Strong and weak: a dilemma of a contemporary society?
Vladimir Shlapentokh and Jeff Oliver
For as much as Nietzsche continues to be respected in philosophy, his ideas are seldom considered as having direct relevance to our lives. We cannot accept Nietzsche’s cult of “Übermench” and his contempt for weak people, which ideas Ayn Rand propagated (and not without success) in America in the 1940s-1970s. These ideas also came to prominence during the recent presidential campaign.
However, Nietzsche’s attitude toward weak people (Americans in the age of political correctness prefer to talk about “vulnerable” people) is more complicated than his detractors suggest. The division of Western society into two strata of the population— one, socially strong , relatively well secured, and self-sustaining people, and the other socially weak, quite vulnerable and expecting help from society has many implications. In recent decades, for various reasons this division, along with the traditional and very important stratifications of people such as poor and rich, the rulers and those who are ruled have become more acute than in the past, and the size of “the weak stratum,”, the notorious 47 percent in the parlance of Mitt Romney, has increased in the USA as well as in all Western countries. As matter of fact, as is the title of Brazilian serial “Rich people cry too,”, there is the legion of “weak people” among the members of the elites— abused wives and children, and humiliated relatives –not to mention their servants and employees even if their salaries are high.
The origin of this division and generated by its inequality however, is highly disputed. Is it the result of hard work by one group of people compared to others? Is it a result of greater opportunities available to some compared to others (such as the environment in which one is brought up)? Is it the result of different family histories or genetic heritages? In our opinion, the “strong-weak” division is caused (in addition to other factors) by the fact that people are equipped with varying degrees of different types of resources. These resources may be material or economic, but also may be resources which are not material including social status, intellect, education and knowledge of certain things (for instance, of laws and customs of the country of residence), skills, health, and social connections, even physical strength and sexual attraction. The dominance of one individual over another in the amount of any of these resources provides power and opportunity to abuse it.
Whatever its origin, inequality is a very complex topic which does not tolerate a simplistic approach typical for Nietzsche and his modern-day followers (like certain Tea Party extremists) or leftist radicals. Inequality is an extraordinarily important pre-condition for competition and progress in many spheres including science, art and sport, but at the same time it creates tension, prompts conflicts, and overall undermines the unity of society (which faces many threats in the contemporary world).
Most authors discussing inequality usually have in mind big groups –geographic regions, social classes, ethnic, racial and cultural groups, genders and age cohorts. The inequalities which people face in the big world are “anonymous.” In the “big anonymous world” people suffer from the actions of others whom they do not meet or even know personally.
We assert that this “interpersonal” abuse –a very frequent development in contemporary world — has its roots in the unequal distribution of various resources among individuals. It is estimated, for instance, that between 500,000 and 5 million elderly persons are abused in some way each year in the US alone. While the problem of elder abuse has become more well-known, it is perhaps a less well-known fact that roughly two-thirds of all victims are abused by a close family member such as a child or spouse.
The severity of bullying (a form of abuse by peers with whom the child regularly interacts rather than a “faceless other”) is echoed in the estimated 3 million victims of bullying each year. Bullying is just one representation of the way in which students possess different resources like physical strength or the social prestige of parents to abuse others.
The existence of hierarchy even in small groups and the ensuing uneven distribution of power often leads to serious conflicts and open abuse of power. In some ways, those who hold commanding positions even in a small group, the head of a family (if it exists), a professor, a head of government, a clerk or even a business official can use his or her control over scarce resources (such as the right to issue orders and punish the disobedient) to get additional benefits. These benefits may be anything from sexual pleasure to extracting money from those who had no choice but to obey to them.
It would be wrong to say that the inequality in the distribution of resources in small social cells and its numerous negative implications are ignored in American society. We can cite several institutions, governmental and civil , which try to protect abused women and children as well as those whose targets of concern are the elderly and immigrants and other individuals who are “oppressed” and “ afflicted” in Dostoyevsky’s words .
However, it is evident that the attention of our society to the sufferings of millions of its compatriots in school and family, in hospital and in office is not enough. Spouse abuse has been ignored for too long and too little is known about how to prevent it. Similarly, the full scope of elder abuse is not known, but can only be estimated due to under-reporting. Even rapes and other abuses between men and women within the armed forces are under-reported. American society should enhance its effort to fight the abuse of those who lack the resources which can protect them.