Topsy-Turvy

the cost of assumptions

It’s a question of value and values. It began with larger social structures that required greater organization. Imperceptibly the establishment of a hierarchy reassigned value. In small band level social units, groups of less than 50, everyone knows everyone else. Each individual’s value in the group is equal. As group size enlarges, specialization differentiates individuals from each other. These differentiations initiate a stratified value system that, when left unexamined, leads to exaggerated valuation and devaluation. Soon those given positions of authority begin to take, and feel entitled to, more resources based on the assumption that what they do and know is worth more, and that they are of greater importance. It’s obvious.

There is no pyramid without a base. But when we get fixated on the point at the top, we fail to see what’s holding it up. Without a support system, no high level position can exist, nor does it matter. Take away the basic underpinnings of any presumed great object or system, and the entire house of cards collapses.

There is no skyscraper without a formidable foundation below its facade. The deep structure that supports the enormous weight of hundreds of feet of steel, concrete, glass, furnishings, and people, is unseen—out of sight, out of mind. The internal structure that resists winds and earthquakes is unseen—out of sight, out of mind. The same happens with people. Those who perform the basic functions of society, the service people, construction workers, custodians, are indispensable. High-tech is nowhere without the substructure that makes their work possible. Doctors are irrelevant without farmers. Lawyers are worthless without an entire network of ordinary people who allow them time to specialize in something beyond subsistence. Engineers are extraneous when the streets are overflowing with garbage. Are these specialized jobs really worth more? How much do they contribute to the well being of society? Who can we really do without? Take away the bottom and find out.

There are many sorts of justifications for why higher degrees and greater specialization is worth more. Smarter is worth more. Greater effort is worth more. More education is worth more. Yet, greater knowledge and superior skills are their own reward. Human advances are reliant on those who have the talent and time and drive to pursue knowledge. Not everyone has the interest. It’s a good thing too. How would the time and freedom necessary for these specialized pursuits be possible without ordinary people doing ordinary jobs to pave the way?

We have assumed for millennia that commoners who do basic, everyday work are disposables, like paper cups. We have assumed royalty is worthy of our praise and devotion, like gold. We’ve accepted these assumptions without asking crucial questions. Who is dependent on whom? How is one position worth more than another?

Those in positions of power are utterly dependent on those who are willing to abdicate their power. When the underlings realize their strength, when the privileged realize their weakness, when we shed our upside-down assumptions and reassess our values, we may make claim to a superior society.

Many ideologies come down, in the end, to ways of justifying our sense that we ought to get the greater share. — Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex, 2014

Read part 1 [Based on Science : the cost of ignorance]
Read part 2 [Falsehoods, Fabrications, Fictions : the cost of negligence]
Read part 3 [The Virtual Revolution : the cost of free]

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