Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Unspoken Scourge of Not Feeling Respected

Much has been written and spoken about the problem of increased income inequality in this country.  It has caused huge distress in the lives of many people and has weakened the social fabric of our society.

But there is another type of inequality which is just as prevalent and perhaps even more devastating … the extent to which people feel respected, valued, acknowledged.

Everyone wants to be respected, valued, acknowledged.  It is a basic human need.  It feeds our self-respect.  And self-respect, positive self-esteem, is critical to our having a healthy relationship with ourselves, our families, and the world around us.  Without self-respect we are sitting ducks for a host of negative emotions that cause us to suffer emotionally.  

As bad as physical suffering is … whether it’s from hunger, disease, or an accident … emotional suffering is even more debilitating.   If one is emotionally strong, one can weather most physical afflictions.  But if one is emotionally week, full of fear and self-doubt, insecure, then every day is filled with experiences that reinforce the feeling that there is no place for you in this hostile world, that you are nothing, that make one question the reason for one’s existence. 

Many people wonder why depression is such a common phenomenon.  Why alcoholism is so widespread.  Why drug addiction has taken such strong root in both the inner city ghetto and in rural areas across America.  

The answer I think is clear.  The vast majority of people are not shown respect, are not valued, are not acknowledged in their everyday lives, whether in the workplace or in the home.  Many have the constitution to keep fighting on, to keep battling the forces they feel are arrayed against them.  But for many, their energy sapped, facing overwhelming fear and insecurity, they cope instead by escaping their suffering, escaping their reality, in the only ways available to them … alcohol or drugs.  Many others are not strong enough to even seek escape … I know it sounds strange, but that does take strength … and so they wallow in depression.

What is the basis for my saying that the vast majority of people are not shown respect, are not valued, are not acknowledged in their everyday lives?  One marker is to look at how much people earn, which is certainly taken as an indication of how one is valued in our culture.

Certainly those at the top of their field, whether it’s entertainment, finance, business, or the professions, are given this mark of value … large, and at the highest levels obscene, amounts of money.  The top income category, the top 1%, would certainly fall within this group.  

I was originally going to say the top 10%, but I was surprised in doing research for this post that the cut-off for the top 10% is a household income (that’s both spouses combined) of $113,000 according to Slate; $140,000 according to The New York Times.  That’s certainly not rich by any standard.  And people with those incomes are not likely to feel very secure, highly valued or respected.  The cut-off for the top 1% is a household income of $394,000 according to Slate, $383,000 according to the Times.  Lower than I would have thought, but certainly enough to be considered slightly rich these days and probably in a position in one’s work where one feels secure. respected and valued.

That means that 90 - 99% of people in this country probably do not feel respected, valued, or acknowledged.  That is a terrible state of affairs and explains many of the problems that our society is experiencing.

This estimate meshes with the anecdotal information one hears about the extent of lack of respect shown in the workplace.  As well as my own personal observations over the decades. 

When I did research, however, to see what the data was on this, I found surprisingly that the data regarding workplace satisfaction/respect showed quite the opposite.  But the data are so contrary to what one observes in everyday life that I doubt their validity.   And so my thinking remains unchanged. 

For example,  in one survey 88% of U.S. employees report overall satisfaction with their jobs!  In another survey, 85% of Millennials say they are treated with respect at work.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 29% of employees feel valued in their jobs.     

I’ve worked in many job settings, and relatively supportive ones at that, and I would say this data is far off the mark in reflecting the reality of how people feel in their jobs.  If you take the often unsupportive or corrosive situation in many job settings, as well as the discrimination faced by people of color and women, the numbers would be even worse.  Not knowing how these surveys were conducted, I cannot explain the results.

But back to the narrative.  A reader may say, “That’s just the way life is; it’s inherent in human/societal relations that some are respected and valued and some aren’t.”  However, it wasn’t always this way; certainly not with such extreme differences and inequality.  To understand how we got this way, we need to understand where we came from.  

The Development of Cities: For 50,000 years, we - meaning all humans - were aboriginal people, like Native Americans, who lived a communal life.  Everyone in the village had their place, everyone had their purpose, everyone was valued, with of course the inevitable exception.  This is not to say that everyone was equal, they weren’t, but all were respected and valued because everyone contributed to the greater good.  

