Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | May 20, 2014

Downward Mobility

Abridged from—      Brackley, Dean, S.J. (1988) Downward Mobility: Social Implications of St. Ignatius’s Two Standards. Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits, 20/1



The Way of the World: Twelve Characteristics

  1. The way of the world is individualistic. Individuals confront the great problems of life: in relation to the self (identity and self-worth), in relation to nature (material needs), and in relation to others (the need to belong).  Individuals (and families) tend to pursue private goals to meet these needs.
  2. People are first tempted to solve insecurity by having or consuming things.  This is the most immediate and “acceptable” of the paths promising security.  Individualism and covetousness strengthen each other.  Depending little on God and detached from the neighbor, the individualist readily seeks security in things. This reinforces: (a) the reluctance to share, which fosters hunger and homelessness, and (b) the social alienation that blocks collective efforts to solve common problems.
  3. If the way of the world is individualistic, it does presuppose a specific understanding of society—the dominant metaphor for the human community is a ladder.  That is, some people are worth more than others.  This crucial assumption of human inequality forms the basis of personal and public-policy decisions and of many social institutions themselves.  For the world to work as it does, everything depends on some individuals being more human than others, their differences with others more important than the personhood they share with them.  So the human community is understood and lived hierarchically.  All social relations on the ladder are unequal, and each one, regardless of her or his position on the social ladder, can say of those on other levels, “these others”—the foreigner, the addict, the communists—”are really quite different from me.”  This is the social meaning of pride, as both a personal vice and an institutional presupposition.
  4. By means of status symbols, society designates positions on the social ladder and the individuals publicly announce their status.  These symbols—credentials, honors and so forth—include such things as a fancy car (or no car), a good job (or no job), beauty, schooling, skin color, social class, ethnic background, and credit cards.  These symbols have significance not only for my social position and my need to belong but also for my very identity and sense of self-worth.
  5. The more the way of the world dominates our environment, the more readily we interiorize the ladder model and its pride.  Naturally, anyone can be proud, no matter what one’s social status. But this pride is socially arrogant, for one prides oneself on being “above” others.  One must do so because on the ladder one’s personal worth depends on relative ranking.  Persons define their worth in relation to others: The fewer people above me and the more below me, the more valuable I am.  From the ladder model and its social pride we see how others progressively lose their personhood and become flat and two-dimensional, so that I no longer need to do unto them as I would have them do unto me.
  6. At the top of the ladder we find a mythical figure, the ideal human being, the Model; and at the bottom, the Outcast, the measure of the nonhuman.  Models and Outcasts are essential to “the world.”  There can be no ladder without a top and bottom.  While they are symbols, they are also very real.  On the one hand, we have the movie star, the playboy, the president, the executive, the pope.  On the other, the mentally ill person, the homosexual, the ugly woman.  While this may seem horrible or even silly, it can be packaged more attractively as, for example, in People magazine.
  7. Under these conditions, competition characterizes social life.  One’s security is threatened, principally by others.  The neighbor below me threatens not only my material and social security but my value as a human being.  The neighbor above devalues me and is threatened by me.  Social relations are based, not on mutuality and trust, but on the fear and defensiveness.
  8. A person’s security and self-esteem depend on climbing up the ladder.  For the way of the world, life is upward mobility, a scramble upward with status symbols serving as both the means and the assurance of progress toward the goal of success.  The pride which fuels this process can outpace arrogance to become selfish ambition and will to power.  Not all upwardly mobile people are arrogant or power hungry.  Neither is pride the driving force behind upward mobility in every instance.  In fact, some people are quite content with a modicum of security.  Yet, in their legitimate search for this, good people do not determine the rules of the ladder game.  They do need to: (a) appreciate the dangers of the contest, (b) know the whole in which they play a part, and (c) recognize that, even as they act with goodwill, they risk serving social processes larger than themselves and contrary to their purposes.
  9. The social product of the way of the world is a society in the form of a kind of pyramid.  Although competitive individualism tends to produce a formless “sand heap” of separate individuals, groups do band together against the threat from below or even to challenge those above them.  Each group can say of the other groups in the social pyramid, “Those people are really quite different from us.”  In this way, divisions form between groups, divisions based on status symbols but reinforced by various forms of power.  Power insures the future of one’s status and wellbeing.  It is security.  The ladder (a symbol for social relations) runs up through the middle of the pyramid (a social-political symbol).
  10. All societies require the legitimate exercise of authority and political power, ideally by persons who genuinely represent the people and work to insure the common good.  We have something else in mind when we speak of a pyramid.  Here authority and power are exercised in oppressive ways.  As on the ladder, in a pyramid not everyone can be on top.  The status of groups is defined relative to those above and below.  Consequently power must be exercised so as to limit the upward mobility of lower groups.  These are kept dependent, accountable to those above them, ignorant, and disorganized.  Indeed, the pyramid is not only the product of competitive individuals; it also produces them to the extent that it divides people, rewards selfishness, and punishes cooperation.
  11. Social class, race, sex, sexual orientation, schooling, health, physical appearance, age, and many other factors form the bases of divisions in the pyramid.  Some divisions are more decisive than others for a given social order, especially those based on unchanging characteristics (sex and race, for instance) or on the keys to other status symbols and power.  Because one’s social class represents the chances one has to succeed economically, it constitutes a key factor in a capitalist society where other more traditional forms of privilege have been undermined.  Today most status symbols can be bought, and that was not the case anywhere until some two hundred years ago.
  12. Finally, under the conditions we have described, competition between groups and between societies fosters political relations based not on trust and cooperation but on fear and mistrust.  Fear breeds defense measures: discrimination, police surveillance, armed neighborhood security forces, inflated military budgets, and arms races.


