In the past few weeks, I have been researching discourse in antiquity (approximately 2nd century BCE to 3rd century CE). One particular source by Caroline Vander Stichele and Todd Penner focuses on the role of appearance and outward characteristics that signify one’s class. One technique of the time was the use of oration as a means of exhibiting dominant status in the Greek or Roman society. According to documentation (keeping in mind, it is more often representative of the literate elite class), careful scrutiny was given to appearance and gestures to indicate adherence to a normative ideal, considered to be masculine perfection—and, a whole person (vs. the incomplete feminine, or lesser slave). Vocalization was part of this rubric of masculinity: an orators voice reflects his ruling class and manliness, while soft speech is linked to women and eunuchs.
One frequently engaged approach circa 1st century CE was the controversia, “which was a speech in which a fictive case was argued.” The characters most often used were women and slaves, portrayed in degraded word-pictures. Interestingly, the authors observe, “these representations seem to reflect the anxieties and fears of those in power, who are ultimately dependent on the labor of both groups for their existence, the manual labor of slaves on the one hand and the labor of reproduction by women on the other.” While it is not possible to make a precise correlation to an entirely different culture in a far removed time, it is interesting to note a similar technique currently being used. An oration is constructed to caricature whole categories of peoples in a negative light, no regard for the contributions of those people to maintain their lofty positions (not to mention regard for these same with dignity of any sort).
A further observation by Vander Stichele and Penner, is instructive: “The body as constructed and maintained does not exist in isolation, but always in relation, with an abject other further substantiating the power of the norm(ative).” In order for any to maintain an elite position the many must subordinate to preserve the status quo. There is nothing democratized about the implicit contract, and certainly no freedom in it—for the elite are also slaves to the rest to maintain the belief they must acquiesce, trust the rhetoric. Indeed, “constant surveillance” is required, “legitimated by the stereotypical portrayal of both women and slaves as glutinous, and given to excessive alcohol consumption and sexual desire.” The characters today are (a bit) different, but, the rhetoric astonishingly similar. “Lazy,” and “exploiting the system” are recurrent phrases. Reducing any “other” by a label, is to objectify, relegate to less-than-whole, less human.
No person exists in isolation, but always in relation. Each person is unique, reflecting an image of God like no other. We need each other to grow, be truly human—it is a perversion to subordinate another at all, not the least that one be subordinated based on ethnicity or circumstance or gender or political party with which one identifies. Each person is worthy of regard and dignity. Plenty of far more eloquent people have outlined the absurdity going on here (one excellent article: here [h/t Tom Griesser]) Not until those dominating the course of our government can actually see, really know the rest of us—those who are barely paying the bills (but are working very hard), who do not have insurance coverage—or need to take Medicaid and suffer the humiliation of being repeatedly turned down by doctors, and limited prescription choices—not until they can see that they are part of the problem, is there possibility for change. Shane Claiborne (among others) concludes, to authentically stand in solidarity with the marginalized (homeless, unemployed, ethnic-or-otherwise-other) one must be friends with a person in that other-state. Not just read about, or, serve a soup line, but desire to know, to see into that person and recognize the very image of God. To be known is to be loved and to love is to know. Some might also call this empathy. But, as Daniel Goldman muses in an NY Times op-ed it is perilously difficult for the socially elevated.
“We do need to be born again, since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemus. But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the Kingdom of God, I can tell you that you have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy, too. But I guess that’s why God invented highlighers, so we can highlight the parts we like and ignore the rest.”
― Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical