Sunday, April 8, 2007

What is Your Value?

I was reading today's newspaper, and came across two articles that both touched on groups within the United States that feel that they aren't as valued by the public as other people are.

One story deals with the rise in unprovoked attacks on the homeless in America, over the past few years, focussing on a few high-profile cases. One advocate for the homeless attributes the rise in assualts to governments devaluing the homeless in the eyes of the public, a side effect of a minor trend of local governments adopting ordinances that try to reduce the "nuisance factor" posed by the homeless by restricting where and/or when they can perform certain activities. "When cities pass laws that target homeless people," he says, "they send a message to their communities that the homeless are not as valuable in the public eye as those with homes."

Another story
chronicles Hispanic anger over being left out of Ken Burns' new documentary about the Second World War, entitled simply, "The War." While the war deals with the racism encountered by black servicemen and the internment of Japanese Americans, there is no mention of the issues that faced Latinos during the war. "Our people weren't valued," complains one advocate. "Not only were they not valued then, they are not being valued today."

But what does it mean for any one group of people to "value" another group of people? If you check the simple dictionary definition of value, the phrase "relative worth, utility, or importance" is presented as a meaning. Using this as a starting point, we have the idea that advocates for Latin-Americans and the homeless do not feel that they are as high on that relative scale as they should be. So who is above them on that scale that the would rather see re-ordered to nearer the bottom of the ladder? I don't think that's what they're aiming for. Rather, what they're likely after is the abolition of the whole idea of "value" as an attribute that we apply to other people through a greater level of egalitarianism. If any given coin has the same amount of purchasing power as any other coin, for instance, you can't meaningfully talk about the value of one coin or another - you can only talk about the value of coins as a whole.

It's a laudable goal, but unrealistic. Short of orbital mind-control lasers, you're never going to be able to create a society (let alone) a world where it's simply not possible to have an idea that one person is of greater relative worth, utility, or importance than any other person. Some people we like - and we want them to like us in return, and we're willing to go out of our way for them. Should we not acknowledge that we ascribe them greater worth than we do to others? There are going to be people who are in a better position to help you than others are - doesn't that make them of greater relative utility? There are people who have the power to set policy and make laws, when others do not. And, to the degree that those laws have an effect on our day-to-day lives, aren't those people more important that those who lack that power? The feeling of being undervalued becomes a reminder that others don't have any special feelings for you, need or want anything from you and/or aren't affected in their daily lives by the things that you do. But by that reasoning, most of us are are very little value to anyone. I doubt that someone in the Ukraine right now considers me to be particularly valuable.

In the end, a more reasonable goal becomes the separation of the rights and privileges that we give to people from the idea that they are "valuable." Equal protection under the law shouldn't be a matter of overall value, in and of itself. And we shouldn't use value when writing or enforcing laws and policies. But that, too, may be out of reach.

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