Val’s View: Winners and Losers

Winners and Losers

By V.J. Leventhal

For as long as I can remember, our culture has taught a competitive model in which everyone is supposed to work toward being “the best,” and anything less than the top position in any endeavor is seen as unworthy of notice. This impossible pyramid makes no sense for the lives of 99% of us. I see it as a misinterpretation of a valid goal of striving for excellence. In reality, there is no “best.” Even among top athletes, where the competition is clear and easy to define (the one with the most points wins the game), players will tell you that the most you can say is that on a given day, in a particular match, someone came out the winner. On another day, with the same competitors, the results may differ. And what sense does it make to call someone the best actor or singer or painter, when these things are so subjective? All this comparing and ranking mostly benefits people whose main concerns are things like market share and sales tallies. The result is a load of low self-esteem for most people, and a weight of unrealistic expectations for those at the perceived “top.”

In the 1960s, experiments in alternative education created methods such as mastery learning, in which each student works at their own pace through a graduated system of material. With the supervision of a teacher, one student may speed through spelling and grammar while another struggles, but no one is held back or pushed too fast. Everyone learns at their own rate, and the teacher is freed to spend more time with the slower learners who need her, while the faster kids are able to move forward and stay interested. It seems to me that since we are all here, a more serious attempt needs to be made to address the needs of every individual, not just those seen as superior.

Obviously, people have different skills and different tasks requiring different skill sets. If you’re having brain surgery, you want the neurosurgeon, not the plastic surgeon, or the union electrician, but this is no way indicates that the neurosurgeon is a superior being to the electrician, or any other person. When we say that one person is superior to another with no specific context, then that is prejudice. The ego leads us to take that step over the rational line. Then we build an unjust world and use all kinds of nonsense to justify it. Unrealistic expectations are held out as golden rings everyone should be grabbing for: who really thinks they will win an Oscar, find a cure for cancer, etc. In our culture, we say that we’re raising our kids to be the best they can be, but often we are over-emphasizing the word “best.”

So what happens when we realize we aren’t “best” at something? Or even worse, when we realize we are seen as inferior because of things over which we have no control, such as height or IQ? We become demoralized. We are ready then to give away our power and self-esteem just because of some arbitrary perceived ranking in society. In a recent interview I saw with actor Michael Caine, he described the burden of class in his native England. Because of his Cockney accent, he experienced discrimination and found it difficult to get cast in British films, where actors were expected to speak in an upper class accent. He then talked of his feeling of liberation when he came to America he called it the “disappearance” of class. But America is simply riddled with class prejudice based on our own regional accents, skin color, clothing, occupation, looks, and of course, money.

In this great engine of capitalism, money rules. One can be forgiven physical unattractiveness, skin color, low birth, lack of talent, brains, and even character, if you have enough money. Money confers automatic superiority, and the assumption is that everyone follows, or should follow, the money trail.

I had a conversation with a young neighbor a few years ago when the housing bubble had not yet burst and lots of speculators were looking for bargain houses to buy, fix, and “flip,” for a profit. We were discussing houses foreclosed for unpaid taxes (sometimes a few hundred dollars) and sold at auction to the highest bidder. He asked me what was wrong with trying to make a profit and build some capital for his future by investing in one of these foreclosures. His argument was that someone was going to profit from the loss of another, so it might as well be him. After all, it wasn’t his fault if some elderly person had been unable to keep their home. It was unfortunate for them, but presented an opportunity for him. He felt that he would increase the value of the property by fixing it up, whereas the previous owner was “doing nothing with it.”

I listened patiently as he made his case, and then I asked him why money, or profit, was the only value he considered. What, I asked, about the value of the house as a home in which a person had lived for many years and in which they wished to remain until their death? What about the decades of hard-earned mortgage payments that had paid for the house? What about the value to the neighborhood and the larger community of having people with a history and a feeling of investment in the area living there? I asked him what kind of society values profit more than people’s lives? He didn’t know what to say. He’d never looked at it that way before. He’d only been thinking that he was a winner, and winners come out on top, and the old person losing their home was a loser, and nothing could be done to change that. I asked him if it didn’t seem that there should be a law, or at least a government program, protecting people who had paid for their homes from losing them over a small tax liability. He agreed that there probably should be, but meanwhile, he was just trying to get ahead.

