Wednesday, 8 December 2010

I have elbows too

My sense of fairness or justice, as applied to myself, often seems to be turned up too high. I turn into ‘Outraged of E17’ over things that should wash over me like the London air, leaving only a smudge of dust, rather than a red face.

What often irks me most is the perception of someone taking more than they are entitled to, or not giving back the equivalent of what they take, leaving others (including me) short. Elbows and knees protruding from seats on the underground are guaranteed to get me going, but then I am writing this in the morning when I am at my least tolerant.

I’ve tried to kitchen-sink analyse this over-sensitivity but never really believed what I’ve come up with. I’m the older of two children in my family, so I thought, maybe it stems from the dinner-table eagle-eye of siblings wanting to ensure they are apportioned food (and love and opportunities) equally. In reality though, I don’t care if somebody gets more pudding than I do, though interestingly I remember my father, one of five siblings, getting het up about this. Possibly it stemmed from his passion for apple crumble rather than egalitarian principles.

On the other hand, wouldn’t an only child have a stronger sense of entitlement, not having had to share? Alternatively, having lacked competition, does an only child breeze through life without noticing minor infringements on their portions of space, attention and so on? I’ve no idea, I should ask a few of them.

It’s telling, though I’m not sure what it tells us yet, that this kind of indignation is often the result of perceived unfairness surrounding the minutiae of life, rather than bigger issues. A housemate wants cocoa and finishes the morning milk, a colleague hogs the desk with a better view, a classmate spreads their books over 55% percent of the shared bench. These things really don’t matter in the long run.

Yet people who let themselves become momentarily enraged by such trifles (like me) often don’t engage with much bigger injustices, even ones that affect them directly. The gender pay gap is one example, affecting a large proportion of us. Another is energy prices, where the hikes in actual cost to suppliers are allegedly passed onto customers more often that the reductions.

I feel bad that I let my rage flare over the small stuff such that I let bigger stuff slide, but I’m sure I’m not alone in this. In philosophical terms it seems to be one of those cognitive errors that we are told we are all guilty of committing on a daily basis. An analogous behaviour is seeking out supermarkets where our staple buys are a few pence cheaper than elsewhere, whilst being prepared to pay that extra couple of thousand on a house just to get the seller moving.

I will turn my thoughts to higher injustices while I cram onto the tube tomorrow morning, and try to ignore those protuberant knees. Who knows whether I will feel more serene by the time I emerge at my destination, but if anyone pushes into the queue for coffee, that will be the end of that.


  1. I like the bit about supermarkets and a few pence saved - I used to find myself putting back so called expensive wine (or cheese or olives..) and then spending five times the difference on a round of drinks at the pub.

    But what is so unfair is how well and easily you write; so envious.

  2. Another beautiful and thought-provocking post, Zoe. As an only, I never really minded what others did in terms of space as we all take that up in the world. Small things do not tend to bother, it is the larger, the big picture that never ceases being irksome. Much of that also depends upon one's relation to it.

  3. As to the contrast between saving the pennies while shopping and bribing someone to move with always has to buy milk and it will generally be available, so getting the best price is sensible, but a particular house is a one off event - so you can spend the milk pennies to obtain it.