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pantodragon

Is there a price for inequality?

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A few years ago I went over to Portugal, travelled round the coast to Spain, and then spent the winter in Spain.

I remember waiting in a bus shelter in Sines, in Portugal, for the bus going down to the south coast. It was a small shelter, like a metal conservatory with windows all round. It had seating round the walls for about 20 people at most, a small booth for the ticket seller at one end, and at the other, toilets.

The ticket seller sat in his booth reading the papers --- it was not really busy. But there was also a cleaning lady, and she was very active. She was all over the place with duster, mop, polish, soap and water; she was round the outsides, even using a chair to reach the gutter and lower roof; she had the seats moved to clean under them, she had the ticket seller out of his booth while she gave that a good going over, and she checked out and cleaned the toilets after anyone used them. There was no nook or cranny too small for her attentions.

There was a wonderful atmosphere in that bus shelter. It almost felt like one was the guest of a considerate hostess who took pride in her ‘home’ --- and that extended to being concerned for the well-fare of her guests. If that woman thought she was doing a menial, low-value job, she gave no hint of it; rather, I had the definite impression of PRIDE; she was no-one’s inferior; the passengers were her guests for as long as they used ‘her’ shelter.

In the UK, the typical Spaniard has been portrayed as a very proud person, and that even extends to the women. In fact, I would say that they have been portrayed as excessively proud, many stories set in Spain revolving round the pride of the characters, and that pride often leading to tragedy. And that proud character could easily be the matriarch.

That winter in Spain I spent in a hotel on the South Coast. It struck me very much that none of the hotel staff, from the chamber maid to the waiter to the barman, thought him/herself in any way inferior to the guests they were serving. They did not take the same pride in their work as that woman in Portugal, but then their circumstances did not, I think, allow it. Some of the waiters and bar-staff, I felt, had something of that pride in their work, but most of the work was too tightly controlled by management for there to be the leeway for staff to take pride in their work. Nevertheless, I very much like the atmosphere created by that Spanish pride --- it created comfortableness, a familiarity that allowed me to feel relaxed around the staff, allowed me to behave towards them in just the same way as towards other guests i.e. to treat them as friends --- I find I am much more comfortable surrounded by friends than by servants.

I had precisely the opposite experience in The Gambia, in Africa: there the Africans made no bones about the fact that they thought that the whites were better than them. When I asked what made them think this they pointed to the white people’s wealth and possessions and technology. I do not know about the other troubled African countries, but The Gambia, at least back then, was one of the poorest countries on that continent, and if anyone were to ask me what the remedy was, I would say that without pride in themselves and their country they are never going to find the motivation and energy to sort themselves out. And conversely, if they were to find that pride, they would not need any hand-outs from the West. If the people of the Gambia could find half the pride and self-respect in themselves that that woman in Sines had, then The Gambia could be a jewel of a country, just as that bus shelter was a jewel of a bus shelter.

And it is no good talking about laziness, and such, which was what the whites I spoke to identified as the problem. No amount of coercion by their ‘masters’, whether it be moral or physical or financial, will induce people to work as that woman in Sines worked. Coercion gets the kind of results one sees in the likes of the UK: bus shelters are dismal, dirty places. The cleaners have no care but to satisfy the letter of their contract. They have a job to do and they just want to get it done with as little trouble as possible and then collect their pay cheque and go home. One does not have to ask them about this --- the evidence is the state of bus shelters and the like.

It is competition which is the root of the problem. In a competitive world, one thing is always compared to another, and one is always better or worse than the other. If this did not happen, then people would not aspire to ‘improve’ themselves, would not think in terms of getting ‘better’ jobs and so on.

I’ve just been listening to the poet laureate of the UK, Carl Ann Duffy, being interviewed on R3, the BBC’s classical music station. She said things like, “Mozart is our greatest composer,” and, “I think music is greater than poetry”, etc. This IS our society. Everything is fitted into a competitive value system, so that some things are put at the top and are deemed to be superior to other things which are lower down, and the worst, with little or any value, are at the bottom. And that goes for people as much as art.

To explain the damage this competitive system causes, I will consider Carol Ann Duffy. When she decides that Mozart is the best, then she is ‘switching off’ to the value of all the rest of the music in the world, including the music of little people who get up and sing at parties. She is ‘switching off’ to the value of the paintings done by little local art groups because they do not compare with the ‘Great Artists’ and so on. In fact, it is even worse, because she is actually ‘switching off’ to the value of everything. That is, she is setting up a mind set in which a thing is only of ‘value’ if it is better than other things i.e she is setting up a mind-set that is unable to see the INTRINSIC value of things.

