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.

  1. dg says:

    Interesting post…do The Spirit Level’s authors say anything about urban vs rural? I’ve always found rural people in my country to be more grounded, and less likely to be influenced by what others think.

  2. springs94 says:

    Yes Tom I read the book too.
    Not convinced the Brits do not trust each other .
    I think we do but not as much as the Japanese.
    Good writing.

  3. Tom Mellors,

    I have not read anything, to be fair, that has gripped me from the first few lines. You had me intrigued, gripped even. I agree on most opinions and facts you pointed out. UK has become very insecure and perhaps, distant. I blame social networks for this, we all crave attention online and think because we have 1,000 friends on Facebook we are very popular, wrong. This is making people ignorant. We do not go up to strangers, poke them, then say hi. In UK this would, more then likely, end up you being punched or worse. The feeling of losing something precious to you, be it a camera or a mobile phone, the first feeling i get is embarrassment. I think back on what could be on my phone or camera, then i feel the sense of dread. Will they know it is mine and instead of handing it back, point and laugh? Then i feel anxious, a sense of loss, followed by self-hatred, resulting in self-harming. . I can not compare UK to Japan because i have not been there, i do not know facts, only relying on what you are telling me, and i have no reason to disprove.
    I have truly enjoyed your write and will continue to read more of your blog.

  4. tommellors says:

    Thank you Mitzee, indeed the internet and technology may also have an impact on how we behave around each other. I’m interested to read this book:

    If you read it before me, let me know what you think. Thanks!

    • Tom Mellors,

      I looked this book up on Amazon, the site you attached in your reply, and it seems a very fascinating book to read. I will order this maybe in a week or two.
      Please, if you read before me feel free to express your opinion and, once I have read the book i also will tell you my opinion. Thank you for sharing your interest with me.

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