New Narratives in the Quest for Equality: Elites and Everyone Else
Representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the United Nations
New York, 21 August 2019
As the international community focuses increasing attention on global inequality, a central question emerges: Do the affluent play by a different set of rules?
It is indisputable that in numerous social settings, the well-to-do enjoy benefits and considerations not extended to those of more modest means. Yet, such individuals are themselves shaped by society just as much as they help to shape it. And those cultural norms and values link all people, regardless of material attainment, in ways that are more profound than we might realize.
Today, success is often defined largely in terms of the accumulation of wealth. Those with extreme wealth are revered, their lifestyles made visible in every form of media. And the contemporary global order emphasizes economic indicators, measuring progress by per-capita GDP and well-being by the rise and fall of stock indices. Can it then come as a surprise when money and individual power seem to become valued above all else?
Social narratives are normative. They paint a picture not only of what could be, but what should be. And this affects those who control wealth and those who lack it. From this perspective, the rich are not puppet masters pulling strings atop the world. They are a particular set of actors responding, as would many others, to the messages and inducements—as well as the distortions, illusions, and constraints—of the dominant economic system.
Economic injustice is unquestionably linked to the conscious choices of the powerful and influential. Yet the excesses we decry are often the logical outcome of the goals and values that all of us, at every level of society, are told to embrace to one degree or another. Veneration of wealth, admiration for power, love of luxury—are these unknown outside the highest tax brackets? Could any of us claim that we would never seek to maximize our own advantage within the bounds of the law, or turn the rules of a system to our favor?
The values that we collectively give assent to, and which inform current economic arrangements, have led to certain patterns of behavior. Other values would lead to different aspirations and choices.
The time has come, then, to craft new narratives of ourselves and our societies—narratives that define different standards of success and wellbeing and assist those at all levels of affluence to construct more noble patterns of living and being together. Patterns which exalt the strength of community ties over the strength of quarterly earnings reports, which reward the depth of our commitment to universal wellbeing not the depth of our pockets, and which value the spirit of service rather than charisma.
Only as consensus grows around a different set of human values can new economic models begin to emerge. This requires the contributions of all, regardless of material circumstances.
Last updated 24 September 2019