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The inhumanity of wealth

Feb 23 2015 07:47
*Mandi Smallhorne

THE rich really are different from you or me, Mr Hemingway.

So a certain politician’s wife apparently boasted on social media about buying two pairs of shoes, each of which cost R16 000. Pretty hefty price tag for a pair of sneakers with some added bling. (What’s with the idea of using a lock as decoration, by the way?) And surely a bit distasteful in a country where so many are desperately in need.

I wonder what my impoverished young friend (who’s just completed her BSc and is looking desperately for a job) thought when she saw that? She’s never let on to feelings of envy, even when she was a teenager and a rich woman decided to do her bit for social responsibility and took her out for the weekend.

She described in neutral terms the shopping trip in Sandton where the woman contemplated buying a product with a R150 000 price tag, while my stomach churned and I thought: “How COULD you do that? How could you expose a child living in a shack to such an occasion for envy and bitter contemplation of the haves and have-nots? After all, you weren’t always this rich, don’t you remember what it felt like?”

Easy. Because it’s true that becoming rich affects your response to the world and your sensitivity to others. Paul Piff, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Social Behaviour at the University of California, Irvine, has done some interesting studies on the impact of riches on the psyche.

“As a person’s levels of wealth increase, their feelings of compassion and empathy go down, and their feelings of entitlement, of deservingness, and their ideology of self-interest increases,” he says in a TED talk (TEDBlog, December 20 2013).

Apparently people who become wealthier are more likely to “moralize greed and self-interest as favourable”; they’ll cheat and break laws if that suits them, and are less likely to be prosocial – that is, engage in behaviour that is helpful and promotes social acceptance.  

Research done by Piff and others shows that the wealthy develop a set of uncomfortable traits as they settle into their wealth. They just can’t connect with others on a different social level comfortably; as they grow wealthy, they tend to ‘other’ poorer people, to dehumanise them – does any of this sound familiar? I can think of a few people locally who have risen from very deprived circumstances to positions of wealth and power, and now display a distinct lack of concern for the less fortunate!

(Part of their othering is a sense the rich have that they deserve everything they’ve got, which ignores the part that chance plays in the picture, alongside personal behaviour and traits. Russian oligarchs, for example, happened to live in a time that offered tremendous opportunity for self-enrichment; the founder of the Koch dynasty lived in a boom time in oil.)

Notoriously less generous

They’re less likely to offer help when someone is in trouble; they are, notoriously, less generous and while many give a lot to good causes, it seldom represents much more than a small percentage of their total worth – in other words, it’s not going to hurt them. And wealth makes people conservative – the wealthy are more likely to defend the status quo.

Jacques Peretti, a broadcaster and journalist, has just done a two-parter on the super-rich for the BBC, and he found a disconnect between them (floating in their isolated bubble above the earth) and us: they have, he says, “an intolerance for weakness. Even the most self-avowed Bill Gatesian liberal and philanthropic billionaire, paying for libraries and vaccine programmes in Africa, can't quite comprehend why everyone on Earth isn't as determined to be as successful as they are…

“This go-getting, sink or swim mantra of the super-rich is accepted by the Government. It's even taught in schools. But not everyone can be an entrepreneur – it's the reason people across Europe have been marching. They're not just protesting against austerity, but also reaffirming their humanity. In Athens they chanted ‘we are human’, as if the troika and super-rich actually needed reminding…” (The Independent, February 1 2015)

This is one reason why the rising levels of inequality everywhere are so troubling. Because the rich feel less empathy for those who have less luck, less drive, less fortunate foundations. They don’t just enjoy their wealth; they use it to influence politics, to steer economic decisions, to mould the environment to better suit them and their needs – the Koch brothers, for example, are planning to spend $889m on the 2016 election cycle in the US, just one example of how the wealthy can skew politics in their favour. The people who are steering and shaping policy that will affect us, the ‘common herd’, the ‘masses’, the proletariat, are operating from a mindset which lacks empathy and understanding.

You can learn (or relearn) empathy, of course. It takes work and effort and commitment. How many of the very wealthy would be up for that, I wonder?

mandi smallhorne  |  wealth
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