The word invidious generally conveys two meanings, according to my dictionary. In one sense, the term suggests an action that “is likely to arouse or incur resentment or anger in others,” while in a second connotation it describes an “unjust or unfairly discriminating” distinction in speech or writing. It struck me as I continue to reflect on the GOP-controlled U.S. House of Representatives’ recent decision to remove the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from the Farm bill because members wished to position that program so they could cut the authorization for it deeply, even as they simultaneously increased subsidies for agribusiness markedly, that the action can appropriately be described as invidious in both senses of that word. There is little doubt that the caucus members taking this step have again earned the enmity of their Democratic colleagues who fought them at every step. They have also earned the ire of many agricultural stakeholders who have relied on a regional alliance between those who support farm subsidy programs—widely regarded as extremely wasteful, but politically useful—and those championing the SNAP program to ensure votes for each for decades. Meanwhile, citizens receiving the average food stamp benefit of $4.31 per day and relying on that sum to help feed themselves or their children have every reason to perceive as unjust the harsh rhetoric in the House floor debate that described them as manipulative lazy wastrels and worse.
I have been considering the GOP caucus’s action, and particularly the hostile rhetoric used to justify it and that speechmaking’s lack of any relationship to reality, as I have reflected on the experience and decidedly different remarks offered by 16 year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai in her recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Malala celebrated magnanimity and human dignity and embodied a fiercely courageous quest for justice as she called on those whom she addressed to join in her continuing nonviolent effort to secure human rights for girls and women around the world particularly, and compulsory education for every child, generally.
Malala was shot in the head last October and left for dead by Pakistani Taliban gunmen who objected to her school attendance and her forthright calls for the same right for all young women in the troubled Swat Valley, her home. Against all odds, she survived and now, multiple surgeries later, she lives with her family in Birmingham, England, where they relocated to avoid further promised murderous attacks. She attends school daily just as one would expect for a high-school age woman. More unusually, Malala has spoken to a world audience with passion and clarity concerning the human rights of all individuals and appealed, as she did so, for nonviolence. Her deeply principled and wise speech represented a clarion call for human rights and human dignity and for a shared understanding of the need for all of humanity to join together to help to realize the rights of each person. Memorably, she said:
We call upon all governments to ensure free, compulsory education all over the world for every child. We call upon all the governments to fight against terrorism and violence. To protect children from brutality and harm. We call upon the developed nations to support the expansion of education opportunities for girls in the developing world. We call upon all communities to be tolerant, to reject prejudice based on caste, creed, sect, colour, religion or agenda to ensure freedom and equality for women so they can flourish. We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.
The difference between Malala’s arguments, which accorded dignity to every individual, and House GOP members’ descriptions of food stamp recipients as unworthy layabouts could not be starker. These elected leaders took action to provide still larger subsidies to (typically) already wealthy individuals and agribusinesses while railing against this nation’s most efficient and successful anti-poverty program, and dubbing SNAP recipients as beneath disdain, whether children, seniors, the impaired or those working minimum wage jobs full-time to support their families. Those receiving benefits are, in these members’ collective view, a contemptible “other” stealing unmerited resources from their fellow citizens. These lawmakers offered full-throated discriminatory claims aimed at vilifying an entire swathe of the American citizenry and denying it any measure of dignity. The rhetoric represented an assault on the very notion of the democratic community owing anything to its poor and hungry other than contempt. By way of comparison, Malala, a teen victim of unspeakable violence, seems to understand deeply the truism that ultimately, human freedom and human rights are constructed on mutual claims of dignity that inhere in the person, irrespective of their station or status in life. Consequently, she is working diligently to attain that status for girls and women in her culture and for those deprived of their rights around the globe, irrespective of their social or economic standing.
It is more than sadly ironic, therefore, that as Malala presses her call for universal human dignity, exhibiting a deep generosity of spirit as she does so, that a share of our nation’s legislators are daily taking steps that explicitly promote an idea of human (and American) society as comprised only of those individuals considered by an undeclared rationale of fitness as “worthy.” I say tacit justification because these leaders do not explain why those receiving benefits are not their equals as citizens, but instead simply assert the recipients’ lack of standing, labeling them as “others.” The ultimate result of this stance in principle, whether acknowledged or not, whether consciously pressed or not, is an undoing of the possibility both of human freedom and of equality in American society. As Alexis de Tocqueville, that great aristocratic moralist, remarked in his magisterial Democracy in America, “When inequality is the common law of a society, the greatest inequalities do not call attention to themselves.” Americans need to understand this rhetoric for the attack on comity, human dignity, freedom and democratic possibility it represents. Malala was the victim of attempted murder for calling for the same level of equality for girls and women in Pakistan that our society purportedly has long assured all. Why would our lawmakers undo that principle?