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A Relative Measure of Worth

I remember back in the day often hearing friends of mine say that the only way they might do certain things that they didn’t really find attractive (befriending a gay person or someone of another race, dating beneath their class status) would be if they were paid a million dollars to do it. Sometimes, dependent upon how far fetched they were in their thinking, I would challenge them to unpack it. I began my challenge by asking if a million dollars was the benchmark for when they would do it. It was an arbitrary benchmark that they had created and they needed to truly think about the dimensions of their arbitrariness. Puzzled, they often would challenge me to take my point further, which I graciously did.

I said to them, if you would do whatever for $1,000,000 dollars, then you would do it for $500,000 thousand. Without hesitation, most of them would own up to the fact that they would. I then confronted them about the fact that if they would lower their so-called standards from a million to half a million, we could further half that half and they ultimately would still do it for a quarter of a million. After a moment or two of thought, they once again concurred. I then pointed out to them that half of a quarter million, which is $125,000 was also a great deal of money that could solve many financial woes for many people and therefore would also be enough monetary compensation to entice them to do what they had earlier stated they would only do for a million dollars. From that point on, I continued to half the amount: $125,000 down to $62,500, down to $31,250, down to $15,625, down to $7,812.50, down to $3,906.25, down to $1,953.12, down to $976.56, down to $488.28, down to $244.14, down to $122.07, down to $61.04, down to $30.52, down to $15.26, down to $7,63, down to $3.81, down to $1.91, down to $.95, etc. At some point, as I’m sure you’ve already surmised, the law of diminishing return plays a large part in forcing us to face the hypocrisy of certain aspects of our thought process and how we actually articulate some of the most ridiculous assertions that we truly have not unpacked. Can you think of any other assertions that reflect this?

What does this "relative measure of value" have to do with diversity and social justice? Well, it is the same type of logic that we often succumb to when we consider different people. What do they have to do with us? Why should we care about people that look, act, or originate from realities different from ours? Why should we care about wealthy people? Doesn’t their wealth solve all of their problems? Or must we be concerned with so-called poor people, or poverty outside of our own community, or poverty outside of our own homes, or poverty outside of ourselves? If it doesn’t affect us directly it doesn’t affect us at all, right? Wrong! Very wrong! When we aren’t enlightened enough to understand that inconsideration of others breeds inconsideration of us, when we encounter a moment where someone is doing or has done us wrong we must stop and reflect on how we may have set the table for our receipt of that wrongdoing sometime earlier. My laughing at some man disrespecting a woman I am not connected to very much can affect me. My endorsing someone ridiculing a gay person ten years ago could very well have been the foundation for my grandchild of the future one day becoming the victim of a homophobic person that is a direct descendant of the homophobes I endorsed years before. My mother was correct when she once told me that I shouldn’t laugh when people tell Polish jokes, or Jewish jokes, or Hispanic jokes, because when I walk away, they probably are telling Black jokes. However, what my mother would also impart to me was the more important fact, that when I stopped to consider my actions, what is really the case is that I know right from wrong, and the bottom line is that laughing at other people’s realities is just that, wrong.

On the other hand, taking constructive action to value people for their uniqueness is an opportunity, not a chore. Our inability to see valuing others as an opportunity, instead of a task, is not far removed from requiring a million dollars to accept a certain onerous challenge. A million dollars—in the grand scheme of things—breaks down to a whole lot less money, given the context of our need at any given moment. How logical is it to require or expect a million dollars on a Monday for something you would do for $976.56 ten days later? Does the arbitrariness of asserting a worth towards something that you would or would not do as a result of what probably is peer pressure threaten to leave us looking more like we don’t deserve a dime? As a matter of fact, if the word gets out that we are that immature and petty, perhaps it will take a million dollars for someone to want to experience us! Your thoughts???


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Why should a person be valued for their uniqueness? Shouldn't a person's value to society be based on the person? By your reasoning a mass-murder should be valued because there are so few of them around.

I'm not sure what merit there is in discovering how much one needs to be bribed in order to do the right thing. For that matter, a person befriending someone solely on the basis of a monetary gift is likely not truly befriending that person. So what is the point in asking the question?

*** Doug, first, welcome to the conversation. Now, when we consider that nothing happens in a vacuum or without a context, why would you assert that a mass-murderer should be valued? Isn't it possible that we begin the conversation about valuing human's uniqueness without having to assume that we are talking about human's that aren't harming others by their actions. Your initial statement could give readers the opinion that you are responding with a preset agenda.

The purpose of asking the question is that it is one of those statements that we casually toss out in general conversation that actually has more weight to it when given a second thought. *** -- J.W.

This is a profound story because it points out how much control/power we give up when money is offered to us. We prove how little we think/feel of ourselves when we are willing to give up our beliefs for a monetary value less valuable than we are.

