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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Elitism: Human Warmth Or Weakness?

As I discussed in my previous article, subsystem analysis can help us understand the internal conflicts within a complex system and how it can produce bizarre results.

Today, let's look at a topic that many Singaporeans like to talk about:


In Singapore, elitism has a negative connotation of unfair in-group privilege, power hoarding, self-promotion and suppression of opportunities for talented outsiders.

It is easy to believe that elitism is a product of a cold, selfish society where everyone only cares about himself or herself.

However, I think that the roots of elitism actually lies in the "warmth" of normal human social behaviour.

In fact, if everyone really only cared about themselves, then elitism cannot occur!

Come, let me show you what I mean:

In this thought experiment, we have a hypothetical society with a simple structure containing only four social classes - top, rich, middle and poor - represented using horizontal lines.

The vertical line running through all classes represent the social ladder that individuals need to climb on their way to the top (or descend on their way to the bottom).

Right now it's just an empty ladder with no one on it...

... so let's populate it with some happy peeps!

Here are ten social groups (eg. families) represented by ten different coloured blocks.

Each block contains ten individuals who will be later represented by coloured dots.

Now all we have to do is to sprinkle the individuals randomly throughout this social structure...

... unfortunately, in a capitalistic society, only a few people can be at the top. Depending on how the society allocates its wealth, generally most people will be in the middle class.

In addition, random distribution is not perfectly even, so some social groups are over-represented in the different classes: there are disproportionately more red dots in the top class, more fuchsia dots in the rich class, and so on.

Given this historic contingency of uneven distribution of social rank, what will happen if we leave the happy peeps on their own to run their society for a number of years?

This is an extreme elitist scenario.

In this case, the people have very "sticky" in-group interactions and favour group unity.

Here the red peeps have used their money and power to help fellow group members join the top level. Together they form a strong bloc and prevent anyone else from rising into their class.

Similarly, the fuchsia peeps control the rich class, while the blues and yellows dominate the middle class, congealing into solid layers of colour that restrict both the upward and downward movement of individuals.

The result is absolute social stratification with no social mobility whatsoever.

This might seem frightening to most people (especially the poor), but needless to say it is the ultimate utopian society for the few people who are at the top.

Even the middle class will grudgingly try to maintain this status quo as rigidly as possible, since there is no way up and no group wants to be displaced downwards. Dangerous tension between the classes lurk in the background.

There are real world societies that approximate this situation.

The USA, which constantly prides itself as a country where "dreams come true", is in reality facing worsening social mobility in recent years.

The fact that a country of over 300 million people, with a hundred-strong Senate, can have a President whose son also became President, would make anyone suspicious about the meaning of "meritocracy" there.

Now, let's look at what would happen in a society where group ties are much weaker...

This is an extreme populist scenario.

In this case, the people have no group loyalty and only care for individual advancement.

The red peeps at the top have been displaced by more ambitious people from different coloured groups. There is fluid social mobility, resulting in a more chaotic distribution of colours throughout all the classes.

In terms of fairness, it might seem like an ideal scenario, but if you look carefully at the details - this is a cold and fragmented society.

Rich, heartless members of the red group simply let fellow group members fall into the poor class without batting an eyelid.

Also, the top class has no unity since the individuals are not interested to form any sort of group and would rather fight with each other to maintain their position.

There is no security or stability - every day is a struggle.

Even if this fragile society can somehow hold itself together, in our competitive world it might fall prey to a more rigid society with effective central control and unitary strength.


Of course, both the elitist and populist scenarios presented here are extreme caricatures, and real world societies fall somewhere between these.

But I find it supremely curious to see how subsystem conflicts of interest can turn basic human warmth and reciprocal kindness into a ticking time bomb at a higher organizational level.

And how individual level indifference can help enhance the impartiality and equality of a society.


A said...

Very enlightening!

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Thank you, A. I hope that was a clear illustration!