Emotional Distancing: Old Money and Compassion

As I mentioned, our indefatigable comrade-in-arms, C.V. sent a couple of links that I thought worthwhile. This is the second of those, an article that discusses the psychological impact that wealth has on the human emotion of compassion.

It’s a meaty read. So, pour yourself a hot tea, put your feet up, and find it HERE.

Keep in mind that, as an advocate for the Core Values of Old Money, I have a few issues with this well-written piece found in a magazine that I occasionally read and usually enjoy.

(The author, Michael Mechanic, writes for Mother Jones, a publication I strongly support because, as investigative journalists, they go after everybody…without fear or favor. And we as a society need that kind of nonpartisan watchdog.)

I first growled at the title: Research Proves It: There’s No Such Thing as Noblesse Oblige. For such a well-documented, science-based article, this comes across as dogmatic, simplistic, and unprovable. It kind of smacks of ‘eat the rich/money is bad’ class warfare that we really don’t need right now, or at any time. Perhaps it’s supposed to be a little sensational in order to attract clicks and readers. I’ll hope that was the intent.

Noblesse Oblige is a real thing, usually called Duty or simply Doing The Right Thing, and it’s practiced in some measure by people of all classes. It’s also practiced by a healthy section of Old Money people, in my opinion.

I’m suspicious of statistical reports that say, ‘This percentage of rich people act this way…’ blah blah blah, or opinion polls that say, ‘This percentage of people feel this way about this issue…’

What should be stated is that ‘This percentage of individuals polled during this period of time feel this way about this issue…’ Not everyone in society is going to give you their opinion, give you their honest opinion, or represent everyone in their group with enduring accuracy. Specifically, not all rich people are going to sit down and take your test, or take part in your survey.

And as far as people winning at a game of Monopoly and then thinking they’re the cat’s meow, I think that’s pretty much the behavior of anybody who wins at some competitive endeavor. It’s not just a characteristic of the rich.

Furthermore, modest champions are rare: it takes too much work to be the best, and part of the competitive edge is knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that you’re better than everybody else and can beat everybody else in your particular endeavor (whether it’s basketball or the stock market or whatever).

Certainly successful people learn to communicate more diplomatically and acknowledge their teammates, supporters, and the role of God-given gifts and luck in their success. But again I’d be reluctant to categorize unwarranted arrogance as a trait exclusive to the wealthy.

It is also noted in the article that wealthy families give a smaller portion of their income to charity. This phenomenon is referred to as being ‘stingy’. Personally, I attribute my reluctance in giving to charity as simply an awareness: some charities are simply organizations that need to stay in business and do so by soliciting donations from others.

They have employees and overhead. Their executives are often paid hefty salaries. They have big corporate donors who steer the research and manipulate the message in order to avoid getting unpleasant scientific results (pesticides or processed foods causing cancer, for example). The corporations who fund these charities do so with an agenda: to preserve profits. The charity may still try to ‘do good’, but, it is beholden to its big donors, and its mission may be compromised.

Participating in charitable activities also makes some people feel good. That’s great, but most Old Money Guys and Gals I know are results-oriented. Wearing a pink T-shirt or pledging to walk for a good cause is fine and dandy. But respect other people’s reluctance to participate: I don’t need public display in order to feel good or to feel like I’m doing good.

I also know the limits of charity, as my wife and I have a history of helping people who haven’t had the advantages we’ve had. Sometimes charity changes lives. Sometimes it has little or no impact.

As far as the article’s reference to ‘essentialism’, the belief that group characteristics are unchangeable and predetermined, I will say this: the only thing I’ve seen consistently and permanently change people is education, best done at a young age.  In that, I am a firm believer.

I am also an experienced observer. I am aware that people are who they are. How much they can change and evolve and how much is just the fact that they’re ‘born that way’ is an eternal societal, psychological, and theological debate.

If forced to place odds, I’m going ‘born that way’, 60/40, with the possibility for substantial and permanent change lying in education.

This is, notably, an issue best addressed by public policy, not private charity, even though most of the private efforts my wife and I have made have been in support of education.

