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.

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