Given where they came from…

Source: CarpeBootium (a blog)

Over the last 30 years, a phrase has crept into our common dialog that is among the most accountability deflating that has ever been heaped on a group of people.

“Well, given where they came from…”

“Considering where they come from…”

“Factoring in where they come from…”

These and other variations are typically the preface to describing a person or people who are underachieving, a menace to themselves and others, and possibly criminal.  It says that I discount your failures because no one from where “they come from” could possibly be a success.  It says that I don’t fault you, but something else (government, culture, sexism, racism, bigotry, institutional discrimination) for your shortcomings.  It says that I expect you to be nothing because that’s what people from “where they came from” are.

That’s the danger.  The danger in this phrase and the mindset behind it is a natural hierarchy with a side of hypocrisy.  It is excusing a clinically retarded child for not scoring well in the SAT.  It is pardoning a child with Tourette’s Syndrome for failing Charm School.  These are legitimate, although not all-encompassing disabilities.  It is also excusing a bad dancer because he’s a white guy or excusing a bad president because he’s a black guy.  These causes are neither legitimate nor all-encompassing, though the person using this phrase might believe it so.  It says that the person can’t succeed and should be judged on a lesser scale.

It also says, “I have never and do not now consider you my equal.”

This is the most inherent danger of this phrase and the attitude that accompanies it.  Now, more so than at any time in human history, the Industrialized world has a tremendous advantage over the rest of the world.  Resources, such as public libraries, public television and radio, computers and internet, government funding for education through high school, government subsidies for higher education, educational television and videos, give us access to knowledge that the people in the poorest countries couldn’t dream of.  Whether you are on welfare or wall street, these resources are available to you.  If you value and utilize these resources, there is no limit to what you can do with your life.  This is one of the many reasons why people still come to this country in droves…for all our freedoms, it’s the opportunity that America represents that draws them in.  It’s also the reason that people who came here with far less find success when people who were born here (with all the opportunities available to them) stagnate or wallow at the bottom.

There are differences between people who succeed and people who do not.  There are characteristics that can be pointed to and qualities that can forecast a person’s chances.  The key is to identify them specifically and not overgeneralize based on prejudice.

  • Support (family, community, institutional, spiritual)
  • Achievement Value (is achievement something you value highly)
  • Vision (can you see beyond your current surroundings)
  • Resourcefulness (can you do more with what you’re given)
  • Delaying Gratification (can you do without until you get what you want)
  • Emotional Intelligence (can you restrain and use your emotions appropriate to the situation)
  • Drive/Determination (can you continue on when others have quit)

Having many of these qualities will steer a person toward success in their life.  Lacking too many of these qualities will steer them away from success.  This is not to say that either is all-inclusive or per-determined, but it is a far better assessment of one’s chances for success in life than their race, hometown, sexuality, gender, physical handicap, age, or economic status.

I don’t recommend writing off anyone.  Everyone has potential inside them to do great things (at some level).  What I do recommend is attributing success or failure to the aspects that more closely determine the outcome.  What I would recommend for institutions and people that genuinely want to help the downtrodden (in this and other Industrialized nations) is to assist in those aforementioned qualities that are lacking, rather than attributing their lack of success to an arbitrary characteristic that cannot be changed (race, gender, age, hometown, handicap, sexuality).

You can’t fix a flat tire if you write it off because the car is blue.  Find the hole, patch it up, and fill the whole!  You’ll find that the color, make and model don’t matter.