Being a little emotionally distanced from situations is also noted as a characteristic of the wealthy. He notes that the wealthy are more likely to have the ability to consider the overall end result as preferable, and view unpleasant realities in achieving a stated goal as just ‘part of the process’.

To me, this less an attribute of the wealthy and more a component of leadership, namely the idea of inevitable sacrifice. A common example being the oft-heard refrain that if we’re going to be free, occasionally people are going to have to go to war, fight, and die. Simplistic as this concept may be, it rings true when we look at the soldiers and citizens who fought and died to conquer Hitler and the Nazis. (Or when we acknowledge that men and women in our armed forces are standing guard this very minute, ready to make that sacrifice if need be.)

Leaders like Roosevelt and Churchill couldn’t shy away from the reality that their decisions were going to leave thousands of people in tears, grieving the loss of their loved ones. These men had to look at the greater good, often coldly and calculatingly, without the comfort of sentiment. The emotionally-distanced psyche can come in handy when there’s tough work to be done, uncomfortable as that is to acknowledge.

Passion, as they say, is a poor guide to policy.

This article does acknowledge that ‘not all rich people are assholes’. Well, thank you so much for that.

Also noted toward the end of the article are the admissions that these effects, the ones wealth has on people, are ‘small to medium’ and the measurements of them are ‘averages’.

These two confessions seem to dilute the entire premise of the article, but perhaps that’s just wishful thinking on my part.

In spite of my misgivings, I think articles like this are important. We need to examine and debate our behavior and our attitudes, regardless of our net worth or background. We also need to be aware of how we are perceived by others and how we perceive others.

I’m fine with criticism, as are many Old Money Guys and Gals. Most of us have heard similar comments before. Most of us probably won’t change. We certainly won’t complain. I’m one of the few who’ll even acknowledge.

We’ll continue to live the lives we live and do the quiet, anonymous good we do, for our families–self-preservation!–as well as for the world.

It’s part of that, oh, what was the term?…, yes, noblesse oblige.

  • BGT

5 thoughts on “Emotional Distancing: Old Money and Compassion

  1. You make an excellent point: Charities, aka non-profits, aka 501 C-3’s, lawfully pay their managers and employees salaries. These may be extravagant and compromise a very large percentage of the charity’s gross income via contributions. . These numbers are included in the company’s articles of incorporation. The IRS must approve the status of 501-c-3.. The salaries, therefore, are public records.

    A good cause may be misused by less-than-good people. Recently, I had occasion to question the motives and practices of a charity whose founder, I found to be an uneducated opportunist and intellectual property infringer. FOIA request was unnecessary because the IRS maintains the relevant records

    Your essay reminds me not to automatically donate to charities only on the basis of the issue supported. No, I don’t want XYZ to starve, but . “Who are these charity owners, and what are their track records” should be answered first. . I am expecting to see an “American Greed” TV series concerning this very thing.

    This sort of deception may reduce the working-capital of worthy charities.
    Thank you for your insight and timely essay..

  2. Rich, powerful or famous people learn to be careful. They realize that sometimes people have ulterior motives and those people are not always easy to spot. Most of them remain courteous and polite, but they are careful about whom they trust. It’s natural and inevitable that they are a little guarded in certain situations.

  3. Worthy reading.

    My apologies for changing the subject, but would any of you (middle-age folks) wear white Adidas on a holiday to Italy (walking streets and go to a restaurant)? Maybe in the airport/flight as well? Of course, not for fancy dining. Thank you,

    1. Honestly, probably not, unless they are the de rigeur Stan Smiths worn with skinny jeans etc. If wearing a trainer, I would suggest a dark shoe and sole – Clarks and Puma have some flattering styles. However, I would caution against wearing sneakers in general unless you plan on walking immense amounts. Remember that you will be able to stop at cafes for breaks, will be enjoying La Dolce Vita which means walking at an Italian pace, and you will feel much better alongside the very chic Italians if you are wearing clothes that you enjoy wearing and make you feel more like yourself.

  4. It depends what part of Italy and where you’re going and what you’re doing. For casual settings during the day, especially if you’re doing a lot of walking, I don’t see a problem with it. I did it when I was a teenager and I don’t remember getting any funny looks.

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