In Defence of the Unexceptional

Logical fallacies are annoying, and often confusing. They are the perfect tool for derailing valid and important hypotheses and arguments, inserted into popular discourse by skilled politicians and commentators with laser-like precision. The beauty of a logical fallacy is precisely that it is easily masked as its natural opposite: logic.

One of the cruelest, most inhumane uses of logical fallacy today is in critique of the pursuit of an equitable society — one in which true equality of opportunity exists, and the undeserving victims of unbalanced outcomes do not suffer unnecessarily. Chief among the many sneaky fallacies deployed by those opposed to equity is the false equivalence of probability and possibility of success, with respect to rich and poor. Frequently, this is backed up by another fallacy: anecdotal evidence. Consider this example:

“Getting a bad start in life doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. Mr Smith survived on a dollar a day living in a one bedroom apartment with his parents, grandparents, six cats and eight siblings, but he pulled himself up by his bootstraps and is now the multi-millionaire CEO of Big Money Inc.”

Sound vaguely familiar? Despite the slight hyperbole, this is the go-to argument for those who oppose social welfare systems, income-adjusted tax brackets, and other initiatives aimed at reducing inequality. Clearly, it’s riddled with fallacies, and I believe it may be fundamentally rooted in a self-serving cognitive bias regarding privilege, its significance as a determiner of success, and the degree to which it is earned or deserved.

First of all, I think it’s important to define what I mean by privilege. This word has unfortunately become associated with a radical brand of identity politics, which makes discussions of privilege and its intergenerational implications nearly impossible within certain shades of the political spectrum. Privilege is defined as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” To isolate this definition in an intergenerational context, this essentially refers to a variety of economic, educational, social, institutional and/or health-related benefits afforded to the children of affluent, well-educated, stable, and healthy families living within generally favourable socio-economic conditions. Clearly, the child of a billionaire — who attends an elite private school, lives in a $100m mansion in Beverly Hills with a stable and highly-educated family, and is given a generous weekly allowance — benefits from a great deal of privilege. These contexts are rarely disputed.

The more blurred lines surround middle-to-working class families on an average income, whose children attend public schools in average socio-economic areas. These children still benefit from a liveable income, a stable (in some cases) family environment, and adequate health and nutrition; a privilege not afforded to the children of many families struggling with poverty, unemployment, health issues, lack of tertiary or even secondary education, family violence, divorce, etc. It becomes clear, then, that privilege is inherently relative and multifaceted, with some financially privileged children, for example, suffering from an unstable family environment — a privilege experienced by many children born into poverty. Of course, some privileges are much more significant than others, but the fact remains that every child experiences some mix of privilege and hardship — an inequality of opportunity that a compassionate society should seek to remedy. The key difference, however, is the hugely differing degrees of privilege and hardship, the gulf between which is often underplayed.

The unethical politicking that governs general discourse around issues of inequality is shameful, as it frequently seeks to underplay the massive divide between highly privileged and underprivileged children, and the inequality of opportunity that emerges from this. This is the false equivalence I mentioned earlier, where the mere possibility of success, elucidated in the example of the fictional Mr Smith, is equated with probability of success, in regards to which there is clearly an enormous difference between the extremely privileged and the severely underprivileged. This is where we must discuss the seldom-acknowledged majority of our society: the unexceptional.

It may seem controversial to assert that some members of society possess exceptional attributes not within the realm of attainment for the vast majority, and maybe this is not inherently the case, however a small proportion of top achievers seem destined for success – the Mr Smiths of the world who possess uncommon and exceptional qualities which allow them, in some cases, to achieve a great magnitude of success in spite of their underprivileged beginnings and reduced opportunity and probability of success. To assert that this is possible or likely for everybody is to ignore that many do not possess the requisite drive or ability to defy the odds and succeed in these conditions. The great double standard of this apparent expectation is revealed when the metaphorical coin of mediocrity is flipped: the vast majority of unexceptional individuals born into privilege live stable, comfortable lives, while their unluckier underprivileged counterparts are expected to prove themselves as the best of the best, or otherwise suffer at the violent hands of the poverty cycle. Furthermore, unexceptional people with a privileged background are granted a peculiar sense of entitlement to comfort and flexibility in life which is not extended to the underprivileged, who are somehow considered less deserving of taxpayer-funded support and affirmative action measures than the children of privilege are to the various benefits they were fortunate enough to have inherited. The opponents of an equitable society appear only to be concerned with the notion of a level playing field when it appears that the underprivileged are granted some “special entitlement” which is, in fact, an attempt to bridge the widening gap between these areas of society.

If we truly seek a society in which the vulnerable and underprivileged are supported and given an equal opportunity to succeed regardless of their background, we must acknowledge that being exceptional, by virtue of its very definition, is neither practical nor possible as a minimum criterion for stability and safety. As a modern, developed society, we have already decided to place compassion at the forefront of our ideals. We are supposed to have matured beyond the era of personal enrichment at all costs, abandoning the feudal ideals of nepotism and hereditary powers of oppression and subordination in favour of a humanitarian vision of a nation grounded in supportive, wellbeing-oriented initiatives.

The objectives of mutual empowerment and emancipation of the general populace remain core values of representative democracy in a civilised society, and must remain so if we truly aspire to goodness, rather than greatness.

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George Sabonadière

George Sabonadière

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