Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Second Lowest Position on the Totem Pole

I have often heard people who have never lived in crime-infested, dilapidated housing question why anyone in their right minds would stay in such places. I find this ironic since many of the people who feel this way are suffering from the same malady that is keeping many of these residents in their sub-optimal circumstances. I refer to this condition as the Second Lowest Position on the Totem Pole Syndrome (SLOPOTOPOS, pronounced SLŌ-PŌ-TŌ-PŌS).

SLOPOTOPOS sufferers are aware that there is a great deal of room for improvement in their current situations. But they are kept from acting on this awareness by their perception that things could easily get worse. These individuals feel there is no guarantee that any change they initiate would improve their condition and there is a realistic possibility that it will make matters worse. For people living in sub-standard housing SLOPOTOPOS is a significant factor in keeping many of them there (though obviously not all of them). It is also a major reason why many of those questioning the judgment or sanity of these residents do not quit their soul-sucking jobs.

It doesn’t matter how horrific their circumstances are, as long as people can imagine them easily becoming much worse, they can convince themselves that their current condition is not bad enough to necessitate action on their parts. People in demeaning jobs can take solace in the fact that at least they don’t live in “bad neighborhoods”. People living in such neighborhoods can at least say they have a home. Homeless people can say they at least have food to eat and so on. In each case the individuals appreciate that their situations are not good but remain in them for fear of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. They see the spectrum of increasingly less fortunate conditions below them as the single state that represents the actual bottom of the totem pole.

SLOPOTOPOS has probably been with us in one form or another since the dawn of human societies. But it became a more problematic condition as societies became less rigidly structured. This social evolution led to increasing numbers of people realizing their actions could significantly influence the course of their lives. People began to see that it was both permissible and possible to rise above the circumstances into which they were born. But for many this perception was tempered by the empirical belief that things could also get worse.

The decreasing viscosity of the social order led to an increase in the possibility of upward mobility. But fear that this situation also increased the possibility of downward movement led to SLOPOTOPOS, which inhibits exploitation of this new upward mobility. Victims of this condition allow their fear of failure to keep them down in certain circumstances where their less unjust (though hardly “just”) society no longer does.

Ultimately, the current strain of SLOPOTOPOS is the result of the perception that while there is a path to success it is not a ladder but a greased pole. Sure it’s possible to climb to the top but as soon as they loosen their grip to go up, they fear they are more likely to slide to the bottom.

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