Thursday, April 09, 2009

Kiss up, kick down

I wonder, in the long history of mankind, has there ever been such a thing as a truly egalitarian society? Has there ever existed a civilization that afforded an equal level of respect to each of its members, irrespective of material wealth or physical prowess or mental acuity or some other factor?

I'd guess probably not. Despite our innate sense of morality, our ability to know and perceive evil, our inherent unease with cruelty and brutality, human beings are too susceptible to rationalization and convenience to be hindered by such intangibles as "kindness," "virtue," or "what is right." There is always a justification for ignoring those inner angels who protest when we, for example, force march people from their homes cross-country to a barren desert, allowing them to starve and die of exposure along the way. Or when we round up a particular ethnic group, place them in labor camps and systematically murder them. History is rife with examples: might makes right.

The examples I cited are extremes, but the mentality displayed by many of today's so-called conservatives reveals the root causes of such events. The mindset to which I am referring was revealed in a conversation with a colleague recently. This colleague was irate (apoplectic, in fact) about how President Obama is "steering the country toward socialism."

When I asked which policies were most offensive, I was told that the president was "raising taxes" and thereby punishing "successful" people in order to expand social programs. (There was no mention of any of the administration's specific proposals; it was more of a general objection. No surprise, given that my colleague regularly tunes in to Fox News to watch the Glenn Beck show.)

"I have to work hard for everything I have," said my colleague. "I resent having to give up more of my income so some loser can get a government handout."

This same colleague, however, seemed to have little to say about the hundreds of billions of tax-payer dollars that have been looted from the Federal Treasury by war profiteers, or from individual retirement accounts by ponzi schemers. (Despite the fact that this colleague is in the same line of work as myself, I let the "work hard" assertion go unchallenged.)

I tried pointing out to my colleague that, if she considered the tax dollars wasted by corruption and corporate greed, the amount of money spent on entitlements was a mere pittance. But to no avail. She seemed indifferent to the wrong-doings of the rich and powerful, but utterly outraged over perceived "freebies" that might be afforded to the needy or destitute, whom she deemed lazy.

I was reminded, once again, of how it is that we all impose a hierarchy on ourselves and the people around us. I surmise that my colleague was not outraged about the abuses perpetrated by those "above" her because she accepts and expects it. It's the authoritarian mentality: Of course those above her will treat her with disdain! Of course they will use their positions to take advantage of her! These people are her "betters." Having bought into the myth of a meritocracy, my colleague assumes that the people above her are smarter, more skilled, stronger --which is to say, more deserving of dignity and respect than she.

But the idea that someone who is below her in the hierarchy, some undocumented immigrant, or some unmarried teenage girl with a baby, might gain some relief at her expense is an unbearable affront. Those below her must be kept in their place! How dare the president circumvent the established hierarchy!

(I should also point out my own hypocrisy here. The tone of this post reveals my own hierarchy, does it not? Although I don't hold my colleague in complete contempt (at least, I hope I don't) I find her mentality to be worthy of ridicule and scorn. And my respect for her is less than it was before the conversation. So, in that sense, I have placed her below me in the hierarchy that I perceive. Well, as I've stated before, I do not claim that respect should be unconditional.)

It's a kiss up, kick down world, by God!

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