Going to extremes

Rich and Poor
In my role as a Bikeability instructor I have the opportunity to work with children from varied backgrounds. My pupils run the gamut of the socioeconomic spectrum: from the bottom, to the middle, to the top. To my surprise I’ve noticed certain parallels between those at its extremes. Indeed, those at the top and those at the bottom often seem to have more in common with each other than they do with those in the middle.

My work involves teaching basic road knowledge to children between the ages of nine and eleven. Whilst its not always the case, I’ve often noticed that kids from the more extreme backgrounds - the very rich and the very poor - do not engage with the lessons. Of course, I teach many kids who, for various reasons, do not engage, but I draw attention to these because there was something notably different about their attitude. Furthermore I found it interesting that, in spite of their distance on the socioeconomic spectrum, the attitude that they displayed towards the course was remarkably similar.

Its hard to define this attitude, other than to say they seemed entirely detached. They went through the motions, but I was left in no doubt that this was all they were doing: going through the motions. What they communicated to me was a sense that they were above the course; or beneath it. This stuff simply wasn’t for them; not necessarily because it was boring, or challenging; but because it was irrelevant.

Overworld and Underworld

Society exerts a form of gravity upon the great mass of people, binding them to its surface through its culture, norms and laws. But as we travel further from its centre, this force lessens, and those norms and laws no longer have quite the same pull.

Bookending our society are two worlds: the overworld and the underworld. Whilst they may appear to be opposed - one a positive pole, and one a negative - I see them more as two moons circulating a planet. They may take opposing positions in space, but in their relationship to the planet they are alike. Both orbit it, but are not quite of it.

I have no interest in saying whether the kids I teach belong to either of these worlds. They may or they may not. But their approach to my course showed me something interesting.

I realised that they were not, to paraphrase The Wire’s Howard Colvin, learning for our world - they were learning for theirs.

What I had to teach them came from the middle ground, from that place of strong gravity at the centre of society. It was, therefore, designed for an audience that lived within this middle ground and that accepted its norms.

The attitude of these kids struck me because they came from an unfamiliar place: from the fringes. They showed me that the currency of the middle ground is significantly devalued - if not worthless - in their world.

Going to extremes

In spite of - or perhaps, because of - existing at the fringes of our society, these worlds have a significant influence upon it.

Its been said that the gangsters at the top of society are not very different from those at the bottom. From the hands on gangsterism of the underworld, to the hands off gangsterism of the overworld, both find common ground in their exploitation of those in the middle. Indeed, it seems to me that their very existence depends upon it.

It is easier to exploit something when you are distanced from it, when you do not identify with it.
This is, perhaps, one outcome when a society allows its members to travel too far from its core; when it allows too great a disparity between them.

A structure - be it a body, or a society - can only produce an extreme through concentrating certain of its resources in a pointed direction. If I want to become extremely muscular then I must devote resources - time, energy, money - to the task. If I want to remain in this extreme state, then I must continue to devote my resources to it.

But a structure must also maintain its equilibrium - thus a heavy weight on one side of the scales necessitates an equally heavy weight on the other. Extreme wealth demands extreme poverty.

Opposites meet

What I noticed through my work - this meeting of the top and the bottom - was something timeless and archetypal. It is only one example of a larger truth; that, when pushed to extremes, all opposites will eventually meet. This pattern can be represented by the symbol of the ouroboros, the snake that swallows its own tail.

In this sense, those that go to extremes always have much in common, in spite of their apparent differences. Thus, the saint and the sinner may well be cut from the same cloth - separated by only a slim sliver of fate.


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