Sometimes an event will just sit in the back of my mind forever, irritating me whenever I recall it. Such things can't be good for the disposition. That I can do nothing to fix it must be some of the hold it has on me, but that can't be all of it. There are a thousand other regrets I also can't do over.
A woman came to speak about values at Grand Rounds about ten years ago. Her general point was that the poor have different values because they have to, and we upper-middle-class people are being unfair and insensitive to them when we expect them to conform to our norms. One example she gave was the frequency of physical fighting to solve problems among the poor. "Nicer" neighborhoods weren't really nicer, they just had people who could manipulate systems better and didn't have to resort to shoving and smacking. That bothered me a fair bit, but I can at least find some truth buried in it.
I lived in both kinds of neighborhood as a child, so I believe I have some grounds for an opinion. If her point had simply been that norms vary, and people might conform temporarily to the values of their environment because they hadn't really thought about it much, and we shouldn't be quick to judge permanent character on that basis, I think I would generally agree. But that wasn't where she was going.
Her other example was from her own life. When she was a single mother with little money, she would bring her children to the shoe store, have them try on sneakers, and walk out wearing them. She was completely unapologetic about this. She insisted it was not only a necessity, it was a positive good, because it showed how people were more important than possessions.
I wasn't there, but was sorry I missed it, because the idea deserved pushback. She actually taught that possessions, such as nice new sneakers, were really important - more important than character. It wasn't food or medicine, it was style.
First, I should give what credit I can. She was willing to risk embarrassment, and even legal trouble for her children's sake, and that does have a sort of generosity to it. Actually, it doesn't, for three or four reasons, but I'm trying to see as far down that road as I can. I get it that when people are poor they might break rules in desperation, and those of us who don't have those temptations should be grateful to be spared the trial, and humble about our own probable actions. When I was six, my mother tried to rehearse me to say I was five so I could ride the Mount Washington for free. Same thing. The difference, I suspect, is that my mother did not, after years of reflection, get paid to give talks to professional audiences applauding herself for that.
One person reportedly pressed the speaker on the approval of theft - pretty mildly, from what I was told, but it was at least something. The woman giving the lecture was put out by that, but rather than argue was airily dismissive of the criticism with the line "Well, I think the whole system should be changed." Yes, I imagine you do. I think we can predict on what lines you would change the system, too. Invisible owners of shoe stores are unlikely to come out well in the new order.
She was still in business as of three years ago, as I heard a department member mention having heard the talk at another facility. Why I should be unable to shake this eludes me. But she taught the opposite of her stated value.