Friday, March 25, 2011


So?  So you’re higher up the food chain, the status ladder, the hierarchy.  What does it get you?  Bigger bananas?  More chimp sex?   A higher nest on the tree?  No, this is goes deeper than primates.  Probably to the reptile level if not lower.  It’s survival, baby.  Raw survival for you and yours.  It’s another one of those things that can’t be eliminated.  It goes too deep.  But it can be managed.
How do we manage the destructive aspect of the drive to dominate, to control, to eliminate the pecking order? Empathy would be a good start -- understanding how other people feel.  Moving away from leadership as “the last man standing” towards protection of the whole.  Thinking of the entire ecological web and the effect on it rather than encouraging -- romanticizing -- individual “desire.”  Salvation as participation in the grand design instead of personal achievement.  Dropping the idea that virtue leads to prosperity and vice versa -- although, truthfully, there is a pretty strong relationship.
Can stigma be eliminated?  The most dangerous dimension of it is the internalization of self-blame, guilt where there really IS no crime.  It marks the person so that others have permission to abuse, which deepens the stigma both in the victim and in society.  Once a girl has been raped, if she accepts self-blame, she attracts other rapists.  Once the boy has been beaten up, if he show signs of it, the bullies will flock to him.  What they sense is not their own strength, because they are not strong, but their own weakness which they try to address by the nonsensical and ineffective attack on the person in which they see their own weakness.
Well, la-de-dah.  How does that work out in real life?  Not so well.  That’s why we need “game” and alliances and fall-back positions and other niches other places.  After a few days of thought, it seems to me there are two ways to consider class/status/prosperity/success.   Even morality.  One way is what might be called “zero base.”  The other is based on comparison.
“Zero base” is whether you’re well enough situated to survive.  Enough to eat, enough shelter, and so on.  Then maybe (going up the Maslow pyramid) enough to afford your tools, so in my case enough to buy paper and printer toner and internet access.  And next, enough to afford what you’d like: travel, good books, a new toaster, a two-car garage.  (This is not my list, which is monotonous:  books, books, and books.) 
At about that level “zero base” considerations fall out.  Now we’re into comparison and that means class awareness, class yearning, class resentment, the imposition of stigma and force, and a host of less-than-virtuous feelings and actions.  (Less than virtuous because they are personally erosive.)  Class is not about how well things are going in a personal, specific, way but how well things are going compared to the others.  Usually those “others” are not on the broadest scale.  If you’re reading this, you probably are not at the lowest end, say, a skeletal woman with zombie eyes walking across the desert with her most recent baby dying in her arms because her breasts are no more than flaps of skin.  At that end survival is ebbing.
Nor do most of us worry about whether we are beautiful as Liz Taylor, gifted as Richard Burton.  We define our “class” or the one we’d like to belong to, and then compare ourselves to that.  (“Is my butt bigger than x’s?”  “Is my ranch better managed than my neighbor’s?” )  But it makes a huge difference how much we know about others.  This is where the gradient factor kicks in and today we are exposed to gradients more than ever before, both because we travel so much and because we’re constantly exposed to images of others.
California computer millionaire moves to rural Montana and puts up an enormous house.  That’s one thing.  Seattle small-businessman who’s done pretty well moves to Valier and throws his weight around.  That’s another thing.   Blackfeet full-blood gets a grant to visit Bulgaria and comes back chastened by visiting a respected elder professor who lives in a one-room stone cottage with a hook on the wall for his Sunday suit and a bed built into the corner because there is only wood enough for one leg -- the other corners attach to the walls.   There is one hen who lays one egg which is given to the guest.
We watch each other out of the corners of our eyes.  This IS primate stuff.  Is that other monkey getting grapes when I’m being stuck with only a slice of cucumber?  Much is eye-based, what you can see.  Presentation.  Facade.  Appearance.  Certainly sells stuff.  Great for the plastic surgeon, who has to defend his or her morality by saying they also do cleft-palate repair for toddlers or by finding studies that prove good-looking people make more money than ugly people.  (WHAT!!  THEY DO??  Is my nose too big?)  
Comparisons at some levels have become taboo.  The differences are too emotionally hot to be shared: sexual apparatus and practices, the true value of a rancher’s holdings, your actual IQ, whether your mother loved you.  (Well, after the level necessary for your survival, obviously.)  When we began to deal with Colonel Harvey in Calgary, we remarked to someone that we’d never heard of him.  They said,  “He’s so rich he can afford to be anonymous.”  In some ways that’s better than being rich enough to do what you want to do without people interfering, but maybe no one is ever that rich.
So what is the what of class status?  First, do you have enough moxie and clout to survive in the basic sense: food, shelter, etc.?  If not, you’d better figure out what to do about it, if only appeal for help.
Second, it’s all a game to play your markers and see where you go.  Your real, personal, intrinsic soul-value has nothing to do with it.

Third, sometimes you’re the bug and sometimes you’re the windshield -- that is, you can’t control everything and should cheerfully take your losses in this game.  The great temptation is to destroy all competitors and that’s where we get into trouble.  Dictators, school shooters, tattletales and back-biters, meddlers and -- let’s be honest -- do-gooders.  Why?  Because they are often proselytizers trying to pull you into their world view because that world view gives them a one-up on you while giving what they do a moral spin.  Morality, like prosperity, is a matter of comparison.  Zero-based or comparative.   Is it your way to be a teetotaler because it’s good for your own health or does it make you “better” than drinkers?  Morality, of course, is the lever for stigma which justifies holding the others down.
Holding others down is a self-destructive class strategy.  Ask those dictators now being thrown out by people who see the rest of the world for the first time and don't like the comparison.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

When I first read James Carse's book "Finite and Infinite Games" some years ago, it was revelatory. It reframed everything.

I've never been innately competitive or dominant. Being an introvert it's not my style. I'm more naturally drawn to infinite games because I don't enjoy conflict. Certainly that''s kept me from becoming a "success" in life on some financial level; and I had conflict about this with my father, when he was alive. But I can honestly say to Dad at this point, "Well, blame yourself, because you raised me with these values." I am only really a fighter when I'm backed into a corner, at which point I can become deadly dangerous.

But how do we play games, since life is a game, that we want to play, when everyone else is playing a different kind of game? That's been a life-long question. Mostly in my case by opting out, by not playing along, and paying the consequences for that with the missed promotion, the too-honest response to people that makes them uncomfortable, the disturbingly insightful remark that a jealous superior will only pass up the food chain if it benefits him and not the company.

Because people live inside a philosophy of lack, rather than rhizomatic abundance, they usually assume they have to be competitive, mean, and nasty, even if it goes against their nature or their morals. That's the price that the capitalist mindset enforces: survival of the fittest. It tends to eliminate the possibility of cooperation or collaboration as somehow "weak." The whole political world has adopted this worldview, to the detriment of every constituent who doesn't want to or know how to play along—which is why lobbyists write the bills that Congress passes. Fierce competition leads to the end of of the world, or at least its corruption.

Hard to reconcile that with Maslow's pyramid of needs. Maslow's schema is more of an infinite, open-ended game, not a closed competitive loop. And that's one reason some other more cynical psychologists have been dismissive of him: finite game players are almost always self-blinded to the possibilities of the infinite game.