Zahavi’s seminal book on animal signaling tells how certain birds look high status by forcing food down the throat of other birds, who thereby seem low status. While this “altruism” does help low status birds survive, they rightly resent it, as their status loss outweighs their food gain.
In our society, “sympathy” by high status folks for low status folks usually functions similarly — it affirms their high status while giving little net benefit to the low status. For example, the latest New Yorker reviews several books on the Roman empire, including one on the lives of ordinary Romans:
Much of what we know about the Roman emperors is based on myth and misunderstanding. But even that much can’t be said for the vast majority of their subjects, whose way of life has barely left a trace in the historical record. …
[It is] an overwhelmingly dark picture. “Invisible Romans” is full of anecdotes and quotations that speak volumes about Roman attitudes toward women, slaves, and the cheapness of life in general. … In general the lot of the ordinary Roman was no different from that of the vast majority of human beings before the modern age: powerlessness, bitterly hard work, and the constant presence of death. The thing that strikes Knapp most about Roman popular wisdom is its deep passivity in the face of these afflictions, which feels so alien to moderns and especially to Americans. The Romans, he writes, had no concept of progress … A slave might dream of manumission but hardly of abolition. For women, “there were no alternative lifestyles and aspirations either offered or considered … Even the amenities of the ‘Roman world, like the famous public baths, lose their lustre … “baths offered not only social interaction but a lack of hygiene schooling even to contemplate.” (more)
It almost seems as if this author feels it would have been better if these pathetic creatures had never existed, if not for their eventually giving rise to worthy creatures like him. So sad, he muses, that they didn’t bother to even imagine the future changes that could justify their miserable existence. He probably thinks it only a coincidence that his disgust affirms his lofty status among all the humans who have ever lived.
Sigh. The lives of ordinary folks in the Roman empire might not have been as nice as this author’s, nor as nice as yours. Yes they sometimes had pain, hunger, and sickness, but even so they were mostly lives worth living, with much love, laughter, engagement, and satisfaction. Poor folk do smile.
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