Once upon a time people knew everyone they came into contact with on a regular basis. When a stranger came to town everyone knew about it and was full of curiosity. That stranger was alienated by a sense of otherness, and could cause problems, but they were so outnumbered by the locals that it was not likely.
As cities grew larger people grew into small groups of trust, and people who were up to no good had the ability to blend in and hide. Bandits could come into town, work their mischief and leave as quickly as they had arrived. On the other side, locals could scam people, but if they tried to scam other locals they would probably be caught, and so most choose to prey on people passing through town or skip the scam and go the sneakier burglary /pickpocket route.
As transportation has become easier, strangers are more common, and are largely ignored. In large cities no-one even knows who is local and who is not. Small towns seem to exist largely due to the tourism industry, and so strangers are just a part of everyday life.
Most people have just accepted this status quo of not knowing who is nearby. We routinely lock our homes and automobiles, women carry pepper spray to protect themselves, and we choose to live under the watchful eye of video surveillance systems to keep others in check.
Why do we, especially Americans, do this? We have been told so many times that the world is out to get us that we believe it. On the news we hear stories about people who were trusted with something taking advantage of, or just generally not deserving that trust. We hear stories of the time that a child was left in the day care’s van after a field trip and left to die, we hear stories of people’s lives being torn apart as the result of a burglary, and we hear about people being massacred on a public street. These are terrible things, and we should be aware of them.
The problem is that these are the only stories we hear. We do not get to hear the stories about a nurse who spends her time off the clock reading to coma patients, we do not hear the stories about the homeless man who picks up garbage in the neighborhood for free every day, or the bank manager who knowingly sets his own wages less than his employees and sets raises based on personal situations rather than work ethic.
We have been conditioned to think the worst of everyone around us. Fear is used for advertising everything from mouth wash to legal policies. It is also perpetuated by laws that hold the homeowner responsible for injuries on their property, even when the person is not supposed to be there. Many tales have been told of robbers who successfully sued the homeowner for injury, even if the robber themselves broke the window that injured them. In some countries homeowners insurance covers break-ins even if the front door was unlocked.
So how can we trust anyone? The short answer is we can’t. But as social beings who need human interaction, we balance risk and reward. We go to school, work, shopping malls, etc even though we know about the massacres that have happened in these places. Our experience tells us that these are very rare, and we take that risk. In fact we scorn the people unwilling to take that risk as insane.
As we meet people and make new friends we do develop a level of trust, but deep down we know that there is no way to know what they do behind our backs. This is part of what causes so many paternity suits and why we have structures built up to keep businesses accountable.
Today a movement known as the ‘sharing economy’ has been making an appearance. This is still largely a fringe movement, but some things have become mainstream, like eBay. In the beginning this was a very risky way to purchase or sell things. The product might not be what was advertised, or even exist at all. The payment may never arrive, and the seller had no recourse. Policies have been enacted since then that hold both parties responsible and protect them from the possibility of things going wrong.
Craigslist is still very basic. When using craigslist the risk is still a part of the user experience and something to be wary of. The company has published tips on how each party can protect themselves, but does not vet participants in any way, no reviews, or much in the way of account creation. They have chosen to welcome newcomers as equals rather than to embrace those who are in it for the long haul.
Both of these examples are largely just a way to facilitate a single transaction. Craigslist encourages in person exchanges, while eBay requires no face-to-face interaction. Other examples of this ‘sharing economy’ are just coming into the market. These range from renting out rooms in your home to hooking up for the evening or going out to eat at an aspiring chef’s home. These examples have followed eBay’s example to assist the users in trusting the other party. This allows participants a way to engage in activities that would normally be considered very risky with less fear. That is good thing, but some have also been accused of deleting negative reviews in the hopes of creating a positive public perception. There is also the issue of being held accountable for those reviews and not wanting to criticize a nice person.
I see this movement as a good thing as a whole. We need to find a way to trust again. Even if that trust is supported by a business structure. Anyone who has walked down a public street in New York knows that of the thousands of people we may come into contact with on a given day, we avoid 99% of them. Even those we do interact with, like cashiers, we cannot fully trust.
This is also a great way for people with similar interests to meet up and make friends. Even something as mundane as ride-sharing can lead to a lifelong friendship, especially if both parties are put at ease enough to open up.
