‘There’s no greys, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.’Granny Weatherwax discussing the nature of sin with Quite Reverend Mightily Oats as they travel through a wood on the way to confront some vampires
‘It’s a lot more complicated than that-‘
‘No it ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.’
‘Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes-‘
‘But they starts with thinking about people things …’
– page 299, Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett wrote most of the words in my heart as well as the ones in my head. If you’ve read Feet of Clay you’ll know what I’m referencing here. If not, I expect you get the gist anyway; Terry’s work was a completely formative experience for me, helping me build my own moral compass, shaping my politics and core beliefs, and continuing to aid me as I define, redefine, and refine the person I want to be.
This quote* encapsulates, for me, one of the founding principles I live by. And it also explains why so much of the world is failing so miserably at the moment; to the mega corps and world governments people are things. It’s baked in to how they work.
To Jeff Bezos his employees are not people, they are numbers to be manipulated to generate as much profit as possible. Cost benefit analysis doesn’t care if this employee is sick or that employee doesn’t make enough to live close enough to work to not have to get up at 5am in the morning to get to their shift on time. The trackers that they require their workers to wear so the managers can ensure they are maximally productive don’t care whether this employee has a child who cried all night or that one is recovering from cancer so neither can keep up the pace that is demanded of them. Nothing personal is visible in the figures that are analysed to make the only decisions that are important to Amazon – making more money for the shareholders and keeping the share price high. To excel in a capitalist society in the way capitalism demands people must always be just another resource to be plundered for wealth.
Governments do not fair much better. Just look at the shambles that is the current UK government and their determination to treat every single person in this country as just another box to be ticked and dealt with in a way that costs as little as possible. The NHS, Universal Credit, Windrush, the Pandemic, Grenfell … everything they touch they reduce to spreadsheets and reports and numbers (often ones that don’t add up but apparently that doesn’t matter either). It has become exceedingly clear in the past year – thanks in part to the way key workers continue to be praised in the media but not given the pay and benefits they deserve and also to how people like Priti Patel, Dominic Cummings and Jacob Rees-Mogg have allowed to behave without facing any consequences for their actions – that those who hold power in this country only consider the people they interact with personally, or who can provide them with something they want, as people at all. The rest of us are just a nuisance they have to deal with when they want re-election.
The way in which governments and the news media across the western world are covering the pandemic is also creating a people as things mentality across the board. The daily reporting of death and infection rates, which were so shocking to all in the first few months, has now become background noise to be tutted over (or disbelieved, if you are that sort of person) and then set aside until tomorrow’s figures come through. The numbers have got so big (especially for the US and the UK) that they stop being real, unless of course you happen to be one of the people involved in burying the dead or treating the infected.
It’s a defence mechanism, of a sort, for the majority of us. The scale of the pandemic, the breathtaking callousness of the benefits system, the sheer unmitigated selfishness of Bezos and his ilk is unrelenting and putting faces to the figures affected by it all is incredibly distressing and can be overwhelming. When you have to keep on living, keep on doing what needs to be done to put food on the table and keep a roof over your family’s head, you have to shun anything which might make you any less able to do those things than you already are thanks to your personal circumstances. Many of us struggle to do it and it becomes an added burden as we toil on.
Yet the people in power, the ones who most need to think of the people behind the numbers, need to put human faces to the devastation they are busy creating or failing to mitigate … they seem to be the ones who find it easiest to pretend the majority of people are not people at all.
It’s no wonder that Terry was aflame with anger for most of his life at the many injustices this way of thinking perpetuates.
I am, too.
*and if you’re wondering how I got from that picture to that quote it’s mostly the grey white colour of the sky plus really needing to have a rant about the state of the world. Because just look at it.