What weakens social cohesion: powerlessness, shaming, isolation and envy. What strengthens us: creativity, appreciation, social balance and enjoyment
“When the first player automatically grabs all the hotels and real estate in Monoply and only rips the others off, they can hardly catch up.” Marcel-André Merkle develops board games. He and his colleagues are among the most innovative games-designers worldwide. The starting advantage of the first players is one of the greatest challenges when you are designing a game. The dynamics of the game often leads to a situation where an advantage increases as the game progresses and, after a certain point, can hardly be reversed. It is experienced as frustrating and unjust, Merkle explains, if the way the game goes depends on who starts. The games designers reacted with different strategies. If, for example, new resources are distributed in each round, there is a massive drop in the risk of individual players missing out altogether.
The well-known game of Monopoly was, moreover, invented as a teaching game. At the end of the 19th century, Elisabeth Magie created two variations of the game. One is still popular. With the alternative version, she added a “single tax” to the rules. In the only version known today, a monopolist remains over, who as winner takes all. Interestingly, in the case of the former alternative rules, most of the fellow players become richer and richer as the game proceeded – and without property speculation.
“The main thing is to feel personally effective. People have to have the feeling that their action has an influence on the game.” Games-designers test their rules with several groups before producing a game. They observe the effect the rules have and whether the players are sticking to them. A game with fair and accepted rules is, according to Merkle, ideally linked to elements of chance, skill and “social balance”. Board game-designers simply cannot afford to produce beaten players who feel the rules are unfair.
Trust grows where we can creative, and experience recognition and social balance.
Resilience research comes to mind here, which is concerned with what makes people “resistant” in difficult and strained situations. What is strengthening and what is debilitating? Food is something we eat. But there is also a kind of food that we cannot eat and still need for life. There are, above all, three strengthening “sources of sustenance”. The first one is friendship. Social networks and sustainable relations are empowering. The opposite has a weakening effect: solitude and isolation.
The second source of sustenance is agency (personal effectiveness). That means that I am holding the steering wheel of my own life. The opposite is powerlessness: that eats into us. Can we achieve anything by ourselves, and is there any point in taking action? The concept of “” plays a central role in passing on strain and stress, demands, assessments and reactions. It is a matter of keeping a grip on the world and perceiving demands as challenges.
Physician Aaron Antonovsky defined the feeling of coherence as a global orientation expressing the measure in which we have a penetrating, lasting and dynamic feeling of trust that our own internal and external world is predictable and that there is a high probability that things will develop as may be reasonably expected. feeling of coherence is made up of three related components: comprehensibility, meaning the extent to which incentives, events or developments are perceived as structured, ordered and predictable; manageability, relating to the extent to which a person perceives suitable personal and social resources, in order to be able to cope with internal and external demands; and meaningfulness, meaning the extent to which a person feels their life to be meaningful and considers at least some of the challenges posed by life as challenges that are worth the commitment and investment. A sense of coherence determines whether demands can be seen a challenges, or whether they are regarded as heavy burdens. It is a complex participant variable, describing a structure of opinion about the world, our own person and our own relations with the world. From this consideration, our sense of coherence is also called Weltsinn (sense of the world). Antonovsky stressed that an individual’s sense of coherence relates to social conditions. Having no scope for action, receiving less recognition and being excluded from things that others have plenty of – all this is the expression of a social crisis with a lasting impact on the agency and self-regulation of the persons involved.
The third source of sustenance is recognition. It is about experiencing more recognition and respect. The opposite is being shamed. That is toxic. You do your level best and get no benefit. The burden of daily life with tight finances brings no “rewards”, such as a better income, recognition, support or going up in the world. It is more the contrary – you risk losing your present status. This bad stress, that arises in such a “gratification crisis” (Siegrist, 2008), works particularly where people earn nothing and don’t have a say. If these feelings of powerless continue we learn helplessness: we find it normal not to achieve anything. Anyone who notices that they cannot achieve anything despite their best efforts will sooner or later give up. The toxic cocktail consists of three ingredients: high demands, low and low recognition. That is like driving at top speed with the handbrake on. The central effect is always a violation of social mutuality.
These “sources of sustenance” should not just be interpreted individually but they also raise questions for our institutions: schools, social security offices, job centres, retirement homes, etc. Do they provide nourishing sources of sustenance – or are people made more fragile in these places?
