The Canard of Potential

It often seems that there are some people who no matter how hard their life gets, no matter how much they are repeatedly exploited by the entities that surround them, never fail to keep moving forward through their suffering and humiliation; focusing on nothing else but a private conviction that somehow future circumstances will provide the means by which they will escape their lowly situation.

It is popularly referred to as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit to always advance forward against the hostile odds of life.  And many individuals proudly carry the torments of their life’s struggles as badges of honor.  However, despite the endless amount of cheer and hoot about how such determination is always deserving of the utmost praise from all factors of society, it can’t go without notice that those who cheer and hoot the loudest about the great virtuousness of the lowly man are almost always those who stand well above his “noble” rank.  To put it in another way: it seems very strange to me how it’s those who wield the most power and influence, in (at least) the public sphere of the sociopolitical scene, who are the most vocal about their sympathies for all those in society who are by default the most powerless.  I would think that if the status of the impoverished and voiceless was so admirable to the socially affluent, the latter would be doing more to bring themselves to the former’s virtuous level.

The rhetoric of elected officials is easy to understand in this matter; they need to get elected, to get elected they need votes from the electorate, the people are the electorate, hence the politician will praise the virtue of the common people from dawn ’till dusk (except those people who lie outside of his/her political base of course , they can thoroughly go to hell for all anyone cares).  But it isn’t just politicians who follow this “virtue of the lowly” narrative, it is just about every information source operating.  And the one thing that is constantly being reiterated is how those who may be at the bottom now need not worry, because as long as they work, and sweat, and struggle, they will eventually have the opportunity to escape their status–they have potential.  They have the potential to do better, to become more, to achieve something, to be masters of their own destiny.  And those for whom the message is meant to resonate with the most, those who wish for more in life because they honestly do not possess the means by which to live comfortably, will embrace the validity of their yet untapped potential.  “I may be at the bottom now, but eventually I will get my due,” is the popular sentiment of the potential-laden man.

About a century and a half ago, when the southern portion of the United States briefly seceded from the Union in order to form the Confederate States of America, many (if not most) of the white residents living in the new territory gladly signed up to fight for the cause of the Confederacy against those pesky Yankees.  What was the cause?–The right to own and keep the country’s black population as slaves.  At this point I’m imagining a crowd of my southerners screaming in anger, “No!  No!  No!  It was not about slavery, it was all about state sovereignty.  They were fighting against the intruding Federal government, trying to control the South’s economy and way of life.”  Indeed, they were fighting for state sovereignty and states rights.  Unfortunately, the primary right our southern states wanted to retain full sovereignty over was the right to keep black people as property, hence it is fair to say that the economic system they wanted to protect was one that rested on the enslavement of other human beings.  (Which is why every one of the individual Confederate State constitutions explicitly mention the right to retain slavery as a valid form of commerce.)  However, it needs to be remembered that a great deal of the fighting population of the Confederate Army were non-slave owning white men, who were too impoverished to ever be able to set foot in the hallowed farming grounds of the pseudo-aristocratic plantation owner who benefited most from the South’s peculiar institution.

Which ought to leave one wondering, why did so many men readily die for a system that offered them no direct benefits?  The simple answer is that our forebears were racist fools, who no matter how illiterate, unwashed, ignorant, and economically broken they were kept by the system they so cherished, they could not let go of the deluded idea that all of these negatives were unimportant as long as they could lay claim to the coveted price of being called white.  For as long as they had that, they still had potential for more.  The fact that this potential had no chance of being realized, that by all accounts they–and their direct descendents–have always and will always die just as illiterate, unwashed, ignorant, and broken as they had lived, makes no difference in the great scheme of such a mindset.  Because the power of potential is not to lift one’s physical self from the obstacles in one’s depressing environment, but to lift one’s spirit and numb the physical body from the pangs of life’s depressing obstacles–that is to say, it holds no real powers at all.

The individual’s hope in her/his potential is the greatest placebo a mind can fall prey to.  Rather than motivating a person to reach higher, and strive for better, it makes her/him content with the lowly position s/he is inhabiting now, on the indolent basis that “my time will come eventually, after all, I have the potential to do better.”  It makes one cope with personal setbacks and failures, and even nourishes a certain level of pride in both, spiritually feeding on the mock appreciation heralded at the paupers’ “noble suffering” by the physically well-fed princes.  All the while life goes by, as we sit back daydreaming about alternate existences we could have pursued but didn’t, and never will.  If I could think of one sentiment to erase out of the human consciousness it would be our liege to the hope of potential.

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