Sunday, June 14, 2015


Several years ago, in an online forum, someone asked a very interesting question: If there was one word you could expunge from the English language, what would it be? I came to the posting as the lively debate, having already been going for more than a week, was winding down, so I didn't jump in. But in the intervening time, I've occasionally thought about what word I would remove from the language. From the beginning, my choices were in the area of "deserving" or "entitled," but I eventually settled on the word "chump."

Chump: noun \ˈchəmp\
: a person who is easy to trick : a stupid or foolish person
Of course, the dictionary can never capture all of the nuance and breadth of a word's everyday usage, and so the definition above doesn't really speak to the particular understanding of what it means to be a chump that I would like to do away with. Namely, the idea that to be a chump is to not receive something that someone else has received. Consider the experiment, most notable talked about by Frans de Waal, in which for the same task one Capuchin monkey is given a slice of cucumber, while the other receives a grape. The reaction of the first Capuchin is both amusing and depressing, and of course it points to the impossibility of the change I would like to see. The limited view of fairness that posits that we are owed what those like us receive is much broader that humanity.

I was listening to Marketplace last week, during their short series on affordable housing in Marin County, California. From the moment that they mentioned that there were people who were against the affordable housing project, I suspected that at least one person would frame the situation as protecting themselves from being "the chump," and the good people of Marin County did not disappoint. (I have to admit that I especially liked the sound bite of the woman who complained that affordable housing in their neighborhood "volunteered them for the ghetto." If anyone ever manages to connect that back to the speaker by name, she's going to be a long time living it down.)
It was a “financial stretch,” [Justin Kai, member of the Marinwood Community Services District Board of Directors] says, but they loved their home’s big backyard and access to good quality schools.

“I made great sacrifices to be here,” he says. “I think it’s selfish to expect that someone else should be able to acquire (it) for little or next to nothing.”
Of course, the people living in the "low-income" (this is Marin County, California, we're talking about, after all) housing wouldn't have access to a house of their own and a big backyard. They'd be living in an apartment building, and sharing the space around it. So of the things that Mr. Kai made "great sacrifices" for, the only thing he'd really be sharing are good quality schools that his own child is still too young to attend.

But Mr. Kai is repeating a common mantra in the United States - what other people get must necessarily come at some direct, and unfair, cost to me. And when we allow that to happen, we become chumps. Something that we are rarely slow to remind each other of. And as "chump" has become a pejorative, we begin to place more and more effort into not seeing ourselves as same. The result is a constant vigilance for what other people are receiving, so that we don't miss our opportunity to complain about how unfair our own lot has become.

In the end, the problem with "chump" is that it makes compassion for others seem like a unwarranted punishment of the self. And so people start to demand a veto over the relief from life's vagaries that others receive, regardless of what they may have for themselves. When one begrudges one's life the costs that were required to attain it, it's easy to see others not paying as much as an injury, rather than simply part and parcel of the fact that life is a variable.

As much as I would like to do away with the term, I understand that it wouldn't do any good. We'd simply invent another to take its place. As corrosive as the concept might be, there's no way to Newspeak it out of existence. So the one option that we have left to us is compassion. For ourselves. A letting go of the idea that allowing people to receive what others choose to give them is to somehow admit that we are without worth or value. It's a much deeper thing than changing our vocabulary.

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