Stereotyping – a threat through shaming
On the village square, late in the afternoon. A crowd of children were sitting on the ground, bent over a paper on which they were doing sums, drawing and writing. The children came from a higher and lower Indian caste, and two women had given them some problems to solve. Despite statutory bans, the caste system still operates culturally in India. Later Karla Hoff and Priyanka Pandey, both of them economists, published the results of this unusual field study. In the first round, the lower-caste children did slightly better than those from the higher one. No one knew who belonged to what caste. Then the experiment was repeated. First, the children had to come forward and give their name, village and caste; then they were allowed to solve the problems. The result was a considerable drop in the results earned by the children from the lower castes. This difference in response to children from richer and poorer parental homes has been noted by studies in the United States and in Europe, too.
It has consequences when a group is made vulnerable due to prejudice and stereotyping in society. Anyone expecting to fail will perform poorly. This effect is called the “stereotype threat”, or threat through shaming. Conversely, that means that the best preconditions for development are to be found in an appreciative environment, where we are allowed to believe in our success. We have a future when we can believe in our abilities – because others believe in us. When I trust my ability there will be people who trust that I can achieve something. Fear due to status and the consequences of negative assessment are inhibiting to learning and performance.
Social shame is not just a harmless personal feeling. Shaming is a social weapon between status groups. I become the object of attention of others. Others determine how I have to see myself. Those concerned are afraid of losing face and putting their reputation at risk. Shaming keeps people small and claims that their denunciation and humiliation is their own fault. That is the treacherous thing about it. Social shame calls on us to find an explanation for the meaning of the offence that we have just suffered. “For the act of shaming to achieve its purpose the responsibility for the shaming defect has to be transferred to the person shamed,” explains sociologist Sighard Neckel. Shaming is also based on making the other person into an object of your own freedom, and this ‘object’ thereby loses both their freedom and their autonomy. For Neckel, the often eruptive fury that we now witness in social networks and elsewhere is “shame turned outward”.
Envy: you or me (but not us both)
Are you envious of people on minimum benefit (in Austria called Mindestsicherung)? Are you envious of those sleeping in emergency accommodation? Are you envious of the unemployed? Is envy a feeling that grips us when we notice that someone else owns something big, beautiful and impressive that we would like to have ourself?
No, replies philosopher Robert Pfaller. First, envy is not about something big, beautiful and impressive. Secondly, it is not about us getting something, but about others not getting something, and thirdly, we don’t want it ourselves.
But one thing at a time. Envy affects what is nearby, similar, tiny, and different. My neighbour’s car, my colleague’s enthusiasm, the smartphone next door. It’s not the millionaire that I envy but, as Aristotle said 2000 years ago, the person like myself. The one who has a few euros more is the one who makes me mad, not the millionaires with their tax havens. Envy is a phenomenon of proximity and of fine differences.
Secondly, it is about the other person not having it. If I get what I envy the other person for I am not happy at all; I just look for another little detail to begrudge them. If I envy my neighbour’s car because it is such a lovely colour, and then buy exactly the same coloured car, will I be content? No, then a new little difference will bother me, e.g. the cool car radio. The discontent will only go away if someone smashes into the parked car and it is a total write-off. Ultimately envy wants the annihilation of the envied object.
We do not really want what we envy others for. Would the man who envies the woman drawing the minimum benefit her allegedly wonderful life really want to swap with this poverty-stricken woman? No. He would say that he did not mean it like that. But her minimum benefit should be reduced!
That is narcissistic logic. The envious person sees the person envied as their “other”, i.e. their whole remaining world, their “absolute horizon”. The rule is: you or me – but not us both. Consequently: if you have it, then I can’t have it. And the fantastically deceptive reverse: if you don’t have it, then I have it.
Envy is socially destructive of solidarity, a poison that divides people with similar interests. In a disagreement about better wages in an English company, workers went without part of a wage rise in order to prevent a rival group being put on the same level as them. The reason for not granting something to another person is so strong that you accept the disadvantage yourself. Put the other way round: envy harms you personally because you renounce something beneficial to yourself. Envy numbs your own enjoyment.
Minimum benefit is a good example. In Lower Austria and now in Upper Austria, asylum is put forward as a ground for cutbacks but this affects single parents, big families, caring relatives and thus harms everyone. That fact is forgotten through envy felt for refugees. That is how pickpockets do it: they always need someone to distract the victim so that the other one can steal their wallet or purse. Envy is the enemy of good relations and the friend of the more powerful. It is an instrument to divide those who could really join forces to improve their own living situations. When envious people would rather deny themselves something rather than begrudge it to the object of their envy, they are blind to this, which is harmful to them and serves the much more powerful…
That is the only way we can understand why some people envy those on minimum benefit the vast sum of four euros they get per day.
