Archive for February, 2013

The Spirit Level

Posted: February 25, 2013 in Society

Self-flagellation: the act of methodically beating or whipping one’s body as practised by some religious orders.

There are two occasions when I consider beating myself like Silas from The Da Vinci Code to be appropriate: when I have embarrassed myself in respected company and when I have carelessly left a valuable possession on public transport. The two occasions appear unrelated, except to suggest that I am a tad bumbling. According to my current read however, they are strongly related. It’s all down to living in an unequal country, say Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

I am a latecomer to The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, which was first published in 2009. Throughout the work the authors draw on a dazzling number of sources to demonstrate how the more unequal a society is in terms of wealth, the more social ills that society has.

More unequal societies have higher rates of obesity, homicide, teenage pregnancy, mental illness, and illiteracy. They also have higher rates of incarceration and, unsurprisingly, lower rates of social mobility and lower life expectancy. Just to clarify, the authors argue it is inequality (the difference between how much the top 20% earn and the bottom 20% earn) which causes all of these problems, not poverty (average income of a society). There is, according to the data presented, only a weak relationship between health/social problems and poverty.

The UK is a good example of an unequal society. The top 20% of earners in the UK are roughly seven times richer than the bottom 20% of earners. The top 10% earn 12 times as much as the bottom 10%. Income inequality in the UK is actually growing faster than any other rich country, according to an OECD report in 2011.

That’s all very interesting, but how does it establish a relationship between feeling embarrassed in public and feeling regret when you leave your camera on a bus? And what on earth does it have to do with the act of whipping oneself? Well, this is the interesting part. It turns out that I am not the only person to handle mortification with mortification of the flesh.

If you live in an unequal society you are more likely to suffer from evaluation anxiety, also known as status anxiety. It’s the hyper-awareness of your place in society and the feeling that other people are constantly sizing you up.

“Instead of accepting each other as equals on the basis of our common humanity as we might in more equal settings, getting the measure of each other becomes more important as status differences widen. We come to see social position as a more important feature of a person’s identity.”

If you’ve ever felt out of place at a party it’s probably because you grew up in a society which trains you to be highly sensitive to your place in the order of things. Unless you are in the higher echelons you are likely to rank yourself lower in the social spectrum, resulting in feelings of shame – the same kind of shame which religious devotees might experience before picking up the whip. Some people combat this feeling with an inflated sense of importance. Adolescents are more sensitive than others to status, which explains why many go through bouts of depression and self-harm.

Unequal societies also have lower levels of trust. The British trust other people less than the Swedes, for example. As such, British people are more suspicious of others’ motives and generally more afraid of crime. The feeling of regret when you leave a valuable possession on a bus is, I imagine, more intense in the UK than it is in Sweden. In a country where everybody mistrusts each other, your initial reaction to leaving a camera/wallet/mobile behind is not “I’ll get it back in a few days,” but rather, “It’s gone for good!”

Having lived for a short time in one of the most equal developed societies in the world (Japan) and grown up in one of the most unequal developed societies (UK), I believe The Spirit Level’s conclusions are correct. The Japanese are famously modest in social interaction, rarely exhibiting a puffed-up sense of importance or asking questions which might embarrass someone. A common question when you meet somebody for the first time in the USA or Britain is, “What do you do for a living?” If you’ve ever been unemployed, you’ll know what an insidious question this is. The Japanese almost never ask this. In my experience of Japanese social interaction, people do not “size each other up” like we do.

They also trust each other more, and with good reason. When I left my wallet on a local train going from Okayama to Osaka I thought I would never see it again. Millions of passengers ride local trains each day, so the chances of it being handed in seemed slim. “What a dolt I am,” I sighed. Despite my doubts I reported the lost wallet at Osaka Station and borrowed money from a friend to carry on my journey to Tokyo. Two weeks later I received a package in the post containing my wallet. Everything was there – my credit card, my ID, even my cash. Not a single yen had been stolen.

My initial self-rebuke turned out to be unfounded. There was no need for mental self-flagellation because in a country where crime is relatively low and more people trust each other, valuable items are not stolen from buses. Or not as frequently, anyway.

The Spirit Level is an important book because it explains what many of us have felt, but didn’t have the statistics to prove: that a more equal society benefits all of us, in body, mind and soul.

What is the road to Skid Row paved with? I’ve ruminated on this question since I decided to steal the title of Orwell’s book and change it for my own story. In asking this question several others sprang up:

What brings a person to the point of homelessness? What brings a nation to the point of accepting it? What forces send a man or woman onto the streets? Are they purely economic, social, and cultural? Or are they simply the arbitrary forces of suffering? The forces which drove Lear mad and impelled Buddha to sit under a tree?

A better question might be: what is the road to Skid Row? I see it as a personal and a societal journey; it’s a road individuals take from poverty to destitution, but it’s also a road we all take. The road to Skid Row is the economic, social and cultural force which sends vulnerable people onto the streets. From a socio-economic point of view, it is lack of affordable housing and healthcare, crippling debts, low wages and lack of (meaningful) employment. From a cultural point of view, it is intimately tied to race and economic background. From a personal point of view, it is frustration, mental illness and despair.

I will attempt to answer my original question with another question: Is the road to Skid Row paved with the fallout of the American Dream? If the American Dream is a dream of improvements for all, then yes. A place like Skid Row is incompatible with the idea of upward mobility. You can’t jerk off to success like Horatio Alger did when you sleep on the streets.

The American Dream is dead, that much is beyond doubt. The dream of social mobility – the idea that you can start poor and improve your lot – died sometime in the early 1970s when planners began what Noam Chomsky calls the “financialization of the economy” , leading to greater and greater inequality. In the absence of the American Dream we have the road to Skid Row.

Roads are man-made things. They aren’t valleys or cliffs; they are not created gradually over millions of years. The road to Skid Row is no different. People who walk down it do so for various reasons, but the road itself is built and maintained by the powers that run this country. It’s like any other highway, except it only goes in one direction and the tolls literally bankrupt you. Once you exit there’s no getting back on, and the off-ramps always catch you off-guard.

The road to Skid Row is real: it carries people from poverty to destitution. But it is also an idea, the idea that the road is just the way it is. The road to Skid Row is an extreme example of roads we all walk down, roads which are built for us by political and economic power, illuminated by money and status, and paved with fears and hopes.

All roads are channels dug in our minds which trickle our thoughts and emotions in calculated directions. They are channels which were mapped out for us, but the map was hidden so we think the channels were made my nature, like a stream forming a river, when they were actually blasted out with dynamite.

I am one of the lucky ones: I only visited Skid Row, I didn’t end up there. As such I have certain responsibility. For me, that responsibility starts in the mind. If I understand how the road to Skid Row was built in the first place, I’ll have a better idea of how to destroy it.