled out like clockwork for public guzzling when one of these matters is made public is always huckaboob in a bucket, so no one takes it seriously.

Books used to suffice at breaking the skim ice on these sloughs, but they take a long time to birth and the skim ice now has become deep and nearly impenetrable anyway, but I also have other books to finish first. News articles also used to be effective, but too often now drown in the morass of stories about some new, looming threat or horror and, in any case, I am no journalist or reporter. Magazine articles, perhaps, honed with the right mix of evidence and passion and positioned for best effect to reach the widest and most unexpected types of people, may be a workable genre for giving voice to such issues.

Before I write about the effects of these institution’s actions and practices on people like me, however, I have to seek their participation. One-sided tales are cold of heart and will not effect change in either me or the systems (and both need consideration from the start). My questions are genuine: I really would like to understand the other sides of these nightmares. What is going on that would allow one or a few people to treat another one in thoughtless or cruel ways? Is it good for business? Does it save a few pennies, boost the bottom line? Are there great financial, social, moral, or employee-morale-building profits to be made in demeaning clients or would-be employees? Does anyone in the organization ever consider the value of the people whose lives they are making more difficult (or, in too many cases, ending)? Why harm someone when at least a few alternatives always exist? What good is the corporation/entity doing in the world if it is systematically dehumanizing people? Do you make your organization stronger or weaker with this approach?

These are some of my questions. They are biased, yes, and show a far deeper understanding of the dehumanized side of these equations than of the organizations and individuals wielding the power. I would argue, however, that any group or person who systematically dehumanizes any other being? Is already dehumanized and busily engaged in destroying any meaningful social compact whereby all can be valued equally. All that remains is to figure out who is benefiting from the destruction and to try to engage in a conversation with them about those choices—and then to get that out to the public. As I see that task, there’s little point in trying to write my way to understanding any of this until I’ve reached out to the people who have been involved. Not for succor, not for redress—in many ways my personal story will be almost beside every last point at the end, as it always is in a worthy story—but simply for answers.

And so I will now begin these two mini-writing projects with personal letters, simple requests for brief phone interviews with all the representatives and officials who have at least as much information as I do for my side about what has been going on in some of my nightmares for the last two years. Like any research project, my questions may prove moot or wrongheaded along the way, and my perceptions of what has happened may have to shift considerably. Perhaps I will get to the end and realize that these folks are all right and I am nothing, worthless, and deserving not even the basic courtesies one might give to a fellow citizen or a stray dog. Perhaps humanity is for people who don’t need health care and accurate bills. Perhaps common courtesy is not for people who have spent years honing their skills and earning expensive degrees so that they can apply to one of the few positions in their chosen fields in order to spend the remainder of their lives discharging their debts (and hanging onto some semblance of health care!) while making a contribution to society. Perhaps kindness should be reserved for the well-placed and already worthy. But then again, the stung and exhausted little person within whispers, “Perhaps not.” Perhaps there is more to both them and me than I can now see.

I won’t know until I’ve made my way through the work of trying to understand their side as well as I feel I understand my own. I won’t be able to give adequate voice to even my own side until I see it laid starkly alongside the words of others who disagree with me. I won’t fully understand the larger forces impinging on all of our behaviors until I have crossed the barbed and mined fields that now exist between us.

Once again, I am grateful for writing, for here it must serve as a compass for navigating the underworlds of civic inhumanity and loss. Few tools, it seems to me, could be better suited to such a task, for writing lets one soul reach out and risk touching one other. Perhaps somewhere in that fleeting nexus a little candle could be lit for some of those who now exercise authority and power in civic life, a reminder of graces dimly imagined and an impetus for kindnesses determinedly dealt out whether the other person was considered worthy or not. Perhaps the tool will help us, as writing reliably does, to rekindle our mutual humanities. Perhaps not. At this point, I wouldn’t bet a slim nickel either way, but I’m throwing all my heart into this slough anyway. Because I am a writer. And that’s what we do.

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