There’s nothing to laugh about. Don’t enjoy yourself
An email lands in my mailbox. Re: the broadcast last night. “I heard the discussion on TV,” writes Waltraud V. “My opinion is that whoever has always paid in enough will have enough to live on when they are old. That is only fair, whoever went to work always paid in. The state must then maintain me – that is what some people think as well.” And she continues: “I had an operation and was sent into retirement. The reason was that I was no use any more. All right, what was I to do? But to top it all, they deducted 16% from my pension as I had only worked for thirty years. That did not bother anyone and I always went to work and am now being punished with deductions. I only have a small pension. I was told “you have a husband”, but that’s not fair in my opinion, as I worked my whole life up until the operation. I’m not entitled to a bigger pension only because I’ve got a husband?” The email ends with two sentences: “They don’t want to work and I don’t see why people like that are supported. They just laugh and say, we’ll get everything anyway, why should I work?”
This letter contains all the social contradictions, exemplified in the conflicts in which the letter-writer finds herself. Only those who work are to get a pension, Waltraud V. decrees at the start. Conversely, she indicates that anyone who has paid in too little does not get a pension. That’s how it is. Bad luck. No one needs to get upset. Then, however, someone does get upset. She herself. About the fact that she had worked up to her health problems but was then forced to retire and now gets less. Which she does not think is fair and now means that she depends on her husband. She orders others to laugh and would like to herself. She refers to what she was deprived of as her own, when comparing herself with a group defined as different. She was obviously not the one who drew up the rules that give women a high risk of poverty when it comes to their pensions. Pensions are claimed as her property when she refers to others but the rules to not apply to herself.
The life that is not lived and is considered not possible is lived by the others and thus seems possible. Two things happen. On the one hand, the repressing of a person‘s own wish for an independent livelihood and, on the other, subjection to the authority that makes this wish impossible. And it is the others who laugh. That is expressed in many internet posts. The others are laughing when I have nothing to laugh about. That also means: the others are enjoying themselves although I am not allowed to. I have to do without what I would really like to have or would like to be, what I enjoy, what is fun, what enables a good life. But at the same time I am envious of all those who treat themselves to it. This is a locked-in enjoyment that lives disconnectedly. And the origin of the German word genießen (enjoy) is quite different: the Middle High German word geniesz indicates a common nutznieszung (benefit). Enjoyment in its original sense is not an especially solitary, narrow and consumerist act, it is a shared one. Together we enjoy the fruits of the earth. That does everyone good. The word genießen is also related to the word genesen (recover). Philosopher Robert Pfaller says: “Because we have ourselves begun to hate what we want and we enjoy it clothed in this hate, we need the fiction of the other as being genuinely in possession of happiness, and we hate this person just as much as we hate this happiness. Because we can’t admit to ourselves that we have preferred to hate happiness to happiness itself.”
Our own powerlessness spawns a claim to power over other powerless individuals. We fantasise that they enjoy what we wish to enjoy but which has been denied us through the prevailing conditions. That is a merry-go-round of “rebellious self-subjugation”. Another mechanism that estranges us from our needs and those of the neighbour is identification with the attacker. That means becoming equal to the one who forces something on us. Scaring other people helps people not to feel the anxiety they have, to quote psychoanalyst Anna Freud. “You only have to play that you yourself are the dangerous man whom you could meet,” the older sister advises her small brother. “Then you don’t need to fear anything.” That game is self-destructive in the long run.
These findings lead to three perspectives: the opposite of powerlessness is agency; the opposite of envy is being able to enjoy; the opposite of offence is receiving appreciation.
- Putting people into a position of strength. Enabling agency and empowerment. We have to encourage people to use their opportunities for action – at work, at school, in the village. It is about constructive action and meaningful activity.
- Not just repeating “anxieties and worries” like a mantra and thereby making the whole of society neurotic, but tackling the fettered opportunities for fulfilment, and uncovering the enjoyment that you deny yourself. The worse your own self-denial is, the tougher you will be on the more vulnerable. Anyone who is unable or no longer allowed to enjoy becomes “hard to stomach”.