The Way of Christ: Ten Characteristics

  1. Trust in God leads Christians to spiritual poverty, or freedom in the use of things…its social meaning is, above all the freedom to share with those who are in need.
  2. Instead of measuring themselves against those above and below them, or of identifying themselves with their status and role in society, followers of Christ receive their identity and self-worth from the experience of God’s love, despite all their defects and limitations, and from others who love in the same way.  Through the experience—and practice—of this love, followers of Christ become indifferent to status.
  3. The courage not to turn away from but to identify with the outcast is the social meaning of humility. It is solidarity with the poor.
  4. Identifying with the outcast enables us to identify with everyone.  Hunger becomes an effective demand, discrimination more an outrage than a tolerable shame.
  5. This vision of our equal dignity is not maintained against “the world” without a struggle.  Only to the extent that I can somehow make the identification with the outcast real and practical can I challenge the world and the barriers—of color, nationality, status, and so on—which it throws up to separate me from those “above” and “below” me.  So the way of Christ will have to take the form of downward mobility, an ongoing struggle to concretize my identity with the outcast.
  6. How each one struggles to maintain identification with the outcast will vary widely.  Christ invites and attracts us to desire to give up wealth and status in order better to identify with him and his poor, and so undermine the hierarchical model of human community so as to be able to identify with all.  It does not necessarily mean living in destitution, much less denying my talents, training, and status.  But all I have and all I am does become less private property and more material and human capital stewarded by me, with others’ help, for the benefit of those who need it.  We can judge whether we are friends with the poor not so much from the things we have (relationship to things) as from whether we are comfortable in the homes of the poor and they at home in ours and whether we have made their cause our own (relationship to persons).
  7. To live in solidarity with the outcast means:  (a) sharing the obscurity of the poor of whom the world takes no account; (b) sharing the insults suffered by the poor, and (c) assuming the cause of the poor.  Solidarity means enduring misunderstanding, injuries, and rejection from those who oppose that cause.
  8. Social relations for the way of Christ are the opposite of those of the way of the world.  To relate to others as equals does not mean ignoring the differences between people.  Personal talents, far from enhancing some at others’ expense, are stewarded by each for the benefit of all.  Together, and only together, we can make a whole.
  9. The dual experience of the love of God and of my identity with the outcast reveals my existential poverty and insecurity as a question first of all of my relation to God and to others and only secondarily a matter of my relation to things.
  10. The goal is not that the poor climb the ladder and join the rich.  Better that the rich join the poor.  We do not seek to make the outcast rich but to build a community with no outcasts.
Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | April 3, 2014

