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Meeting Sophia: Reflections on Inequality

  • Opinion

By Chris Hoellriegl, MSc. Development Studies

It was bitter cold and anything but a good day when I accidentally dropped into a conversation with Sophia, a rough sleeper wrapped in blankets and sitting next to a crowded tube station on Oxford Street. We probably would have never met if my bike had not been stolen that Monday and I had decided to go home instead. 

When walking through the busy street for the first time, I was so overwhelmed by the vibrant colours, loud music, and cultural diversity that I would not have seen her if she had not approached me and asked for a hot chocolate. 

That was the beginning of wonderful conversation – not only because Sophia liked chocolate and talking about politics as much as I do, but also because her story really touched and motivated me to share our reflections on a place such as Oxford Street that embraces two extremes of society so casually: livelihood and wealth on one hand and numerous rough sleepers on the other. How is it that our society allows for such inequality to exist, and many passers-by to hardly care? 

What is the reason for that? Shall we blame the eco-political system? The fact that some people simply work harder and/or are more scrupulous, or the fact that some are naturally more gifted? Probably everything. 

However, an important but blatantly downplayed aspect is individual egoism that leads to an incorrectly possessive attitude towards money, skills, or wisdom, for instance. By falsely claiming ownership of our talents, or defining ourselves by achievements through them as society’s social-topping philosophy commands, we tend to forget that at the end of the day all those gifts are merely borrowed. 

One must acknowledge that everything we receive in life – even those things we can indirectly achieve through hard work and talents – can first and foremost never be fully owned by anyone, as nobody is fully sitting in the driving seat of life. Does anyone disagreeing not seem arrogant? 

For instance, nobody decides what circumstances one is born into or what factors may affect one’s abilities to achieve goals. Similarly, nobody can deny that every gift may be taken away fairly or unfairly as it was granted fairly or unfairly before – family through blows of fate, money through stock market crashes, or health through accidents, for example. 

Considering that we do not truly own our gifts, it is inappropriate to use them, especially money, at one’s own disposal. In line with this, Aristotle brought up the idea of seeing gifts as borrowed means to a higher purpose. 

Though he did not directly link gifts to a form of social responsibility, one must do so, given how dependent on others´ gifts everyone within a society or on a global scale actually is. Have you considered the valuable, (in)direct impact of teachers, doctors, or social workers in your life? Of policemen, cleaning staff, or exploited workers caught in the dormitory labour regime? 

How fatal it can be to underestimate the impact of another’s gifts, or to falsely impose a hierarchical ranking. This became blatantly obvious during the Covid-19 pandemic when a shortage of masks suddenly showed how important distant workers in dormitory labour regimes can be for the health status of a developed nation. 

Ironically, the ranking and payment of health care workers, for instance, seems similarly debatable until patients depend on them. 

Does it not stand reason to link our possibilities in whatever form to social responsibility, considering how dependent we all are on each other? Does it thus not also seem logical that many gifts actually imply great responsibility and not status as society tends to convey? 

“Imagine what society we would be living in if we all tried to live up to our gifts – or, as Marx already claimed, made especially the temporary gift of money, a servant of society, not the problem.”

Imagine what world we would be creating if we all humbly detached ourselves from our egoistic, falsely possessive attitude towards our borrowed gifts and tried to live up to the inherent responsibility. Imagine our ecopolitical system if we, as Marx claimed, made especially the temporary gift of money, a servant of society, not the problem by supporting a wealth tax, for instance. 

Although many, including Jesus in the parable of the talents or Rumi, have beautifully argued so, history has repeatedly shown the potential of talents to corrupt hearts and minds. How many would probably not get theirs again if they were distributed once more based on our attitude towards them? Would you? 

By the end of our conversation, Sophia and I agreed that we all are probably far from being perfect and able to live up to such standards. However, the thing is, we must never cease to try.

Photo Caption: Oxford street at night: a place where extremes meet (Credit: Jamie Davis via Unsplash).

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