In the beginning of The Pirates of Penzance, the main character is a young pirate who has lived on a ship for as long as he can remember. He has only ever seen one woman, who used to be his maid when he was a baby. After leaving the pirates, he considers marrying her.
He asks her if she’s beautiful and she tells him yes, though it’s obvious to the audience that she’s an old hag. He believes her, but soon discovers a group of girls around his age and is immediately infatuated by their beauty. He then accuses Ruth of lying to him and tells her to get lost.
People can’t help but to make comparisons. Football fans love to compare current teams to past teams. Girly girls love to judge the outfits on other girls. And nerds will get into intense, profanity-laden debates over Playstation vs Xbox, iOS vs Android, Marvel vs DC comics, etc. Nothing is ever judged on its own merit. It’s judged against its alternatives.
There’s a backlash against that truth. It’s the driving force behind banalities like “Money can’t buy happiness,” and “You’re beautiful just the way you are.” But nobody actually believes that. The vast majority is preoccupied with how they stack up against their peer group. And most people care intensely about how other people perceive them, although they’d never admit it in public.
Even the people who say things like, “I don’t care what other people think of me,” are betraying their actual sentiment. Obviously they do care what other people think otherwise they wouldn’t have said it to begin with. They’re trying to craft an edgy, independent persona in comparison to other people. Because the truth is we care very much what other people think of us. Anybody telling you otherwise is either lying to you or lying to themselves.
We have to care what other people think of us because it’s impossible to be independent in society. Your actions affect others and vice versa. Everything you do or say in front of another person is being judged, whether silently or audibly. It’s why men wear suits during interviews and why girls take forever to pick out clothes and apply makeup before going out. As soon as you walk out the door, you are inviting judgment and comparison. This happens, whether by accident or design. And it happens at every level of society.
Income inequality is the battleground that Democrats plan to fight on for the 2014 midterms. Last month, in a speech in Washington, President Obama said “I believe [income inequality] is the defining challenge of our time… It drives everything I do in this office.” Those are pretty strong words. What does it boil down to? Worrying about how much money one group makes compared to another group. It’s impossible not to compare ourselves to others.
And that is not a bad thing. It’s perfectly healthy behavior to compare yourself to other people. Because that comparison will drive you to be a better person, however you define better to be. Competition spurs us to greatness. It keeps us on our toes. And it stops us from becoming complacent. Complacency is the death of effort.