Business Class

Feb 2013

(Based on a flight from Santiago to India)

 

“When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everyone will respect you.”

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

 

“It’s okay. We aren’t in the same class. Just don’t forget that some of us watch the sunset too and it’s just as beautiful for you as it is for me.”

– Susan Eloise Hinton, The Outsiders

 

I remember the first time I flew business class on an international flight. I was 19 and think I was judged by nearly everyone in first class. I wanted to try it since I’d never experienced it before and was a long flight, roughly half way around the world.

I walked onto the plane looking really daggy with my falling apart nike runners, a pair of mismatched socks, a tshirt and track pants with a laptop bag slung around my shoulder, hair in a mess wearing a hoodie which I use as a surrogate pillow.

The woman sitting next to me smiled after I sat down with a look that felt like something you would give someone if you caught them doing something wrong — then gestured at the Economy section. She probably thought I was in the wrong seat, let alone section.

I think for a large part they were looking at my shoes which are a pair of falling apart Nike runners. I wondered if there are special escape clauses if the plane crashes for the first class people to exit first.

Even in the business class VIP lounge, I think I was the youngest person there by at least half the age of the next youngest. Everyone in business class looks so serious. Like they are all playing a game of statues where you have to look busy and are only allowed to relax when someone isn’t looking at you. But they think someone is always looking at them so they have to keep appearing busy and serious. It’s like they watched a movie once and thought that’s what serious businessmen are supposed to look like and started doing that.

 

But the experience was interesting, the most comically obvious example of class difference. The notion that because someone looks different, they are different. Because someone looks inferior, they are.

I wonder what the process is that changes business class from being just a larger seat with better food to a symbol of status. It’s not something intrinsic about the plane that does this, it’s the people who sit there that contrive its meaning.

I don’t understand how that works. When I think back to prehistoric times I can imagine a Neanderthal thinking he is better because his cave is larger. Is it a subset of survival? The idea that because the cave is larger, the Neanderthal inhabiting it has a better chance of survival. But somewhere along the evolutionary chain survival changed to mean success, probably when survival became assured for most people.

The signal is that by buying first class tickets and sitting in the front of the plane, we are wealthy. Which in turn signals we are the kind of people capable of attaining wealth. The capacity to have a larger cave ergo we are better. But what does this really measure? I don’t know if it measures anything.

 

It’s one of the things I don’t like about a meritocracy. It doesn’t take into account human nature which ignores a lot of the ugliness in the equation. Many math PHDs are graded by not just how accurate but how elegant a solution is. Ignoring human nature is a lot like ignoring the elegance of an equation regardless of how accurate it is.

The thing I don’t like is the people at the top usually start to believe they deserve being there. That they deserve what they have rather than they are thankful for what they have. Implicit is those that do not, for whatever reason, deserve not to.

It’s the difference between humblement and entitlement. Humbled by my wealth because I was fortunate enough to be in the position where I could earn it which is altogether different from being entitled to my wealth because I have earned it.

That because someone has more things it assures their value, the same way an insurance policy might guarantee the value of what is being insured. Implicit in that is because someone doesn’t have as many things they have a lesser worth. Like the number of things is an approximation of a persons value the same way one might value a company by how many shares it has.

It’s a byproduct of a thought that emerges from the competition that is a meritocracy. Having large amounts of money doesn’t mean much more than having large amounts of money. When that switches to being a sign of self-worth is when a very subtle kind of prejudice starts to emerge. A person who wins a running race is just a better runner, not a better person.

It’s like because we were sitting at the front of the plane, we were obviously better. What causes that line of thinking to emerge I don’t understand.

But I don’t think I’d fly business class again.

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