I’ve spent a fair amount of time discussing the role of social status in our lives today. The prevailing theme has been that we are genetically programmed to pay close attention to where we stand in the hierarchy and to take actions that lead to an elevation of our status. Moreover, this genetic influence is causing us more harm than good. What may surprise you is that I really believe things are not now as bad as they have been in the past. That, however, is not to say that there is nothing more to do to eradicate this negative influence from our lives. But first, a little history.
Status hierarchies in caveman days were true indicators of who would survive long enough to reproduce. Those at the top got access to the limited resources that provided for survival in the most inhospitable environment our species has ever seen. Those at the bottom, and their genes, disappeared, never to be heard from again. As time went on, however, humans learned to conquer their environment to the point that living and dying had less and less to do with status. Nevertheless, with the caveman genes intact, the quest for status lived on (and still does).
Bands of humans grew into tribes, which eventually grew into full-blown societies. An interesting feature of these societies is that status came to become codified, so to speak. In the Victorian era, for example, all people, at least all sane people, generally knew how things were. In those days, there definitely were some folks who were “better” than others, and this meant something concrete. It meant that the better did not have to treat lesser men with respect. This is mainly because the success of the lesser man was economically connected to the whims of upperclassmen.
Let’s think of ourselves, for a moment, as commoners in Victorian England. Suppose a Duke decides that we will no longer serve as a domestic in his home (where we have been making next to nothing, but we have a roof over our head). He need not offer a reason or be in any way conciliatory. We simply have no recourse. The government isn’t set up that way. And make no mistake – the consequences of being disfavored by the upper class are serious. If we can’t keep our job, we’re likely to end up on your own, trying to eek out a living in the parts of town that don’t see many members of the royal family. No, our only hope for remaining in the employ of a member of the noble class is to adhere to some very specific interpersonal rules. The kicker is the first – we are our class and will never rise above it. Next, our class says that we are to be seen only when needed and heard only when addressed. We must answer their questions; they need not even acknowledge ours. That’s how it is, and if things get rough on occasion, that’s how it is, too. No one said life would be easy.
Now, admittedly, we could resist, and certainly some folks do. However, we can look in the gutters at the remains of plenty of those who’ve resisted and failed. It isn’t pretty. We keep concluding that our best bet is to accept our lot in life and get as much out of it as we can. If we can’t be royalty, we might as well live for and in the presence of it. If anything, this takes a lot of the unpredictability out of life, which is quite an achievement in itself.
One of the hardest things about being a commoner is the fact that the ebb and flow of necessary resources, such as food and shelter, can be excruciating. There are quite a lot of people clamoring for many scarce things. The early bird definitely gets the worm, when there is one. The bottom line is that it’s a lot of scratching and struggling for a meager reward, but the reward is sustenance, at least for a while. Getting on board with the social structure established by the upper classes provides an avenue to the stable provision of life’s staples – food to eat and a safe, reliable place to stay.
Now let’s come back to reality. I cite the Victorian era as an example of how social structures became implicitly understood, but England isn’t the only example. Indeed, I can’t think of a single lasting society that didn’t arrive at a similar type of social structure. The real story is the societies that managed to take these anachronistic notions of status and place them on the sidelines. The United States stands out as the brightest instance.
On the matter of human rights, America’s philosophy came about via a strong reaction against the idea that some people are better than other people, simply by virtue of their birth. The laws of the land were built around the idea that all men are equal in the eyes of the law. The result has been the most powerful force for good that has ever existed on this planet. Never before had common men been given the chance to become uncommon, and this, it turns out, has made all the difference. But, regardless of the success this concept has spawned from an economic perspective, the past is still a bit of an open wound with many folks in this country, and the negative effects are constantly reverberating through all of us.
“He thinks he’s better than me.” We’ve all heard that statement come out of someone’s mouth. Not referring to anything in particular, just an overall sense of better. This, I believe, is a reflection on the quasi-caste systems of the past. Those who are on, or grew up in close proximity to, the low end of the socioeconomic spectrum are not, mentally speaking, far removed from the days when the mindset of their ancestors was that of the commoner in Victorian England. They had accepted their lower class lot in life. And, to their chagrin, as generations went on and they were emancipated, they continued to occupy the lower class of the free people, the people supposedly all created equal. Though they knew that the formal notion of better people was gone, they still experienced the same struggle in life that they did as commoners. Nothing much changed. That is, except for the creeping grip of resentment.
To be emancipated and yet powerless breeds contempt, contempt for the unjust system and contempt for the souls who, by the luck of the draw, benefit from it. This is the mindset of too many people nowadays. The thing is that it need not be this way. This notion of being inherently better or worse is utterly vacuous. Gaining a new lease on life, for these, the afflicted, is as easy as rejecting it.
It’s important to us all that these folks get their heads straight. It’ll instantly take a lot of the seething anger out of our society. After all, if you think someone unjustifiably thinks they are better than you, it isn’t hard to find yourself doing things to try to one-up them. It is, in fact, very easy to spend a lot of time trying to prove them wrong. It can get so out of hand that your entire self-opinion and ability to be happy revolves the status of this dispute over your worthiness. Now this may sound childish, but I can absolutely guarantee that a heck of a high percentage of today’s adults can relate to it.
To get around the rat hole that is the lingering concern over social class, one need only commit to rejecting any comparative discussions that do not adequately define terms. The word better is meant to provide information about the relationship of one thing to another, with regard to some characteristic or characteristics. If you don’t say what characteristic you’re talking about, the word “better” has no meaning. Therefore, when the words “better” or “worse” come up, they are considered seriously only if the object of discussion is identified sufficiently. Whamo! Problem solved.
“But, but, but…” they’ll say. No buts, I say. It really is that simple. The foundation of this reasoning is two-tiered. At bottom is the fact that our legal system is egalitarian – laws allow all people equal opportunity to own property and to pursue professions as they see fit. Above that is the fact that individuals from all imaginable backgrounds (even the worst) have successfully navigated our system to find success and happiness in life. Basically, if they can do it, it’s doable. We need only refuse to allow the unqualified notions of better or worse to have any impact on the opinions we form (of ourselves and others) to solve the problem.
The bottom line is that we have indeed come a long way baby. We do not live in a time when status is determined at birth and the chances of rising above are slim to none. We live in a time when the barriers to success are minimal, relatively speaking. More importantly, for the vast majority of Americans, the likelihood of getting over those barriers is primarily a function of their own actions and the decisions they make. This is the key. The idea that some people are inherently better than other people is useless, despite the fact that it is supremely powerful. It is a game with few winners and many losers. The good news is that there is absolutely no reason that anyone should play. I am convinced that the majority of hindrances to any individual’s progress are created in his or her mind. If this is true, then the solution is simply a matter of escorting these deleterious thoughts from one’s consciousness. Though it may be hard at first, it’s worth it, and it gets easier over time. The point has come for those who are playing this terrible game to quit and get on with their lives. We’ll all be better off for it.
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