All things are never equal.

by Matt Johnston on March 8, 2014

I saw this earlier on Twitter and felt I had to challenge it.

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?

Absolute bullshit.

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?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul March 9, 2014 at 11:17 pm

Love this piece. I seem have workplace discussions and find that everyone else is right wing or detached. I also seem to be surrounded by community activism, dojos, sports, an odd coffee shop that doesn’t have prices. It’s put my faith back in NI. Good news doesn’t sell as easy.

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Matt Johnston March 10, 2014 at 7:35 am

Thank you, Paul.

I think “everyone else” is complacent. They aren’t getting much and what they have, they don’t want to share. Obviously I have personal needs to maintain a home but every spare moment, every spare penny is dedicated towards pushing the message of digital entrepreneurship. We hear a lot from government about how the “creative industries” will be key to the economic recovery – but we see little in the way of action.

I’m ashamed that we have food banks in NI. I sometimes feel that we truly have lost our way.

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Shereen March 10, 2014 at 11:33 am

Just to echo Paul, I also love your response to the quote.

It ties in with the mindset that those struggling in some way deserve it because they just didn’t work hard enough. And yet I’ve seen friends and family work incredibly hard just to keep their heads above water due to unexpected life things happening. Their situation has nothing to do with laziness. If they didn’t have the background of education, employment and experience which their life afforded them, they would be in a much worse place.

I wonder if some of that ‘deserved failure’ mindset could be driven by ignorance. For example, I’ve had Twitter conversations with people who believe that most of those on social security who are sanctioned deserve it because they’re too lazy to go to their appointments. This is the line we see most frequently in the media, and if it wasn’t for information and personal ancedotes available on the internet, I might have believed that too.

My family had a rocky few years in the mid-late 80s. I’ve never forgotten how quickly and unexpectedly comfort can turn into struggle.

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Matt Johnston March 10, 2014 at 11:37 am

Thank you, Shereen.

It doesn’t surprise me that the speaker was a previous participant in “Young Apprentice” (where, much like the adult version, individuals are encouraged to prostrate themselves before Mammon and do their best to squeeze their way out of “eviction”.

It does surprise me that this view was endorsed by a politician from East Belfast.

I am reminded that nearly everyone in Northern Ireland is one month away from defaulting on a mortgage payment or rent. I’m sickened that instead of addressing deprivation, our media and politicians have lost their minds because of a “nip-slip”.

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