It’s true: The rich really are ruder

Posted on February 18, 2015 in Equality Debates – Globe Debate
Feb. 18 2015.   Mark Kingwell

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.

Who among us has not felt the affront? Macadamia nuts arrive in a bag, not on a dish, and something shrivels in the soul. Are we animals? Did we execute the challenging task of being born insanely wealthy only to eat in-flight snacks from a bag?!

We did not. And that is why, when Korean Air heiress Cho Hyun-ah was confronted by a bag of nuts on a flight out of New York early last December, she grew enraged and forced the plane back to the gate. As a result of the incident, Ms. Cho, the 40-year-old daughter of the airline’s chairman, Cho Yang-ho, was charged, among other things, with assault and obstructing an airline captain in the performance of his duties.

In custody since Dec. 30, she was was convicted last week of violating aviation safety law and sentenced to a year in prison. Another executive who tried to cover up the incident was sentenced to eight months. Many observers consider the sentences too light, given the rampant nepotism and privilege enjoyed by second- and third-generation members of South Korea’s business elite.

“If she were considerate to people, if she didn’t treat employees like slaves, if she could have controlled her emotion,” the chief judge said, “this case would not have happened.” But consider the deeper truth of the matter: It was not really her fault.

Psychologist Paul Piff has coined a memorable label for the phenomenon: the Asshole Effect. Prof. Piff and his colleagues have shown that there is a reliable correlation, across a range of scenarios, between wealth and inconsiderate behaviour. Wealthy people are more likely to exhibit rudeness in cars, take more than equal shares of available goods, and think they deserve special treatment. Ms. Cho is just a spectacular example of what happens daily at any airport.

When the sheer luck of the birthright lottery is converted via psychological magic into a sense of entitlement, expectations of special treatment and a delusional belief that tax reform constitutes “class warfare” are predictable. Prof. Piff confirms experimentally the arguments of Aaron James’s 2012 book Assholes: A Theory. Like George W. Bush, some people are born on third base and think they hit a triple.

That’s why Ms. Cho’s trial and sentencing should be seen for what it is: an avoidance ritual, a show trial. Pictured in tears after the sentencing, Ms. Cho wrote a forced confession letter in which she said, “I know my faults and I’m very sorry.” This is Galilean recanting for the obscenely plutocentric age.

But her conviction changes nothing. In fact, it allows the current arrangement to endure under a screen of bogus accountability. Meanwhile, those who complain that the verdict is rooted in resentment are right. Resentment is, after all, the rational response of non-jerks when faced with the behaviour of over-entitled jerks. It’s not the rudeness that people hate so much as the assumption that they are allowed to be rude.

This isn’t always a function of wealth, just of narcissism and assumed superiority. I know several witless academic egomaniacs who routinely give themselves a free pass to be uncivil. But because wealth is the most obvious marker of status in capitalist societies, it is also the most powerful lever of being a jerk.

Other entitlement show trials come to mind. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund, is scrambling to salvage the shreds of his reputation, even as lurid evidence emerges of sex parties and pimping. This is the same Dominique Strauss-Kahn who was charged with sexually assaulting a Manhattan hotel maid a few years ago; the charge was eventually dropped and he settled with the maid out of court. (Ken Kalfus’s story, Coup de Foudre, is a brilliant fictional account of the incident, framed as a cringe-making letter of apology.)

Then there’s Francesco Schettino, disgraced captain of the Costa Concordia cruise ship, wrecked off the Capri coast in 2012, who was recently convicted of multiple counts of manslaughter. Thirty-two passengers and crew were killed in that debacle and Mr. Schettino, who jumped ship, was sentenced to 16 years in jail.

But while this “reckless idiot” – with traces of cocaine in his hair – was entertaining his 25-year-old Moldovan mistress, ordering the pointless and dangerous fly-by to impress her, there was a company, a system, and a set of assumptions all holding him up. His orders, after all, were obeyed.

It is a necessary premise of law that individuals are responsible for their actions, and no sane person would have it otherwise. But the root causes of the asshole effect are not, finally, singular. Such people are made, not born. Until we have a more aggressive plan for attacking luck-entitlements, condemnation of a few hapless exemplars will remain satisfying but futile.

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