A few years ago I wrote a short (very short) story called Pangea’s Mansion. It was only a few lines, but it was meant to explore the idea that humans, as a species, are somewhat selfish; not only are they selfish, but they are quite willing to hurt themselves in pursuit of selfish ideals: cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, as it were.
People who read it seem to like it, though one or two shared the same reservation: would rich people really commit suicide because everyone else is suddenly as rich as they are?
I was exploring an idea concerning the nature of human greed, that greed is not so much about what you have, but what everyone else hasn’t got.
And today, I ran across this excellent article by Seth Godin that seems to back up what I was saying. If you’re a student of human nature it’s well worth a read:
After a company in Seattle famously raised its lowest wage tier to $70,000, two people (who got paid more than most of the other workers) quit, because they felt it wasn’t fair that people who weren’t as productive as they were were going to get a raise.
They quit a good job, a job they liked, because other people got a raise.
This is our culture of ‘getting ahead’ talking.
This is the thinking that, “First class isn’t better because of the seats, it’s better because it’s not coach.” (Several airlines have tried to launch all-first-class seating, and all of them have stumbled.)
And of course it works in the other direction too. Have you read Don Delilo’s White Noise? An absolute classsic. There’s one particular scene that takes place aboard a plane that suffers a mid-air emergency. Thinking that the jet is about to crash, the first-class passengers attempt to surge towards the rear of the plane where they believe they’ll have a better chance of survival. What really had me in stitches was the reaction of the people in coach:
“No! You rich fuckers paid for first-class; you can stay in first-class!”
Sort of a reverse survivalist snobbery.
I always thought that writing good characters was about making them react in surprising and varying ways; but sometimes they react in ways that are totally expected; it’s just that the reaction is not something we like to see in ourselves.