Sometimes our language reveals things about us we’d rather not think about. How about the expression, "Very Important Person," or VIP? I’ve sponsored and proudly attended VIP receptions. But if I’m with the Very Important Persons, what of the excluded ones, those declared Very Unimportant Persons by default?
Why, we wonder, do so many Americans remain disengaged from civic and politic life? Well, one reason can be found in the overpowering signals we send that they don’t matter, or that there are people much more important than they are getting to do things they, Very Unimportant Persons, cannot do.
The "you-don’t-matter" signals begin at an early age: "Children should be seen and not heard." The signals continue through adolescence as some (not all) authority figures promote docility and obedience. The poor and the non-white hear and see it every day of their lives, in the faces of store clerks, bureaucrats, police officers, even educators.
We create temporary hierarchies even when they are completely unnecessary. How easy it is for the church vestryman to forget he’s only there because he has the luxury of time (and probably money). But the role soon takes on the aura of earned merit. There’s a dividing line: deserving insiders (he’s one) and undeserving outsiders.
I’ve seen this on movie sets. Visiting friends, I’ve seen production assistants wearing masks of Oh-So-Serious Authority, carried away by the importance they’ve attached to their own access. These people work hard for too small a reward. The pressure’s intense and the hours long. I stand in solidarity with them, but they ought to act more like the salt of the earth they are.
What about rock concerts? Got a backstage pass? Are you on the list? Are you privileged? Aren’t the unwashed not on the list just crowding the place with their unimportantness?
These are all examples of what we might call "micro-tyranny." They look like insignificant cultural habits or games that carry no importance outside the limits of their particular time and place.
They are habits, but they are not insignificant, and we should break ourselves of them. I think achieving democracy depends upon it. Until we feel our essential equality in our bones, until we quit our Napoleonic poses when asked to guard a stage door, we’ll continue to demoralize and dehumanize others in small ways that produce great, grave consequences.
These are weighty issues that have produced whole libraries of sociological, political and historical research. But breaking the habit of micro-tyranny doesn’t require deep theoretical insight. It just takes some self-knowledge and some empathy.
When I ask myself why I might, on occasion, become a micro-tyrant (and I have, as most of us have), I find my temporary air of superiority is almost always a cover, a defense. There was some lack I was hiding. I’ve never sought power over others. I don’t trust power. Nonetheless, when placed in temporary positions of authority I have, now and again, treated others as less than equal.
Social creatures seek recognition of others. Too often, contemporary life denies recognition to individuals. Hurried, distracted, and overworked, we deny it to ourselves.
And that brings me back to friendship, the topic I opened last week. If we were better friends to each other, we might diminish the kind of voids and insecurities that result in over-heated micro-tyrannies. I might not have a lack to hide.
Loneliness is not the only reason for the wacky authoritarian excesses of micro-tyrannies, of course. Sometimes the most conscientious can snap. There are just bossy people, too. Really, the reasons are countless.
All I’m suggesting is that attention to our immediate interpersonal relations can pay enormous political dividends on a grand scale. I think this would be its own reward, but for the utilitarians among us: We make more time for friends, we are happier and more secure, we treat others with respect and dignity, and, just maybe, they no longer feel like Very Unimportant Persons. So they vote.
Maybe, at our progressive fundraisers, will just drop the use of "VIP," and call the category what it is: "People Who Gave A Lot of Money." That way, no one becomes unimportant by default.