Only words: how attitudes come through
By George A. Ricker
Some years ago, while I was earning my living as a newspaper editor, a press release that came across my desk caught my eye. It opened this way:
Why are some of the nations suburban and affluent kids committing some very ugly violent acts?
The thrust of the piece was that there was an escalating trend of violence being committed by young people from good homes, a trend which might have been caused by overindulgent parents, peer pressure, violence on television and sexual messages in advertising. In retrospect it was a claim that rested more on hysteria than factual knowledge. We now know no such escalation was occurring back then. In fact, violent crime, among teens and adults alike, was on a downturn. Certainly, it existed, but then it always has.
Kids from good homes always have gotten into trouble. The claim that a larger percentage of them were getting into trouble was dubious. Doubtless, more of them were so doing, but that most likely was a reflection of the reality that there were more of them.
At any rate, that isnt what I wanted to write about.
I refer you to the description of kids from good homes. It was clear from the press release that the author was describing kids from the middle class, and lest I be accused of being unduly critical of the author, let me make it clear I am not.
The use of the word good in the context is common. I doubt the author had any reason to give it a second thought.
But I suggest that we, as a society, ought to.
If middle-class homes are good and upper-class domiciles represent the best homes, then what adjective is appropriate to describe the rest of the population. Are all homes whose occupants exist on an income below a certain level bad homes? Are the children who come from those homes, by definition, bad kids, as the children who are raised in middle-class homes are good kids?
In such innocent statements, we reveal much about the values that are practiced in our society. They are not the values we preach.
Our mythical valuesthe ones we like to tell ourselves we believeproclaim that everyone is as good as everyone else. But in the real world, how good you are is directly proportional to income and social station. And, of course, we always are amazed when good people go wrong. We expect it from the bad peoplethe ones at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.
There was a time in our history when such values were proclaimed blatantly. It was an article of faith among many of the faithful (and still is among some today) that there was a direct correlation between ones success in businesssuccess being defined as prosperityand ones success spiritually.
The deity, it was then believed, rewarded the faithful with material prosperity. And the unspoken reverse of that tenet also was believed. Those who were not faithful might be punished with poverty. Thus, those who were prosperous were good; those who were not were bad. Such values are still proclaimed from some pulpits even today, but not from most.
However, in the unspoken language of human attitudes, such values still dominate our society.
Third World nations are inferior not simply because they are different, but chiefly because they are poor.
The person who does not succeed in business, i.e. make piles of money and live in a big house on the hill, is somehow inferior to one who does. The one who does not often can be heard asking, Whats wrong with me? Perhaps, the more relevant question is Whats wrong with us?
Kids who come home from school full of enthusiasm over their latest career choice often are met with a single question from mom or dad, So how much can you make?
Anyone who goes to a party in the company of strangers is likely to be asked, What do you do? The what refers to how you choose to earn a living. And, of course, the unspoken premise is, If I know what you do, I will know who you are. I once totally confused a fellow at one party I attended by answering his query with the statement, I play chess and read a lot. As I walked away, I could see him standing there, a puzzled look on his face, trying to figure out a job description that matched the activities.
An entrepreneur I knew in my youth used to have a busy lawn-maintenance operation. It earned him a comfortable living but absolutely no social status. Being good people is not just a matter of money.
At any rate, he used to delight in going to King Arthurs Courtan expensive restaurant that was located in the Miami Springs Villas at the time and served the best prime rib I have eaten anywhereand on being asked the question What do you do? would respond with the statement, I cut grass. He said it drove his wife crazy, but generally kept him from having to spoil his dinner with a lot of inane conversation with some truly boring people.
The notion that ones income and social status provide a ready index of ones moral character is by no means exclusive to our society. It exists in most places that have attained sufficient affluence. I always have suspected thatmore than anything elseit was created by the good people themselves, to justify their own possessions.
It is part of a larger addiction, a greater myth, the one that says everything must have a reason.
If the poor are poor because they are bad people, then we safely may dismiss them from consideration. If we are well-off because of some intrinsic virtue, then things are as they should be. Of course, the truth is much more complex than that.
While there can be no denying that hard work and self-discipline are required to achieve success in any endeavor, it is equally undeniable that those virtues are not the exclusive property of the middle and upper classes. I have known enough poor people to know that most of them are not averse to hard work, nor are they lacking in self-discipline. Indeed, the lives they must live require much more of both than is commonly supposed.
What is overlooked in the equation of wealth and social standing with virtue is the random element we call luck. And without in any way diminishing the efforts of people who have achieved success in their chosen fields of endeavor, I suggest that luck, both good and bad, plays a large part in the final outcome of those efforts. Thus, it probably is a mistake to assign too much importance to the achievement of material success or the lack of itand that, regardless of our protestations to the contrary, is what most of us refer to when we speak of success.
The other kind of successthe kind that gets little recognition but is far more importanthas to do with ones net worth as a human being, the contribution one makes to the society in which he or she lives, the positive values one practices in daily life.
In that area, it is my observation that virtue bears little relationship to either the size of ones bank account or the social station one has achieved.
In that area, the poor are as likely to be good as any other class.
On the day when we finally understand that poverty really is not a crime and can begin dealing with people who are poor as individuals and not as members of a class of undesirables, we will have gone a long way toward maturing as a society.
© 2008 by George A. Ricker