****I’m fully aware that this entry is entirely passive-aggressive. I’ve decided that some people just aren’t worth arguing with, but their mad ravings still sometimes touch on issues that are at least worth talking about. So that’s what I’m doing****
Humans seem a species of extremely contradictory impulses: we cooperate and help each other, but also compete in the most brutal, violent ways with each other. Part of this can simply be explained by in-group vs. out-group behavior, since all social animals behave more cooperatively with their own, while at the same time fiercely fighting other groups. However, to my limited knowledge, animals are usually consistent in how this plays out. For example, bonobo groups seem to consistently be “tolerant”, cooperative, and relatively non-hierarchical, whereas chimpanzee groups seem to be consistently combative (though this seems limited to threats rather than real violence), and strongly hierarchical. Humans on the other hand seem to be able to form both kinds of in-group behavior, to different degrees, and in different combinations. I’m not going to speculate right now why humans have more plasticity in this regard, but I do want to look at what circumstances cause (ohhh fine, “are correlated with” ;-) ) such differences in in-group interaction styles.
For starters, let’s get the racist trope out of the way and admit that the type of interaction doesn’t seem to be genetically correlated; rather, it seems a cultural meme, but one that is extremely deeply ingrained in us, possibly from very early on, and possibly one of the most difficult to alter once it’s taken root. Further, it seems a cultural meme correlated with socioeconomic systems***, as well as the cultural narratives that go with them (for example, the Dutch narrative of “being in it together”(because it they don’t cooperate, they get flooded); vs. the USAmerican narrative of “rugged individualism” and stories of “rags to riches”).
And how precisely do the narratives correlate? Let’s just say that “it’s complicated”1*: human societies aren’t monolithic, static “cultures”, but rather complex webs of more or less dominant and predominant subcultures, with different socio-economic situations and different combinations of narratives. However, most societies do tend to have a dominant narrative that permeates most, if not all, subcultures. And it’s these dominant narratives I want to look at right now**
As I said (and as the link in the last paragraph says), the dominant narrative in the States is that of individual achievement. This doesn’t automatically mean that it’s ruthless, violent, unfair, or whatever, but the focus of the narrative is on hard work and on earning all one’s achievements. Rights and entitlements are limited to the freedom to do something, and the “equality of opportunity”, i.e. freedom from being discriminated against in comparison to others. As I’ve written before, this results sometimes (and especially in subcultures with white, male, middle-class privilege) in the disappearance of systemic explanations. From this is born the perspective that everything that interferes with individual equality is unfair, even if it exists to fix systemic imbalances. Similarly, it is only considered fair to have gotten something by earning it****, and any sort of support from the government is considered cheating others2. IOW getting something with assistance for which someone else had to bust their ass is automatically considered unfair. This creates the paranoid narrative of slashing social programs because somewhere someone will be cheating the system.
It doesn’t help of course that individual achievement, in the context of capitalism, means competing with absolutely everyone else for everything. Again, the only rule of fairness is “freedom from discrimination”; beyond that, it’s every person for themselves. The cultural empathy begins to break down at this point, and people with whom you were previously merely in competition within the hierarchy of your in-group begin shifting out and becoming more and more members of an out-group. I’m not even going to contemplate the degree of sociopathy possible in a situation when virtually everyone you see in your daily life is a “them” rather than an “us”, but the virulence of the teabaggers and of USAmerican religious groups aren’t what I’d consider a sign of a healthy society.
On the other hand, certain European cultures (most notably the Scandinavian ones, but it varies) have, to varying degrees, narratives of cooperation. Because they are still capitalist countries, these narratives are somewhat muted, but they do show up in regards to issues that are not part of the market economy, such as education, healthcare, and welfare provisions (and in some cases even law enforcement; a contrast between the way the Swedes approach this issue and the way the States do makes that pretty damn clear, I think). In such narratives of cooperation, all people are considered to be equally entitled to a certain level of service as an inherent right. As such, they are provided on a collective basis (taxes), and those who are disadvantaged are expected to receive extra assistance, so that they can take advantage of these services in the same way and to the same degree that the already privileged do. The sense of fairness is not violated by this, because everybody expects that they would receive the very same assistance if they found themselves in that situation. On the other hand, refusing to contribute one’s fair share is seen as unfair, and will result in hostile feelings or actions against those who are perceived as cheating (this is also why these systems only work with taxes, rather than voluntary donations: voluntary participation always leaves behind that sneaky feeling that others aren’t contributing their fair share)
This collective narrative of “we’re all in it together” can provide bridges between disparate groups, or at least weaken the competitiveness between subcultures within a society (the existence of violent subcultures is a pretty damn good sign that something somewhere failed in the system, as far as I’m concerned). Even if a particular individual may not empathically identify with their society and the people they share that society with (in the sense of feeling part of a real community), they still will not see others as their competition, as part of “them”. The othering only happens when, like I said, some people are perceived as not contributing a fair share to the common good, hence the occasional outbreak of the “Tall poppy syndrome”, and general hatred of people who use tax havens and cheat on their taxes.
And now, finally, to the point: the clash between these narratives of cooperation and competition is what causes certain people to starfart about “leeches” who are trying to steal other people’s spots on the employment ladder by wanting (or worse yet, feeling entitled to) advantages others didn’t get. When in reality, there is no “wanting advantages others didn’t get”, but rather the feeling that everybody is entitled to these advantages, according to their needs, which of course includes oneself.
Besides, I couldn’t give a flying fuck about climbing the employment ladder. I already have a job, and one which blissfully avoids the need for ladders and bosses and co-workers. The reason I want that university degree is because I want a job in which I can actually help make the world a bit better. My current job, as nice as it is, is completely meaningless and useless. I’d like to do something constructive, to basically make people better, not compete with them. Competition is stressful, and therefore not good for my mental health. Fuck competition.
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*this one is from a book, so it’s long and it’s missing 4 pages due to preview restrictions, but it’s very interesting; also, pp. 85-92 have a discussion of the terms/concepts, but there’s two pages missing there, too. Also, I so need to buy that book someday, I think!
**though, thinking about how dominant narratives combine with alternative ones to create some truly fucked up combinations made me think about the teabaggers (the ones that aren’t just plain old racist assclowns, that is); but I’ll write about that tomorrow ( or the day after :-p), because it’s already late, and I haven’t gotten any work done yet.
***this may be true in different ways. For one, there’s a strong correlation between inequality and competitive interaction (most noticeably physical violence, but also predominance of libertarian and/or macho attitudes, as well as punitiveness), and inequality itself is obviously caused by the proportions of socialism and capitalism in any given mixed economy; but it is also possible that cultural narratives shape both the type of interaction AND the socioeconomic model.
****but of course not being aware of one’s own privilege makes it difficult or impossible to perceive the advantages one got a priori, without having earned them.