Wednesday, August 14, 2013

You are not a number

One of my life epiphanies came in the last radio studio that I worked in, talking to a gay co-worker about the issue of marriage. I was, and continue to be, of the belief that of course gay people can get married; all you need is someone willing to perform the ceremony.

The issue comes down her strong desire to convince the government to recognize the “legitimacy” of the marriage by issuing a license. And then came the epiphany.

Why do you need a license to get married? Why do you need the state’s permission, in a free society, for something as personal as a lifetime commitment to another human being? Put another way, marriage is essentially a religious or spiritual ceremony; in a country that recognizes religious freedom, what is the government’s business in regulating a religious ceremony?

I am similarly puzzled by the fuss over immigration. Why does the government need to track the whereabouts of peaceful, law-abiding, hard-working people? I understand the need to monitor criminals and terrorists, but most of us are neither. What need is served by “processing” innocent human beings as they enter or leave the country?

I understand it’s more efficient to treat us all like potential criminals and terrorists, but efficiency is not the mission of a society where all are to be considered innocent until proved guilty.

All of this processing tends to group individuals by skin color, or ethnic origin, or sex, or sexual habits, or some other category. What is the point of all this? It is to create a shorthand that obliviates the individual – “those people” tend to act and think in a certain way, and by grouping them into a category, we need not do the hard work of getting to know the individual. She is a black woman; he is a white man of European descent; he is a Republican; she is gay; he is a Democrat; she is a pro-life activist; he is a Jew – from such groupings come a host of assumptions, and you need not probe any deeper to know the person.

Six billion people live on this planet, and it is impossible to know and understand them all, and so the marketer, the government and the bigot seek a shorthand.

It may indeed be true that people who seem to belong in one of these arbitrary categories tend to think and act in a certain way, but you do yourself and the other person an injustice by assuming that he or she actually thinks and acts that way before you’ve gotten to know that person.

Take care before you consign an individual to a group, because where there are no individuals, there are no individual rights – and that may eventually include the individual you meet in the mirror every morning.

In a memorable moment in a memorable bit of speculative fiction, the lead character in “The Prisoner” tires of his captors’ insistence that his name is Number Six and screams, “I am not a number, I am a free man!” That is the whole point.

Cross-posted to Door County Advocate

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