Then around 4,00 B.C. cities began to develop in some cultures and the communal aspects of life ceased to be.  Instead, a class structure developed resulting from the culture of individual responsibility and private property.  This class structure with its concomitant income inequality resulted in some being considered very worthy, some worthy but less so, and then there was the mass of people who were considered to be unworthy rabble, mischief makers, people of low or no morals.  This inequality of respect seeped into all areas of societal life.  Here you had respect inequality on a large scale.  

Immigration, Loss of Homogeneity:  The one factor that still bound people together in most countries despite large income inequalities was their homogenous nationality and often religion; the us v them factor.  This was largely absent in the United States even in the 19th century where roughly 25% of the population was equally divided among immigrants and former slaves.  There was not just disdain but much hostility towards both groups … they weren’t just poor, they were a mass of “them” and considered dangerous. 

Although there has always been much political talk (pre-Trump) about our pride in being a nation of immigrants (somehow slaves are usually left out of such statements), there has always existed among the population, at least below the surface or in private company, a great deal of negativity towards them.  That’s why political correctness is both necessary as a guideline and why it is detested by many.

Modern Capitalism:  Then there is the factor of modern capitalism.  After the industrial revolution, capitalism developed into a system in which everyone except management was a fungible cog in the production process.  Every employee was there to be made use of, exploited, to enlarge the profits of the employer.  The resulting hostility between worker and management, even after the introduction of labor unions and the improvement of workers’ conditions, was part of the whole.

Adding to the feeling of use and abuse is the continuing presence of discrimination against people of color and women.  And whereas in former times job security was something one could count on, in recent years loyalty between management and workers, both blue collar and white, has almost evaporated.  As a result, even those who are making a “decent” salary often do not feel respected or valued.

Modern capitalism and the industrial revolution also introduced the phenomenon of rising expectations for those less well-off.  Now most people feel that they are entitled to and should have the means to acquire most of the accoutrements of contemporary life.  And so everyone tries to make it.   Of course, the vast majority don’t, which sets up frustration and anger at the larger society and government for propagating this illusion that everyone can make it, but doing little to ensure it.  Another reason for people not feeling respected and valued.

I have not spoken thus far in any detail about the problem of lack of respect in the home.  There appears to be no data on this, but certainly anecdotal information would indicate that whether between spouses, parents and children, or children, feeling that one is not respected or valued is not uncommon.  

Family life was probably never idyllic once we moved from communal to independent/competitive societies.  But modern capitalism has undoubtedly increased problems in the home in at least two ways.  First, the strains that work places on the psyches of men, and women, have to be felt in the home resulting in parents being more self-absorbed and less understanding of and available to their children.  Second, the ascent of the “me” generation in the early 80s has likely resulted in a home life which is less communal, less respectful of others.  Finally, while probably more a function of modern society than capitalism, it’s reasonable to assume that the lack of respect for authority that has taken hold in the U.S. has increased the lack of respect felt by children towards parents.

Is there a way back from this precipice we’re standing on?  We cannot return to pre-capitalist or pre-historic communal life.  But the answer is yes.  One major factor in the extent to which people don’t feel respected is discrimination.  In earlier posts, for example “Our Failed Economic/Social/Political System,”  I wrote of the need to develop true equal opportunity to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.  That is also what’s needed to bring the nation back from its current state of serious polarization.  Because one can only create true equal opportunity if all the vestiges of racism, bigotry, and misogyny are put behind us.  And with that would come an increased feeling of respect by those who have historically been discriminated against.

That would, however, still leave the broader issue of a lack of respect, or value, or acknowledgement of others that is part of our modern capitalist system and society.    To instill a culture of respect will require training at all levels, from schools to corporations, of the need even in the midst of competition to treat all fellow human beings with respect, to show them they are valued, and to acknowledge their work.  To be aware that most people do the best they can and so deserve respect for their intents, regardless how well they do.  This is true both in the workplace and at home.  Capitalism/competition and employee respect are not inherently mutually exclusive concepts.  Respect within families is inherently natural.

Until we have both true equal opportunity and true respect in the workplace and in the home, America will be at great risk for becoming a failed nation, torn apart by its internal divisions.