Everything in this world has its own INTRINSIC value. Competition is not about looking for INTRINSIC value, but of finding some EXTRINSIC system by which things can be compared one with another. Thus competition loses the INTRINSIC value of things.

Think of the natural world……… at this point I was going to talk about dung beetles and lions on the African Savannah, and point out that the dung beetle performs a crucial function without which the Savannah could not exist. On that basis the dung beetle is as valuable as the lion, and it is totally inappropriate to compare one with another, or to think that one is superior to another --- which is NOT the same thing as saying that you LIKE one better than the other: you can value two things equally, but LIKE one better than the other.

In fact, you if do NOT value everything equally, then your likes and dislikes are not free to go where your own heart and spirit leads them, and therefore you are not able to maintain your own integrity.

A few years back I kept some water beetles in a tank. I found them to be extremely entertaining: whenever I put some new thing in their tank they got very excited, got a ‘buzz’, and would swim all around the thing and explore it with great zest and energy. If the thing could be taken apart or destroyed, then they would take it apart and destroy it --- they were real artists at this. One time I gave them an island made from two pieces of tree bark placed one on top of the other. One of the beetles found a sort of tunnel between the pieces that has been created by the curvature of the bark. It found endless amusement with that tunnel: round and round it went, through the tunnel, swim under the island and back to the entrance and through the tunnel again.

So, what was the value of those water beetles for me? They were fun. I did not learn a lot about water beetles; I did not breed them or anything, just kept them for the summer. I learned that insects can be surprisingly fun-loving and entertaining. I learned to LIKE water beetles, and to think better of ALL insects, and that has ENRICHED my world.

At another time, I took an interest in animal behaviour, in how it elucidates human behaviour. An example would be the skunk: the skunk is notable for being a very playful animal. It is totally carefree and confident, as opposed to other edible animals, such as rabbits and small deer, which come over as much more nervously alert. The reason for the skunk’s confidence is, of course, its defence system: it usually only has to lift its tail, but if that fails, then a squirt of the smelly stuff will do the business. Translating that into human behaviour: if a person knows how to ‘kick up a stink’ when they need to defend themselves, then they can be confident and carefree --- or, conversely, when you see someone is confident and carefree, then you can be sure it is based on some ability like being able to ‘kick up a stink’.

People often ‘talk themselves up’ into a sort of self-confidence, or they use the likes of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to alter their thinking and make it more positive, but this is a poor sort of confidence, little more than hot-air. If your confidence is based on being able to ‘kick up a stink’, then your confidence is on solid ground, and it is reliable.

Porcupine is very like skunk in character, but its defence mechanism is different: it knows how to ‘get prickly’ and to inflict a wound --- in human terms, I should think that would be a ‘pointed remark’.

You can learn a lot about human behaviour from animals, and in the not so distant past, I went through a phase where that was how I valued animals. I was already ‘into’ animals as a child, so I already valued them in a number of ways, but this was new and so, again, it was an enrichment of my world.

This piece is already long enough to try the patience of readers so I will leave it at that --- except to say that the mind-set I have been describing as being fundamentally different from a competitive mind-set I identify as cooperative. The cooperative mindset, therefore, is one in which one’s world is always expanding and becoming enriched. In contrast, the competitive mindset is failing to interact with the world-as-it-is and as a result is moving into the world of autism.

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Some years ago I started entering gardening competitions in my village. I discovered I was very competitive and I didn't like myself in that mode. But the worse thing, and this was what made me stop competing, was that immediately before a competition when I was wandering around my garden looking for a suitable entrant, I noticed that I disliked everything that wasn't perfect and excessively 'showy'. I no longer loved my garden as a whole, but saw it as something that produced a prizewinner for me or let me down.

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Some years ago I started entering gardening competitions in my village. I discovered I was very competitive and I didn't like myself in that mode. But the worse thing, and this was what made me stop competing, was that immediately before a competition when I was wandering around my garden looking for a suitable entrant, I noticed that I disliked everything that wasn't perfect and excessively 'showy'. I no longer loved my garden as a whole, but saw it as something that produced a prizewinner for me or let me down.

Yes, you have highlighted one of the really bad things about competitiveness: it kills one's joys.

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