- The third perspective is that of taking offences seriously and not glossing over them with a platitudinous “it will all work out”, not giving an inappropriate reply or offering deceptive hopes. The issue is about showing recognition and not denying people respect and dignity in their daily life.
A lighting-shape scar adorns Harry Potter‘s forehead. He suffered the injury as a baby, when the evil and powerful Dark Lord Voldemort tried to kill him. Harry still feels twinges from this scar, which constantly reminds him of his mother; she died when throwing herself in front of her baby to protect him.
The scar says, you are vulnerable. Not an invulnerable hero, not a tank on two legs. “You do not need to be ashamed of what you feel, Harry. On the contrary, the fact that you feel pain like this is your greatest strength,” says Professor Dumbledor, headmaster of Hogwarts School. Harry is not an invulnerable superhero, he is vulnerable. And what he creates, he achieves with the assistance of others. These are: his friends Ron and Hermione; Professor Dumbledor, who brings support at the last minute; his profound memory of his father, who sent him a protector against the dementors bringing living death; and Harry’s mother, who preserves him from Voldemort and whose loving legacy makes Harry strong. Harry owes his abilities to the quality of his personal relations.
“Everyone can win if they only want to” or “life is what you make it” – these are the slogans of the reputedly invulnerable super-hero.
In the last few years two ideological strands have become interwoven. The scapegoat story with its core statement: “If they were not there everything would be better” and the winner ideology: “Everyone can win if they only want to.” You look up to the winner and down to the scapegoat. You agree with the winner and throw out the scapegoat. “If they were not there everything would be better.” Finding a group that is to blame for anything and everything, including what is going wrong in a community. And imagining that everything would be better if they were no longer there.
That links up directly with the ideology of the winners. Or, the other way round: if you don’t make it, it is your own fault. This ideology is particularly effective because it shames “losers” and affirms “winners”. It supports those who have made it and holds down those who are on the ground. The “losers” are called on to remain “fair”, to accept defeat with congratulations to the “winners”, ultimately to identify with the latter. Life – an Olympic idea. “You have to be in it to win it,” but please stay on the ground floor. And keep smiling! The great disappointments, the defeats, the cracks, must not be noticed, since no disappointment is really respected. All disappointments are played down or converted into invented stories of heroism.
But one of the great stories of humanity says “You are vulnerable”. The Greek fighter Achilles’ famous “Achilles heel” reminded him of that fact. And despite a bath in dragon’s blood, Siegfried fell victim to the linden leaf on his vulnerable shoulder. Or the story of the birth of a baby in a stable, who was strong and fragile at the same time.
Invulnerability is not possible, nor is it to be desired. Invulnerability contains the danger of mercilessness. For only those who are vulnerable themselves can perceive the vulnerability of the other. In view of Harry Potter’s scar, the great songwriter Leonard Cohen would have answered with his famous song lines: “Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
These are the cracks through which life gets in.
The Parliament of the invisible
A poem to enter. A song to come in. A short story to open the door. This evening we invite you to an event at the Diakonie emergency centre s`Häferl (the cup), which is an inn for people who are short of cash and live on the breadline. One visitor is Anneliese, who only just makes ends meet with her minimum pension. Another one is Kurt, who has been spat out by the labour market like an inedible piece of meat, and Lisa, fighting illness and everyday problems. There is food and drink for all. Anneliese reads out the short story she wrote a few days ago about a past love, Kurt sings humorous songs about his former work, Lisa dares to say a poem that occurred to her in the tram. They were all branded useless, were said to have no chance on the employment market and were made invisible to the public eye. Yet here in the Häferl we have a stock of hidden talent, and all the economically devalued abilities and knowledge of people are discovered, made visible and audible.
Another scene. Conversations and interviews with semi-skilled workers, skilled workers and women doing casual work in Stiria, an Austrian state. The men have experienced redundancies, re-employment and again redundancies. The women report of unsafe, poorly paid jobs, long phases of unemployment and the difficulty of combining paid work and family life. Men accept difficult working conditions for the sake of social security, a modest income and social recognition. The women are proud of being able to manage everything – having their own income and also time for the children. However, the promise that achievement and enthusiasm for work guarantee social security and respect has begun to shake. They have all experienced social decline: an occupational decline from being a metal worker to a street cleaner, loss of wages, forced early retirement. They feel cheated of the promised approach to life, where hard work is supposed to lead to a modest livelihood and a recognised social status. The women have always worked in precarious jobs but always got another one. These job opportunities in the lower wage segment are now disappearing. “I’m over fifty so who will take me on? It´s getting more and more difficult.” Training, hard work, denial, loyalty – all that does not protect people from losing their jobs. Those affected interpret that as a blow to fairness and as a profound hurt and offence. Apparently there is no language for that in public. Their situation is played down or glossed over with empty words of encouragement to just keep going. “Who sees our worries and our fears?” say more and more people, who have not ended up on the sunny side of the street. The debate about minimum benefit, for example, has been taking place for two years without those directly concerned. And no seems to have noticed.