Diversity Awareness Exercise Results

Diversity Awareness Exercise: The Story Combined Results from Jan ’13 & April ’14

This summary combines the results from 22 small discussion groups in 2013 and 6 small discussion groups in 2014. Each small group had between four and six individuals and spent approx. 20 minutes coming to a consensus about the rankings. Small group members consisted of male and female undergraduate students.


Table.  Small Group Results (results in parentheses are from 2013)                            
Ranking Mary John Sinbad Mother Grandmother Man W. Horse
    1st 1  (1) 1  (1) 1   ( 0) 1  (4)      2  (16)   0   ( 0)
    2nd 3  (4) 0  (5) 0   ( 0) 1  (9)      2   ( 2)   1   ( 2)
    3rd 2  (3) 1  (8) 0   ( 0) 2  (6)      2   ( 3)   0   ( 2)
    4th 0  (9) 1  (5) 0   ( 1) 2  (2)      0   ( 1)   3   ( 4)
    5th 0  (3) 3  (3) 0   ( 5) 0  (1)      0   ( 0)   2  (10)
    6th 0  (2) 0  (0) 5  (16) 0  (0)      0   ( 0)   0   ( 4)

Each data-entry is the number of groups that gave a character that ranking.


Take-Home Messages

There are at least three important take-home messages to be gained from this exercise.

The first message concerns cultural sensitivity.  An ironic difficulty sometimes faced in cross-cultural interactions is that rather than being too aware of the differences between people, we are too insensitive to the diversity that exists around us.  That is to say, we often wrongly assume other people share the same values, outlook, and even opinions as ourselves. With that assumption, we run the risk of judging the actions of others based on our own values, instead of their own.  Or, we are too often unpleasantly surprised when our predictions of their behavior prove to be inaccurate.

That point was made by former General McChrystal during an NPR Weekend Edition Sunday interview (broadcast 1/13/2013). This excerpt from the transcript is about the interplay between the military and White House staff while he was the U.S. commander in Afghanistan—

…it soon became clear that not everyone envisioned the mission in the same way.

“Many people had different views not only of what the mission was then, but also the direction that we ought to go,” he says.

He ran into misunderstandings between military and civilian leadership over things as simple as terminology (“defeating” the enemy doesn’t mean you have to kill them in military lingo, but civilian leaders were concerned by the term).

“What it really showed was because different cultures — the military, civilian, whatnot — all have their own lexicon, you can be having a conversation where you think you’re communicating effectively…but you’re not,” he says.

The Diversity Awareness Exercise reminds us that a consequence of our individual uniqueness is the diversity of our values, outlooks and opinions—as demonstrated by the variation in rankings for the exercise.  Failing to recognize and respect that diversity can result in misunderstandings that inhibit social cohesion.  It can be the difference that prevents a crowd from becoming a community.

The second take-home message is that diversity can be a useful tool for enhancing creativity.  This can be seen in the sense of surprise the exercise’s results commonly elicits.  That surprise encourages us to enter a state of openness by, at least briefly, letting go of our way of viewing the world.

We can see the value of that openness through two examples.  The first example describes a type of tunnel-vision that can occur during the editing process.  Authors often find themselves wedded to a particular word, phrase or sentence to the extent that the paragraph containing it becomes awkward.  It is when we finally let go of that phrase that the paragraph’s awkward structure disappears.  We get past that stage more quickly when we invite someone else into the editing process because he or she brings a different perspective.

