By reading this essay you are taking part in a conversation that excludes a lot of people. Billions of them. Each of them has ideas that we never hear, and hopes and goals that we know nothing about. Each tells stories we can't really understand, and suffers discontents and traumas we can't identify with. We have our conversation which takes place in forums like this between people like you and me. And they have their conversation which takes place in very different forums that do not include us. We are privileged and many of us do not realize it. We are the elite of our age though rarely do we contemplate this. Even I myself, a lowly dishwasher, making my eight US dollars an hour, rank among the elite of this era we live in. You and I talk to each other; and because we keep ourselves so entertained talking to each other we don't think about the vast swath of humanity that is not participating in our talking. We don't hear what those human beings have to say because they cannot tell us. They have no voice.

Consider the resources required to read this essay on this screen right now. You've got to have a computer. You've got to have internet. In order to have internet you need some kind of connection. In order to make all this run you need electricity. This means you need electric lines running to your apartment. And this presupposes that you have an apartment, which presupposes that someone there is paying the rent, which presupposes that someone there has a job and possibly an automobile to take them to that job. All of this is obvious. To point it out seems a little facile. But imagine there is no job for you to have. This means you cannot pay any rent, which means you cannot have an apartment, which means if you are living instead in the slums of Kolkata or Cape Town, you do not have electricity or telephone lines. Without these resources you cannot run a computer and internet. And without those you cannot read these words.

Millions of us have all these things and use them to connect and converse with each other quite vociferously about issues and ideas that seem to us very important. But as we do this, all millions of us, as we convince ourselves and agree that what we say to each other matters, we share in the illusion that everyone is participating in our meaningful conversation, that everyone's views are being heard. But they are not. The opinions we express and the arguments we engage represent the opinions and arguments of people on the planet who have things. Most people on this planet do not have things.

For every person with the tools to access this essay there is at least one person denied that access by economic hardship. According to United Nations figures nearly half the people on Earth live on less than two US dollars a day. What do those people think about this essay? What is their opinion? We don't know. Because they can't tell us. Because they are not participating in this conversation we're having. Because they have no voice.

It gets worse.

Since the beginning of civilization an elite class has occupied the economic summit of human society. And since the beginning of civilization that elite class has enjoyed its privileged position by living off the hard work and suffering of non-elites. This uneven relationship has endured for thousands of years. People with things have always lived off the discomfort of people without things. It has progressed through numerous forms of exploitation--of conquered peoples, of slaves, and of underclasses.

In the United States where I live it seems this relationship has found a more equitable balance. You look around and virtually everyone has a warm place to sleep in winter. And virtually everyone has a place to get a meal if they are hungry. You look around and there are not people in bondage. You see no child laborers. And there are no men with whips. In my country you get the feeling the age of exploitation has faded away; that it has been subsumed into the forward progress of history; that world culture has matured beyond that predatory phase of its development. And yet, a few years ago when I bought a new bicycle at Walmart to ride to my part-time job it cost me only 65 dollars. That's a really cheap new bicycle. In fact, ten years or so before that, when I first started riding bicycles everywhere, that exact same bicycle cost 100 dollars at Walmart. So I paid my 65 dollars, left Walmart, and started to think about it. How did that happen? Why did the price of that bicycle decrease by a third in ten years? I began to feel uncomfortable then because suddenly I felt sure there was some guy in China working really hard for very little money to produce a 100-dollar bicycle for 65 dollars. And I, living at the margins of elite society, just bought that cheap bicycle for my benefit at his expense. I grew even more uncomfortable when I started considering all the cheap stuff I can get in this country. Clothes, food, housewares. And I began to sense that the cut-rate prices I enjoy come at the expense of some poor person in Bangladesh or Indonesia or El Salvador.

I kept thinking about this and finally came to the conclusion that the age of exploitation has not yet left world culture, it has just shifted scale. Instead of people like me living off the suffering of some slave in my own country, I'm now living off the suffering of some underclass person in another country. They are far away. I cannot see them. And so I do not even realize I am doing it. The exploitation is there just like it has always been. It's just that the elite, you and me, are in positions now where we do not have to witness it, and where the middlemen who profit from it make sure we are not reminded of it. This is very unsettling. And one of the reasons it's happening is because the people being exploited do not have a voice. They are not participating in this conversation we're having. They cannot tell us about what they suffer. Their jobs do not allow them to have electricity and a computer and internet, and to blog about what they're doing in their Jakarta sweat shop and how hard it is. There are slaves right now somewhere in this world. And we are all benefiting from their suffering. Just because we can't see them doesn't mean they're not there. Just because we can't hear them doesn't mean they don't want to be heard. We just can't see them. We can't hear them. They do not have a voice.

Everyone who reads this essay is part of the elite of modern society, even if you had to walk to a public library or a cybercafe for one hour's access at a time. I barely have enough money to keep a roof over my head but that is a hundred times more rupees than a woman living in a shanty town outside Mumbai with a dirt floor and no running water. I'm beginning to think that people who lived during slave times probably faced a dilemma comparable to ours. They knew what was happening was wrong. But the whole society was built upon that wrongness. To correct the injustice was not simply a matter of ending a particular wrong, but of transforming the whole society. Many of them, like me now, were more or less powerless, I think. They needed clothes. They had to buy clothes. But by doing so they supported a cotton industry based on the oppression and suffering of slaves. Today I have to eat, don't I? So I have to buy food. But by buying food I exploit some abused tomato picker in Mexico whether I want to exploit him or not. How am I, a dishwasher who rides a bicycle to work, supposed to help that guy in Beijing who makes ten cents per hour building the bicycle I ride to work? I don't know. The problem really bothers me. It's something I want to fix. But the whole of elite society is built upon this exploitation. Just by living in a rich country I participate in the exploitation whether I condone it or not. Maybe becoming aware of it is part of the solution. Maybe before you started reading this essay you hadn't really considered that the bananas you consume are picked by some guy making one dollar a day, or the sugar, or the coffee.

To make myself feel better about this I have come up with a few things to do. The list makes me a little queasy because it's so tiny and insubstantial. But I don't know what more a person like me--one of such meager means and already committed to another cause--has to offer. First of all, I try not to waste things. I acknowledge their intrinsic value and respect the work of the people who have handled them. Second, I do everything I can to not exploit other humans, or to exploit them as little as my position in a rich country allows. Third, I remind myself that I don't really deserve what I have. I did not do anything to be born into the elites of the world. It was just an accident. A gift. Not earned. Fourth, I never take this gift for granted. I recognize it always and stay thankful for the opportunities it affords me. Also, I take advantage of my gift's opportunities. I understand that just as my situation is a moral burden, it is also a moral obligation. I think of the fire-breather on the street corner in Mexico City who wants to write plays, and, in his name, I write plays. He would despise me for not seizing and exercising my gift. And lastly, because it's the most powerful thing I can do for those without a voice, sometimes I try to speak for them, I try to give them a voice. That, actually, is why I wrote this essay.

John Dishwasher

Poverty and Silence