Things are getting worse and more risky. Feelings of injustice meet feelings of powerlessness. There is a clear link between uncertainty and a loss of control, on the one hand, and ideologies of devaluation and marginalisation, on the other. Mutuality is broken, tacit agreement has been unilaterally ended. The most important clashes in history have been conducted about this borderline of respectability. Through the participation in affluence, education and social security gained through struggles in the 1950s, the vast majority of workers and small self-employed people were integrated into the social centre of respectability. This social model is now being called into question. Everyday work is characterised by a growing level of dependence and less recognition. The conditions of recognition play an important role.
But “not being noticed” also means “being excluded”. Pierre Rosanvallon, a democracy theorist, argues that today the longing for a just society is linked to the wish for recognition. And it is precisely here that a renewal of democracy must start: with those whose lives are in the shadows, who are not represented, who are not visible. In Paris, Rosanvallon has founded a “Parliament of the invisible”, that is a forum for the stories of people who would otherwise have remained in the shadows: of young people who fight their way through, of workers in the low-pay sector, of the old man in the . For many it has become difficult to still interpret society and themselves in its midst. “It underminds democracy if the many soft voices remain unheard, quite ordinary are neglected and apparently banal life stories are disregarded.”
There is something in our lives that is really important. Certain needs that have to be met. They include sources of sustenance that cannot be eaten but are still needed for life. Psychologist Abraham Maslow lists five shortages that, if they are not covered, make us receptive for all kinds of extremist talk: hunger and thirst, violence and unemployment, isolation and loneliness, a lack of respect and appreciation, letting your own potential go to waste. “Anyone who is constantly hungry will follow those who promise bread. Those who guarantee safety will get hearers among people who are scared and traumatised,” is the analysis of network-researcher Harald Katzmair. “Those who offer participation will resonate with lonely people. Those who say: as you are, you are a valuable person, will be heard by those who never stand in the light of recognition. Those who are squeezed into hierarchies will welcome people who enable new scope for action as liberators.” Anyone who no longer has these basic needs on their radar will not be able to counter ideologies of social exclusion. Above all, awareness has declined for how those who are not on the sunny side of the street need appreciation, dignity and integrity.
Apprentices, for example, are only viewed in terms of their function for the employment market. Only “half the personality” of the young people doing vocational training comes into the focus of public discussion, criticises youth researcher Bernhard Heinzlmaier: “Political and business leaders are completely indifferent to what people do outside of their work situation, in their political and leisure-time activities, relationships and families. The political establishment has to pay for this at every election. The apprentices who don’t feel sufficiently appreciated by the establishment have become passive rebels against the system.”
Sociologist Didier Eribon supplies a further consideration. When he went back to his native city of Reims to retrace his family he found that the factory workers among his relatives all vote for the rightwing extremist party. Eribon writes that “we have to interpret the approval of the Front National at least partly as a kind of political defence by the lower classes. They try to defend their collective identity, or at least a dignity that has always been trampled on and now is even not respected by those who used to represent and defend it.” Workers had turned into “socially disadvantaged groups”, proletarians into the “uneducated classes”. Stakeholders calling for their rights had become a collection of victims and needy individuals. Some turn into objects of social and moral pedagogy, into deficient under-class dimwits that are good for nothing. Others are regarded as objects of victorious welfare, as eternal victims who need everything. But never as actors, as protagonists. There are sources of sustenance that we can’t eat but still need for life. Anyone who does not stand in the light will trust those who what is at risk of disappearing from everyday life: respect and dignity.
Aus: Martin Schenk & Martin Schriebl-Rümmele (2017): „Genug gejammert! Warum wir gerade jetzt ein starkes soziales Netz brauchen“, Kapitel 2 „Gefühle“, S.43-58, AmPuls Verlag.