As someone who works in customer service, I also see the potential, if this type of economy really took off, of the weeding out of the bad apples leading to public businesses, who have no way to review guests, having to deal with only those left out of the sharing economy. This means that since businesses are the only ones held accountable , they are forced to stretch themselves more and more to accommodate, and keep happy, worse and worse customers.
But is that really a bad thing? I could replace my income by renting out rooms and giving people rides, so long as I was a trustworthy person. I could use those services from other trustworthy people, creating a parallel, better, more transparent, economy. This would encourage people to be trustworthy, and so able to use this economy where people share the things that they value, adding value to the economy as a whole, without the need for more products. The economy of those who are deemed unworthy would be unsustainable, and self-punish those forced to use it. I honestly believe that most people are good. Even more so when being bad is not rewarded.
By supporting people who share only what they personally have, rather than those who have more than they need, this also creates a more equitable system. It could return the balance of power to the individual instead of the corporation, but only if you trust the corporation to properly vet the individuals.
In America, everyone has the opportunity to make it big. All it takes is hard work, a goal, and determination. That is the principle that made America unique. This principle is still taught in schools and propagated by the media. But it is false today. Before America, a person’s station in life was pre-determined by their family’s position. If you were born to the right person, you had power. Today it is not rank or station, but the inheriting of money that makes this true.
There have been times in our history when people can move up simply by hard work, but today that is not the case. Every time I hear an interview with any influential or famous person, the question comes up in some form, ‘How did you get where you are today’. Inevitably they will give themselves credit, ‘hard work and determination.’ Rarely do you hear people say ‘luck’ or ‘my parents’. The people who are in these positions believe that they are there because they worked harder than the others, so they deserve it more. This is what they need to tell themselves in order to make them feel entitled to what they have.
Some of them I have no doubt worked very hard, maybe even more than their peers. I do not believe that the fact that the CEO of the company who had their child ‘work their way up’ happened to have a child who got to CEO by chance too. It is a good thing that Jr. has experienced different jobs that they now supervise, but I have a very difficult time believing that their career was not fast-tracked. I do not believe that Justin Beiber worked harder for his ‘career’ than Joe Blo who quit his day job to practice in his garage and play every gig he can.
In the real world, people work as much as they need to. Many of them put a lot of effort into moving up their companies, or at improving their craft. What a person needs to survive comes down to some very basic things; shelter, food, and water. The people who have to work 40+ hours a week to get these things for their families work very hard. To quote David Siegel, CEO of Westgate, “I can no longer support a system that penalizes the productive and gives to the unproductive.” (Daily Kos). He is referring to the supposedly ‘socialist’ planned policies of Obama that support the worker by taxing the wealthy. He literally says that the people who work under him are ‘unproductive’ and that he, as the boss, is the ‘productive’ one. I’m sorry, but WTF?! By definition, the people producing things are being productive. The people he is insulting are the very people who are working so hard that he can afford his mansion.
The scary thing is that Mr. Siegel, and others like him actually believe that they work harder than the people who work under them. This is a twisted interpretation of the ‘hard work reaps rewards’ fallacy. This belief is what allows people to not pay their workers a decent wage. The boss thinks that because these people have not reached the same level of status and wealth, that they are lazy. This is what allows CEOs to make hundreds of times more than their employees do, because this is what makes is so that the CEO does not feel guilty about it.
I am not saying that the principle is bad. I strongly believe that everyone should get an even shot at success, and that effort should be rewarded. I am not posing a solution to the problem at the moment, but rather bringing attention to the fact that people believing the story for their own peace of mind is part of the problem.
I wrote a while back that I did not know why I continued to watch Undercover Boss. I think that I watch it because I hope that this experience will teach the bosses about the fallacy they have been living. What I keep seeing though is entitled people who think that the hardworking, struggling people that they meet are the exception, rather than the rule.
Even though I understand why those in power believe what they believe, I do struggle with why they cannot see that they were mistaken. In the last several years there has been a lot of media coverage and research that shows that people do struggle, and do work hard. I do not want to believe that the people in power are just evil, greedy thieves who want to watch the world burn. I think that they truly believe that they are right, and are justified in what they are doing. It is the challenge of admitting that they are wrong that keeps them clinging to something beautiful in principle, blissfully unaware that they are actively breaking down that principle with every check they cash, every pay raise that they refuse, and every time they think that just because they know someone that person is the best person for the job.
I would love to start a conversation about how we can go about bringing awareness to the powerful without the tried and failed method of simply shoving how wrong they are in their face.