A second example is a situation common to scientific creativity, and can be seen in the story of Watson and Crick’s work to discover DNA’s molecular structure.  Even though they had spent much effort to create a model of DNA’s structure, it was not until they saw Rosalind Franklin’s work that they realized the structure must be a double helix. Viewing her work gave them the insight to reject the path they had been following.

These examples point out that creativity can be enhanced by opportunities to view the world in new ways.  The likelihood of encountering those opportunities is increased with a diverse environment.  However, that same diversity exposes our thinking to more effective criticisms, which can harm our self-esteem, thus serving as a brake to creativity.  Therefore, diversity can only enhance our creativity if it is properly managed (e.g., by helping us to become aware of and respect differing viewpoints).  Otherwise, it can impede communication.

The goal, then, is not only to create diverse environments, but to learn how to manage them to maximize a community’s creativity.  If not, we will too often run into the situation that General McChrystal described in his NPR interview.

Finally, the small group discussions brought us to our third take-home message.  Our ability to successfully come to a reasoned and fair consensus is greatly affected by the quality of our thinking.  Even an exercise as simple as ranking the characters of a parable requires advanced skills—e.g., knowing when to reserve judgment, understanding that there may be relevant missing information, and being able to differentially weight evidence.

The Diversity Awareness Exercise points to the responsibility each of us has to improve his or her critical thinking skills.  In that process we evolve our thinking through a progression of four stages that are in part described by: (1) an uncomplicated view of reality believing that things are clearly true or false, (2) to a view that reality is divided into areas where answers are known and other areas where answers are not known, (3) to an understanding that many views of reality exist, but some are valid or legitimate, and (4) to a belief that knowledge is inherently indeterminate, value-laden, constructed by fallible human beings albeit making their best attempt to be objective and rational (from: Four Perspectives of Knowing/Writing, The Writing Intensive Workshop, University of Alaska, September 21-22, 1990).  It is this last stage that characterizes a fully mature thinker.

We come away from this exercise with at least three take-home messages—the need to develop an awareness of diversity, the recognition of the possibility to effectively use (i.e., manage) diversity to enhance creativity, and the importance of developing mature critical thinking skills.  I believe those are messages everyone must revisit repeatedly during their lives because they are so easily forgotten.  Neglecting to do so invites misunderstandings and can result in missed opportunities to be successful.

Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | April 17, 2013

Diversity Awareness Exercise: The Story

Diversity Awareness Exercise

The Diversity Awareness Exercise helps to build social cohesion of a group by making individuals more knowledgeable about the diversity that exists among them.


An ironic difficulty sometimes faced in cross-cultural interactions is that rather than being too aware of the differences between people, we are too insensitive to the diversity that exists around us.  That is to say, we wrongly assume other people share the same values, outlook, and even opinions as ourselves. With that assumption, we run the risk of interpreting the actions of others based on our own values, instead of their own.  Consequently, we are too often unpleasantly surprised when our predictions of their behavior prove to be inaccurate.

The Diversity Awareness Exercise reminds us that a consequence of our individual uniqueness is the diversity of our values, outlooks and opinions.  Failing to recognize and respect that diversity can inhibit social cohesion.  It can be the difference that prevents a crowd from becoming a community.

This exercise involves a facilitator reading a short scenario, ‘The Story’, to an audience and then asking the audience members to each rank the characters in the scenario according to the character’s goodness.  The Story is only read once and ‘goodness’ is not defined to the audience (each person is allowed to define it for themselves). The facilitator then leads a discussion comparing the various rankings the audience members give to the characters, emphasizing the diversity of opinion concerning how the characters should be ranked.

Participants of this exercise sometimes ask, “What is the correct ranking of the characters?” Of course, there is no correct order.  However, more to the point of the exercise are the related questions, “To what extent does each of us consider our own ranking the correct one and how do we react to others who may rank the characters differently?”

An important final discussion point is to ask the audience to consider how diversity of values, outlooks and opinions might come into play in their everyday interactions with other community members.




