Theater of Cruelty

The curse of the comparison

A small house turns into a mound next to a villa, Marx wrote. The same thing happens when the world is globalized.


[victoria, seychelles] It's time for complaints about the summer weather up north. Although Norwegian meteorologists in recent years have meant that summer is at least medium and often a little better, it is as if we can not quite believe it.

The only good thing seems to be a summer weather that is identical to what they have in the Mediterranean. We no longer compare with previous summers, but with the Greek, Spanish and Italian summers many of us are quite familiar with.

A really useful concept from development research is relative deprivation. It is based on the same type of insight as in Karl Marx's comparison between the small house and the big one. In short, it means that you get worse when those you compare yourself with get better. Common destiny gives common consolation, which is perhaps why the upstart is never very well seen.

When you know nothing better, you may be grateful, or at least happy, for what you have.

Galloping globalization has made the curse of comparison one of the world's largest social psychological neuroses. It's not new: The Filipino writer and freedom fighter José Rizal (1861-1896) described it as early as the 1880s: The protagonist in one of his novels had, as a youth, been full of awe over the Manila Botanical Gardens. But then he traveled to Europe where he got to see larger and more beautiful botanical gardens, and all at once it became small and shabby in Manila.

A couple of generations ago, there was nothing more annoying in some Norwegian communities than returning Americans. Some of them could barely open their mouths without drawing a disadvantageous comparison between the local and the American. Everything one had at home was in a much better version in Junaiten.

Now, the world has become full of returning Americans, and they don't even have to travel anywhere. The comparisons they draw create bitterness and frustration. Shortly after the television in India was liberalized so that all kinds of commercial TV channels became available, the incidence of armed robberies around the big cities increased dramatically. Indian social scientists explain the tendency of the crisis of expectations because youth now know all about what they cannot get. Most of the youths had lower middle class backgrounds, and they wished for brand jeans and stereos that the older siblings had not even heard of. Cousins ​​at Gjøvik can handle it slowly: MTV and the media-projected, globalized consumer culture are worse.

But sometimes the comparisons can turn to one's own advantage. In the Seychelles of the Indian Ocean, where I write these lines, Creoles, Indians and Chinese lived for generations without any idea that they were living in an earthly paradise. It had never occurred to them that the sandy beaches and the coral lagoons, the dramatic granite cliffs and the lush palm groves were particularly appealing.

Now, for 30 years, the global tourism industry and a unified seychellois authority has marketed the islands as the most beautiful place on earth, spreading it to the smooth Jean and Jocelyne. When rich Europeans mean it, it must be true.

I think and take a big sip of Seybrew to replace the fluid loss. Taste it. Hmm. In itself a decent beer, but in no way can it be compared to an Urquell or, for that matter, a simple Carlsberg. Something so annoying!

Thomas Hylland Eriksen is professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo and research leader at Cultural Complexity in New Norway (Culcom).

You may also like