May 10, 2003

An odd and yet typical exchange today. Walking past, seeing a person working hard, hard! on a patch of earth which was more bare sun-baked soil and crabgrass than cultivated. I smiled at her and probably winced, thinking how much more work there was to do. She got up: "It's not my lawn!"

A good conversation came out of it in the end -- but the first instinct was to assume judgement, and to defend against it. To see is apparently to evaluate. The person measured against the sum and state of possessions -- and thus an urgent remonstrance not to be measured against the current environment. Yet what I saw was that there was much work still ahead of her, in a very warm if not hot sun. Work never stops. It goes on continually, invisibly, behind the sum and state of possessions. This once, it was rawly visible -- and I appreciated all she had already done, and winced for her at how much yet remained. It was the labour I saw, and perhaps the potential of the finished product in her mind. Her willingness to work so hard (and without monetary recompense!) told me that the results of this task was something in which she placed value, paid in the coin of her self.

Would everyone else instead see that its condition reflected her value? Was this why she was so anxious to separate herself from the earth's current state? to aver in effect that she was better than this? (Even if 'this' was only a condition in which work remained yet to be done?)

I wonder sometimes if it is not instinctive with nearly every person to need to see their own value as persons (and consequently their own perspective) as somehow better than another's. Yet to what purpose self-assign such personal superiority? for purpose, I think, is implicit in the action of self-assigning any comparative label. A track athlete may be described as 'faster' than another -- considered a relevant label to their occupation: that of running. Billie Holliday is still considered a superlative jazz singer. Neither would normally be described as 'more' or 'less intelligent' than another: for within their strengths, intelligence is irrelevant. The current existing appearance of one's patch of dirt, apparently, is seen as relevant within my immediate society. Whether one's own work is placed into its condition is not.

Potential conflict arises when one’s personal designation of what should and should not be relevant varies in some way from the dominant culture(s) in that environment. To identify purpose then, it might perhaps be relevant to designate a new classification for comparative labels: those which the existing society generally accepts as reflecting the value of a person; and those it does not.

In the first case, the basis for self-assigned personal superiority would also be shared by the dominant culture(s) of which one is a part: and perhaps serves to justify an existing greater than average access to some valued resource (in this case reputation?). Generally, I think, the immediate society within which I exist would tend to value a person at least partly against the sum and state of possessions (although there would be other measures also): and so disassociation with a now-reality undercutting the self-perception would become imperative when interacting with a person perceived to be sharing the values of that society (me). Another parallel -- but somewhat contradictory -- example would include the basic assumption of the proponents of western meritocracy: that society rewards its members according to their talents and their perseverance (and, ironically, their hard work); in effect, that I have been rewarded because my application of my abilities causes me to deserve to be rewarded.

Yet whether or not others acknowledge one's personal superiority seems to be independent of its perceived existence, which leads to the second case: where the basis for self-assigned personal superiority is not shared by the existing society. In this case, a frequent part of the argument is that the basis for measurement should be relevant to greater society (and once it correctly is, access to some valued resource must necessarily increase proportionately). Not infrequently this argument is used to justify actions which would bring about such reallocation of resources: ranging from unionisation (increased societal value of labour generally, gradually shifting into increased value of length [implied superior loyalty] -- rather than quality or efficiency -- of labour) to libertarianism (which some would name anarchy: the existing governmental structure not measuring up to the superior ability of the individual to manage their own affairs) to teacher protest actions demanding the value of their work be 'appropriately' acknowledged and compensated, to a perceived military élitism which, interestingly, in conscription cultures frequently becomes almost its opposite: a contempt of all things military.

In general, the rarer the skill or quality, the more a society seems to value it -- but this may again be a matter of perception rather than actuality. A society generally perceives that effective parenting or effective teaching is something 'anyone' can do -- and so it is accordingly valued less highly. How many factions argue that enlightened votes can only arise as a result of an appropriate combination of education, culture, military service? A culture which requires its citizens to perform military service will tend to see its troops differently than a culture in which all military personnel apply as volunteers and are subject to extensive and continued screening in order to be accepted and to advance. A culture which is grounded in the belief of meritocracy must assign personal value based upon education and income and other external markers: and never mind whether the degree was bought or the income inherited. A culture which is strongly nationalistic cannot but assume that those not of its core ethnicity -- or gender! -- will not be able to choose appropriately to perpetuate the interests of the existing status quo. How many factions are already denied the vote in so-called 'democratic' countries? The argument for 'freeing' Iraq and Afghanistan was at least partly that of women's rights: yet in Saddam Hussein's Iraq women had the greatest rights of anywhere in the Arabic world -- while 'democratic' Kuwait continues to be represented by a minority male élite. In both countries existing societal bases for the relative value of an individual's voice were evaluated against an external measure -- but without that measure being applied equally. The application of meritocracy, equality of individuals within democracy, de-stratification of relative value of voice are not the full story here. The external perception of such application within the specific society having the power to apply comes much closer: one reason I suspect the real value being measured may be that of (the capitalist concept of) effective marketing, against a secondary (but related) measuring stick of economic self interest. (The initial concern was not that work be seen being given to that piece of dirt but its actual and immediate appearance: and marketing is a science of appearances.)

Propaganda is always what the other side does.

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