I saw this earlier on Twitter and felt I had to challenge it.
Fav quote used by Maria Doran. Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. #inspiringchange
— Naomi Long MP (@naomi_long) March 7, 2014
It’s perfect for twitter. A short soundbite that seems easy to embrace but you have consider both the context of it. Thomas Edison (the businessman and inventor) was not one to shirk opportunity, often turning the most arduous challenges into new ideas and products.
But it is not the late nineteenth century. And Edison was the equivalent of a millionaire by the time he was 35. I am a fan of many quotes attributed to Edison, but not this one.
The problem I have with this quote is that it says that lack of opportunity is due to laziness. It implies that if you are suffering from poverty and deprivation, then it’s because you haven’t really tried.
This is part of the cornerstone of right wing economic thinking and a politician should know better than to peddle right wing economic soundbites.
In the United States, the political language of the Right includes: anti-statism involving a general mistrust of government, individualism, support of equality of opportunity while rejecting equality of outcome, and populism.
While it might be true that, all things being equal, one who is industrious may succeed while another may fail due to their sloth; all things are never equal. And it behoves us to be human in our outlook, rather than grasping to soundbites.
Far from inspiring change, this encourages the downtrodden to accept their fate. Even though they may labour longer hours, caring for family, working for a wage that barely enables survival, they are expected to accept that their lack of prosperity is because they were too lazy to grasp the nettle of opportunity?
We have to look at equality of opportunity and examine whether our systems actually provide what we claim. And whether the forces of our society (which we maintain) are enabling every citizen to fulfil her or his potential. Their potential may not have economic return but it may have social and cultural returns that are much harder to measure.
But if we must grasp a soundbite, why not a contemporary, Nicola Tesla:
Every living being is an engine geared to the wheelwork of the universe. Though seemingly affected only by its immediate surrounding, the sphere of external influence extends to infinite distance.
My interpretation of this is simple: We cannot succeed in life while others lie in poverty. We cannot progress in society while others suffer from deprivation. If we continue to labour this way, we have to understand it is because we are stealing opportunity from others. And if we have stolen their opportunity can we really identify laziness in not exploiting that which they never had?