There are two contradictory maxims enshrined in ‘our’ world:
- It is my purpose to desire and acquire more,
- I am free from material responsibility.
Last month, I spotted the sign above in a Sydney clothing store. It’s the hybrid of these two statements; but like many man-made hybrids, it can’t live at ease with itself and carries its own maladies.
When I saw this, I wondered aloud, who in this place (including myself) has ever known what it is to want and what good has come of it? This is a store filled with jeans made in Asian factories—are good things coming for the laborers at the sewing machines? Will good come to me if I desire the items in the shop? If I purchase them? To whom does this sign refer?
I wonder if we are losing our sense of the reality of poverty. It’s true that, in Sydney, one can still witness the evidence of want if one has eyes to see. But we differ from the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution; the class who were poor and made things for the wealthy were living and working in factories side by side with the opulence of the day. We have distanced ourselves far from this now and can almost put inequalities out of consideration. At least the Georgians and Victorians had the decency to acknowledge that their culture was stratified. Have we forgotten that our freedom from want has come at a cost?
Every nation speaks of the sacrifices men and women made to shape it (either in war or the hardship of some early days of history). I don’t doubt that this is often true and that good-willed people did bear with much for the hope of some future benefit to themselves and their descendants. But we must ask what it means when we expect others who have no share in the hopes and freedoms of one place to suffer for others who do.
This is no new observation; people have said this over and again and ‘we’ are all implicated in the process. I’m wearing clothing made by hands who will never know the benefits I’ve known, I’m typing on a computer made of minerals mined from underneath someone’s homeland. But we have to speak truth to the powers that drive this machine—and that means speaking truth to myself. My freedom from want is not without consequence. I cannot bear the guilt of the world, of this system which I did not directly build; but I must carry an awareness of the mechanism that puts me on the positive side of the equation and so many others on the unbalanced and unequal other.