As long as we are pitted against one another in this super competitive system, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to change our society. We have to re-examine our beliefs. The current economic downturn, combined with the global information collective created by the Internet, is presenting an opportunity for real change by confronting people with the true ugliness and non-sustainability that lies beneath the surface of our culture. If you ask the average middle-class American if they would pay 50 cents more for a pair of shoes so that the people who make the shoes could have a standard of living that would allow them to rise out of abject poverty, they would say yes, of course. But corporate America always frames the question falsely, saying that paying the workers a living wage for their local economic system would double the cost to the consumer, which is just not true. They will never admit that their real concern is their own profits being slightly lower. As a matter of policy, the corporate rulebook says you must never give anything to labor so, no matter what, they will fight a more equitable exchange of money paid for the value of work. The industrialized “first world” nations continues to take unfair advantage of the third world and the poor of their own counties. Saying that this is just the way things have always been and always will be is a rationalization for behavior that should be defined as criminal — abuse and exploitation of people and theft of natural resources are not acceptable practices in a civilized world.

These larger issues come down to some simple questions: Is money more valuable than life? Is one human intrinsically more valuable than another? Who should be allowed to make these decisions?

Let’s look for a minute at life’s “winners.” When people are born into a comfortable and fortunate life, there is an instinctive understanding that they did not earn this position in which they find themselves. Sometimes, the guilt and fear of being unmasked as undeserving creates feelings of inferiority.

Occasionally, this leads to a constructive revelation that anyone can be lucky or unlucky and therefore we should help those in need. But sometimes it leads to the defense mechanism of assumed superiority. In the Gilded Age before the Great Depression, and in recent years before the economic meltdown, wealthy people turned their backs on the poor. In order to enjoy their own good fortune, they found it necessary to be insensitive to those less fortunate. They felt that they must be superior, or why were they doing so well? Therefore the poor must be inferior, and impossible to help, and somehow deserving of their plight. So terrifying as to be unthinkable would be the idea that the mighty too, can fall.

The idea that some poor people are deserving and some are not, has led to the mess in our social welfare system, which in many ways acts more as a job program for the middle class than an agent for helping the poor, and spends more time and money harassing and screening people out than it does actually helping needy people.

What if we understood, especially now when there aren’t nearly enough jobs for people who need them, that anyone who is needy is deserving of help? Instead of judging them, we should concentrate on finding sustainable ways to help people. We certainly don’t judge whether rich people are deserving. There is a great line from the movie “Sabrina,” when Sabrina’s father, a chauffeur, says, “No one poor was ever called democratic for marrying someone rich.” I love this insight. In a Democracy, rich and poor are supposed to be of equal innate value equal as citizens with a vote, and equal in their rights and treatment by society, but of course, we always consider rich people to be better than poor people. Rich people get all the media attention, all the price breaks and tax breaks. Our courts and our police and our government serve the wealthy over the poor.

I see hopeful signs in the world that a new era is struggling to emerge, where human beings have more value than the creation of vast wealth, but we have such a long way to go. We need to develop the fundamental idea that there are ways of living that are win/win rather than win/lose. There must be more control by individuals over their own lives and livelihoods, but still the potential for success that drives the entrepreneur to greater heights. There most be protection from predators and exploitive practices, but also freedom to explore new ideas and capital to develop them. We can create a world that works sustainably and profitably for all of us, but first we must believe that this is possible.

Let’s work on redefining the game. With some loving kindness, some creativity, and the will to make it so, we can all be winners.

To contact the author, email VJLeventhal@LTSaloon.org

2009 V.J. Leventhal. All Rights Reserved.