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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 nation’s suburban and affluent kids committing some very ugly violent acts?”

Why, indeed.

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 isn’t 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 values—the ones we like to tell ourselves we believe—proclaim 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” people—the 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 one’s success in business—“success” being defined as “prosperity”—and one’s 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, “What’s wrong with me?” Perhaps, the more relevant question is “What’s 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 Arthur’s Court—an expensive restaurant that was located in the Miami Springs Villas at the time and served the best prime rib I have eaten anywhere—and 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 one’s income and social status provide a ready index of one’s moral character is by no means exclusive to our society. It exists in most places that have attained sufficient affluence. I always have suspected that—more than anything else—it 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 it—and that, regardless of our protestations to the contrary, is what most of us refer to when we speak of success.

The other kind of success—the kind that gets little recognition but is far more important—has to do with one’s 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 one’s 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

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