  1. The facilitator reads ‘The Story’ (on page 3) to the audience after providing the audience with index cards.
  2. After reading ‘The Story’, the facilitator asks each person to rank —without any help from other audience members—the six characters in the story according to ‘goodness’.  Each person does this by writing a list of the character’s names on the index cards starting from ‘best’ and ending with ‘worst’.  The facilitator does not give any instructions to the audience as to how ‘goodness’ should be defined.
  3. Alternate 1.  If the audience is small (e.g., fewer than 30 individuals), then enter directly into a discussion that overtly is about achieving a consensus concerning the order of ranking for the characters.  However, the facilitator should lead the discussion in such a way as to encourage opposing points of view.  The underlying purpose of the discussion actually is to demonstrate the great diversity of opinion about something as simple as the interpretation of The Story. The facilitator begins the discussion by asking how many people think that the character Mary, for example, was the ‘best’ and writing the number of votes for her on a large board. Then, the facilitator goes down the list of characters, asking if each should be listed as the ‘best’ and recording the votes for all to see.  During the course of this process the facilitator should encourage discussion justifying each person’s reason for the ranking.  Next, the same is done for the ranking of ‘worst’.  The other positions (i.e., second best, second worst, etc.) can be done depending on whether the facilitator feels enough diversity of opinion has been demonstrated with the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ rankings.  The ensuing discussion can then segue into a discussion about the need to consider our own values, and our assumptions about the values of others, whenever we interact with other people.
  4. Alternate 2.  If the audience is large, then after each person ranks the characters, divide the audience into small groups of four or five members.  Each of these small groups is then given 15 to 20 minutes to come to a consensus, as best they can, about the ranking. They are instructed not to come to a consensus until each member has had the opportunity to justify his or her own ranking.  Moreover, each group should be isolated so that they cannot hear the discussions of other groups.  Then, the facilitator brings the small groups together and, as in Alternate 1, attempts to develop an overall consensus among them as to the order of ranking for the characters, but using the rankings developed from each small group.
  5. Alternate 2 has at least three advantages over Alternate 1.  First, it provides a mechanism for less outgoing people to contribute to the discussion.  Some people may feel inhibited from sharing their thoughts in a large group.  Second, if each small group has a cross-representation of classes, it forces interaction among people from different classes as the small groups go about their work of developing a consensus. Third, it demonstrates that even after the deliberation occurring in small groups, diversity in opinion among groups still exists.  Therefore, this diversity of opinion must be caused by something deeper than simple differences in ‘snap judgments’ (e.g., closely held values are likely influencing judgments).
  6. Regardless of whether Alternate 1 or 2 is used, the exercise builds cohesion among the larger audience members by getting them to become more knowledgeable about each other’s values.  It also makes one more aware about his or her own tendency to assume other people necessarily view the world in a compatible manner.
  7. An important role of the facilitator during this exercise is to make sure that everyone’s right to their own opinion is respected.


The Story

(from a Peace Corps Training Exercise in Ashburnham, Mass., summer 1977)

This is a story about six characters: Mary, John, Sinbad, Mother, Grandmother, and a Man on a White Horse. Listen as it is read, paying attention to each of the characters.


Being the youngest daughter, Mary would do her family’s laundry every morning at the riverside.  One morning she noticed a boy, John, on the opposite riverbank.  Soon they were waving to each other, and in time they fell in love.

Mary could barely stand being apart from John, so she searched for a means to cross the river.  There was a ferry just a short distance away operated by Sinbad.  Mary asked Sinbad if he would take her across.

“Sure,” he said, “But you must pay the fare.” Mary did not have any money.  She explained to Sinbad why she wanted to cross the river, hoping he would be sympathetic.

He then said, “OK, if you sleep with me, I will take you across for free.”

Mary was shocked!  She ran to her mother and told mom the whole story.

Mom replied, “Foolish girl! Get back to the laundry and forget about that boy.  Stay on this side of the river.”

