An educational resource at the heart of public debate, criminological research and professional practice......
Members of society live on a mountain. At the top, where the best views are to be had, live the elite groups. Life is exhilarating and lavish with every imaginable opportunity, including the ability to come and go from the mountain just as they wish. Going down the mountain, the views become increasingly poor until, at the bottom, very little can be seen at all. As most people live at lower levels, there is no incentive for those living at the top to share their view; but, if those further down have little hope of reaching the top, they might not work as hard as they do to climb the mountain to see what's at that top.
Before long, the elite groups found a way around this dilemma. Rules were needed that created the impression that the mountain could be climbed by anyone who worked hard at it, yet which actually restricted the numbers of those reaching the top. Rather cleverly, since the elite groups were already at the top, they were able to assert that they were obviously the best climbers, and so the rules ought to reflect their apparently superior qualities. Most people accepted this without question and so those whose qualities were unlike those at the top made very little progress up the mountain, blaming themselves and not those who made the rules for their failure.
Nevertheless, the rules could only be relied upon to protect the position of the elite groups if they were applied by those they trusted and so special groups of people were appointed for this purpose. They were happy to do this since they were accorded some privileges of their own as reward. Some of them watched out for those who discovered easier routes up the mountain – the ones the elite groups had used – ensuring that they were sent back even further down the mountain. Others made sure that those caught in this way were given as much bad publicity as possible, making everyone playing by the rules feel good about not cheating. Although few in number, whenever others playing by the rules managed to make some progress up the mountain, their achievement was broadcast as proof of how hard work paid off. This ensured that despite their efforts, the much more numerous who failed were assumed to be poor climbers. Others, daunted by the climb confronting them, made little effort to do so and they, too, proved useful as their poor view could be construed as their own fault – they were the mountain’s losers, the trash.
With so many differences in view available on the mountain, jealousy and resentment was rife. The elite groups found this useful, for it prevented a general view emerging that identified them as the cause of these differences, and they seized every opportunity to fuel this. Anyone seeking refuge from a less prestigious mountain was always placed amongst those with the worst views; before long, the poor view at the bottom was often blamed on the presence of these ‘interlopers’. This was especially so if they were helped along by the ‘mountain welfare’ the elite groups had created. Although at first the elite had not been too keen on it, they soon saw it as a way of pitching those who were working hard against those presumed not to be – and it helped to make life on the mountain seem fair with such kindly folk overseeing it.
Many on the mountain had miserable lives after toiling to maintain or improve their view in pursuit of the multiplicity of things that were constantly being sent down the mountain to amuse and excite them. Nonetheless, anyone who seemed disinterested in these things was regarded as ‘weird’ since it seemed so obvious that possessing them was what life on the mountain was all about. Increasingly, people began to value each other by comparing the number and kinds of these things they had, injecting the divisions the elite groups sought constantly to foster between those living lower down.
Some at the bottom began to question how the mountain was run. Was it coincidence that the so-called best climbers came from the same level as those who applied the rules? Was it only those at the bottom who were cheating? Was it really wrong to climb by easier routes? More fundamentally, who really benefited from everyone trying to climb the mountain? However, seldom were these views taken seriously especially since the easier route was often taken at the expense of those living at the lowest levels and most people assumed that those who made the rules also lived by them. Occasionally, serious trouble broke out on the mountain but as it often involved destroying what other people had, it was easily passed off as the actions of the degenerate.
With the passage of time, the mountain started to run into much more serious trouble. The position of those at the top depended on how well they got on with their peers on other mountains in the same range, some of who had been passing too much down the mountain by borrowing from others. In the past this hadn’t mattered too much as the mountains had operated fairly independently but in recent times, they had become much more closely interconnected and if one got into trouble, another found itself in trouble too. Those at the top recognised that if their position was to be maintained, they would have to send less down the mountain so they could continue to enjoy their own view. Those that suggested that the elite groups were to blame or that pointed to their continued privileged view were ignored as most on the mountain were mainly concerned not to lose what they had on their level. Before long, the blame was put on mountain welfare which it was said had discouraged people from trying to climb the mountain and made it inefficient. Eager to ensure that their view was protected, the elite groups created the idea of ‘Big Mountain’, a place where everyone would strive to be successful without getting much help at all from mountain welfare.
Just as things were getting really bad, two events combined to raise the spirits of everyone on the mountain. Climbers everywhere were encouraged to celebrate the longevity of one who had enjoyed her fabulous view at the top for sixty years and everyone succumbed to the idea that her stoic service to the mountain was a cause for great joy and homage. In another event, climbers from many other mountains arrived on Big Mountain to compete against each other and much was sent down the mountain by the elite groups to magnify the importance of the mountain and how wonderful and fair it was. Many climbers were seen to sigh with pride that their mountain – tiny in proportion to others – had been so successful in this competition. Everyone began singing the mountain song and waved flags bearing the mountain colours. Even those at the very bottom were overtaken by emotion when they saw the flags being waved from the top of the mountain. Others sighed in despair.
Years passed. Some on the mountain reported hearing strange noises coming from deep inside the mountain. At first it was passed off as thunder. Others insisted that they foretold the end of the mountain but were passed off as ‘fruitcakes’ even though they had found old writings predicting such events. Most remained oblivious of the impending calamity about to befall the mountain, such was their lust for the gluttony and indolence those at the top had persuaded them was a life worth living. What was truly valuable, what really mattered remained on the edge of vision – for the time being.
Trevor James is Head of Sociology in a very large comprehensive in the East Riding of Yorkshire, England.
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