To travel down another road, I do not condone the beliefs that people different than me aren’t “good enough” for me to be around/date, etc. and I find it terrifying to think that money can solve such thoughts. In fact, this is the world we live in. Really, would people of disadvantaged races, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, and classes have any visibility in our society if not to generate profit for large corporations? I think of the NBA and NFL, with predominately black players and white ownership. Have we really overcome our racist ways as a society or just allowed a million, a quarter million, or $976.56 to mask our racism?

Speaking of racism, I find such the hate that drives racism to be on the scale of mass murder (think the slave trade, Holocaust, and ongoing colonization) and there are plenty of individuals in our society with said hate, whether directly or indirectly contributing.

I was actually going to make a play off of the NBA/NFL angle as well. Two years ago a player in the NFL, Albert Haynesworth, a defensive lineman for the Washington Redskins, signed a contract for $100 Million over 6 years. Now just two years into the contract he has become disenfranchised with the coach, defensive coordinator, general manager and owner, while alienating his teammates. He had spent his whole life trying to get paid in this way to play football, and now that it finally arrived, it wasn't good enough.

Without going into all the details, he was asked by the coach to make a small transition in his game (basically moving from the outside of the defensive line to the inside of the line) and he said he didn't want to do it. He held out from the team and said he didn't want to play for them anymore. It has only gone downhill from that point and as of today he has been suspended for the rest of the season without pay.

My point is this: if you had told Albert Haynesworth when he was a little 10 year old boy, playing for nothing more than the love of the game that one day he would sign a $100 Million contract only he had to play on the interior of the line as opposed to the outside of the line, do you think he would have been happy? I'm betting he would have. So, what could have happened during that time to warp someone's sense of what is important to the point where he would take such drastic measures?

I, myself, have never signed a $100 Million contract, so I can't exactly relate with Albert. However, I can say that no matter how much we all want to believe that if we ever won the lottery or invented the next eBay that we wouldn't change as people, I think it's difficult to know for sure. Maybe if I won the lottery I would start to believe I was larger than life, much in the way Haynesworth has. Maybe I would forget the values in which I was raised and that have made me into who I am today. Maybe I wouldn't. But as an outsider it sure is easy to look at someone who seemingly 'has it all' and think... "What do you have to complain about? You have more money than you could possibly spend in 5 lifetimes and all you do is play football for a living. Shut up. Go to 'work' on time. Do what is asked of you, then go home to your $15 Million house and live in the lap of luxury."

Well, what if having all that money isn't really all it's cracked up to be? I can sit here and say "for $100 Million I would drink a gallon of bleach". But what is that $100 Million really worth? In theory... $100 Million. But is it really worth your morals, yourcore values, your 'real' friends or your true happiness? They always say 'money can't buy happiness' and we say 'well i've never seen someone frown on a jet-ski'. What if money really can't buy happiness? Then why are we all concerning ourselves with questions like 'would you hook up with Janet Reno for $100,000'? It sounds to me like all we are really doing is putting a price tag on our morals and core values. If that's the case, Albert Haynesworth has taught me that they are worth more than $100 Million. Tiger Woods would probably agree.

I just saw this today, but had a conversation about it last night with my wife. In response to a TV show scene where one character was offered $20 million (inflation!) to kill another character he later described as one of his only friends, my wife asked me if I would kill her for $20 million. Not being completely insane or stupid, I answered that I wouldn't.

What is interesting about this scenario, and JW's use of it in class, is what it says about us and our principles. If the action involved is truly against our principles, there shouldn't be any price we would take for it. Conversely, if we are willing to be bought, then our position isn't really principled. At that point, saying "I'd do it for a million bucks" is akin to saying "I'd rather not do it", with a heavy dose of hyperbole.

On another point made in the post, for the sake of argument I will suggest that laughing at the realities of others is not "wrong" in the way you are asserting. While I agree that it is not something we should do, I also think there is plenty of evidence from the various social sciences to support the position that it is a deeply human thing to do. We are a social organism, and need to be members of groups. One of the things that groups do is set themselves apart from the "other", whoever that happens to be. One of the ways used to differentiate our group is by mocking the behaviors and beliefs of those outside our group. It is a crucial part of identity formation, and in a very real way is not something we can change. Therefore, it can't be "wrong" in the broad sense of that term, because it is fundamental to what I will call "human nature".

Now, I would still agree with JW that in many (but not all) cases it is "wrong". What determines when it is wrong is a complicated exercise in line-drawing. I would suggest it is more "wrong" to put down those who are socially disadvantaged already than those who are socially advantaged, for example. In the case of the latter, mocking members of privileged groups may serve a socially useful function, for example.

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