Distraught and crying, Mary ran to her grandmother, told grandma the whole story and asked for her advice.

Grandma simply said, “Do whatever you think is best.”

When Mary left Grandma, she felt very confused as to what she should do.  She decided to act on her own.  That evening Mary went to Sinbad, slept with him, and he took her to the other side.

She ran to John and they embraced.  She told John the whole story.

John became visibly angry and told her he never wanted to see her again.

As Mary knelt on the beach sobbing, a man on a white horse came out of the woods and approached her.  “May I be of any assistance, young lady?” he asked.

Mary told him what happened.  In a rage, the man on a white horse went after John and beat him up.


Now, take 3 minutes to rank each of the 6 characters in “The Story” according to his or her goodness and write your rankings on the cards provided.


[ Note: this story is very similar to ‘The Alligator River Story’ credited to Uma Sekaran and W.C. Coscarelli.  However, I am unable to determine when they first published it.]

Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | December 31, 2009


This Blog is presently inactive.  However, its archives remain accessible.

–W. E.  Poplaski


“Men of the most brilliant intelligence can be born, live and die in error and falsehood. In them, intelligence is neither a good, nor even an asset. The difference between more or less intelligent men is like the difference between criminals condemned to life imprisonment in smaller or larger cells. The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like a condemned man who is proud of his large cell.”

~ Simone Weil (1909 – 1943)

Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | December 31, 2009

Weekly Read-Along—January 1, 2010: Allegory of the Cave

Material for the Stout-Hearted Reader to Ruminate

♦ Essays, Lectures & Speeches ♦

—   —   —

Plato (3rd century B.C.E.) was a Greek philosopher and student of Socrates.  Plato’s greatest work is his book, The Republic.  In it, he discusses the nature of justice and his plan for a model society.  He concludes with a description of the ideal government.

This week’s text is Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, in Book VII of The Republic. The allegory tells us that many, if not most, people are comfortable to live their lives in ignorance of the truth.  Further, when first faced with the truth, they often recoil in fear and embrace their ignorance. However, if they resist the temptation to hide from the truth, they will gradually lose their fear and prefer it to ignorance. The allegory is written in the form of a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon, who is often understood to be Plato’s brother.

Join others from around the world in this weekly reading event! You can find Plato’s text at these websites:

This concludes the Weekly Read-Along series. –W.E. Poplaski

Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | December 31, 2009

POEM OF THE DAY: Spring and Fall

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89). 

Spring and Fall
to a young child

Margaret, are you grieving 
Over Goldengrove unleaving? 
Leaves, like the things of man, you 
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? 
Ah! as the heart grows older                                     5
It will come to such sights colder 
By and by, nor spare a sigh 
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; 
And yet you wíll weep and know why. 
Now no matter, child, the name:                              10
Sorrow’s springs are the same. 
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed 
What heart heard of, ghost guessed: 
It is the blight man was born for, 
It is Margaret you mourn for.                                   15


This concludes the POEM OF THE DAY series.–W.E. Poplaski

Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | December 30, 2009

POEM OF THE DAY: They Say that ‘Time Assauges’

by Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886).

They Say that ‘Time assuages’

They say that ‘time assuages,’–
   Time never did assuage;
An actual suffering strengthens,
   As sinews do, with age.

Time is a test of trouble,
   But not a remedy.
If such it prove, it prove too
   There was no malady.


Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | December 29, 2009

POEM OF THE DAY: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

by Robert Frost (1874 – 1963).

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.


Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | December 28, 2009


by Langston Hughes  (1902 – 1967).

Still Here

I been scared and battered.
My hopes the wind done scattered.
   Snow has friz me,
   Sun has baked me,

Looks like between ’em they done
   Tried to make me

Stop laughin’, stop lovin’, stop livin’–
   But I don’t care!
   I’m still here!

Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | December 27, 2009

POEM OF THE DAY: This is Just to Say

by William Carlos Williams  (1883 – 1963).

This Is Just To Say (1934)

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold


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