A while ago I read ‘The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone‘. It presents evidence that a whole host of societal problems, from poor health to low educational attainment to crime, are related to inequality within rich nations – and not to the average wealth of the nation. The data apparently show that wellbeing is reduced for nearly everyone in unequal societies as compared to more equal societies, to varying degrees, with the poor being the most affected.
This radical idea, naturally, is hotly contested, and the arguments are quite technical. I’ve watched a debate between the authors and their critics, and I wasn’t convinced by the criticism of the authors’ statistical methods. (I’m no statistician, but I do use statistics in my research.)
What I found most compelling, though, was the authors’ explanation for this effect in terms of human psychology; in particular, status anxiety. The idea being that the further down the social ladder you are, the worse you feel about yourself, and the more stressed you are. Even though most of us do have the ‘real’ necessities – a roof over our heads and food on the table – what we tend to consider necessities depends strongly on the norms around us; if everyone seems to have a car, we will become convinced we need one too, when the real motivation underlying this is often the desire to keep up.
This shouldn’t be dismissed as pathetic weakness: everyone, to some degree, needs a certain amount of approval from their peers. It’s part and parcel of being a social animal. Battling the wind and rain with an umbrella and waiting patiently for the green man while warm, dry people in cars sail past, is psychologically painful; it seems that we can endure all manner of discomforts if we see others are going through it too, but when we feel that others are somehow managing to avoid that discomfort, we (perhaps unconsciously) conclude that we are not managing, and that it is a failure on our part.
I read this book at a point where I was starting to notice just how much I care what other people think. I had also recently been to see ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ no less than three times in the cinema – each time crying through more and more of it in sympathy with this poor character inside the video game who, having been programmed to play the role of the bad guy, has to face unbearable discrimination from his peers because of it and live as a second-class citizen in the world of the arcade. The bad guys from all across the arcade have even formed a support group – Bad-Anon – in which they work hard to affirm themselves, love themselves despite the way others see them, and find the strength to carry on with their thankless jobs, taking it “one game at a time”. Something in me was identifying with this character and it was triggering floods of tears.
I had started to fall prey to status pain in my mid-twenties, after graduating and failing to get the expected graduate career off the ground; such a ‘quarter-life crisis’ was not that uncommon. Yet I remember taking inspiration from the story of Jewel, who, right before shooting to musical fame, gave up her accommodation to live in her car, so she would have the freedom to pursue a more spiritually nourishing life than working a soul-destroying job just to pay rent. I was inspired not by her meteoric success, but by the joy in comparative needlessness that she had embodied prior to it. I wished to follow suit, to opt out of the struggle to ‘make it’.
The six months I spent in Malawi before university had also had a lasting impact on me. In Malawi there was nothing wrong with not having a car, or with carrying your baby tied to your back with a big piece of fabric, or with a sizeable family sharing a small house. Of course there is plenty that is wrong with real poverty, but life in the UK, by contrast, seemed unnecessarily cluttered and obscenely luxurious. There is also more day-to-day stress over here, which seemed perverse. I suppose it felt normal there to live simply; I have tried to hold onto that, while not feeling my own society permits it.
Inverted material values – not wanting to be wealthy – are usually either a luxury of the privileged, or a defense allowing the materially untalented to maintain some pride in themselves. There might be an element of both for me, along with a degree of over-romanticising: I’m sure most Malawians would prefer a first-world lifestyle if they could have it.
That’s not to say that there isn’t truth in the belief that there is a better quality of life to be had (and ultimately, a more civilised society) by being satisfied with less. I do believe most people in the west could stand to fret less over material security. But the fact is, my ongoing status pain is what fuels my rebelliousness; it gives it a fiery, tearful edge.
Maintaining inverted values as a defense is quite different from what Bad-Anon is about: Bad-Anon starts with openly acknowledging the pain that comes from being different. It fosters acceptance of that difference and its negative implications, which can’t be changed, while also trying to identify positives.
I guess the problem is that we see our material attainments as being a measure of how valuable we are. In our warped heads, good personal qualities count for very little if they don’t translate into material success. Luck has nothing to do with it either. A corollary of this belief is that everyone is fully deserving of their lot in life. Which, let’s face it, is an attitude that goes hand in hand with relatively unrestrained capitalism and, therefore, highly unequal wealth distributions.
It also goes hand in hand with prejudice. I hate it when religious beliefs divide people into “us” and “them”, the good and the bad. The concept of “enemy groups” that deserve no mercy can be seen in secular contexts too: when western islamophobics attack mosques and intimidate Muslims, it becomes impossible to tell the difference between them and the Islamic extremists, except for labels. Yet to such people, when you are on the wrong ‘side’, you are the only one responsible for that, not accidents of birth (or computer programming 🙂 ) or anything else.
I’m in the process of buying a first home, with my new partner. It’s been a very exciting and happy time, as getting my own place is something I’ve been pining to do for years and years, and it always felt beyond me. It doesn’t have the potential to be a spacious family home, and I don’t have a permanent job either. But it is a gorgeous old flat and I can see it filled from floor to ceiling with love. There is plenty to be thankful for.
I’m taking it one game at a time.