I’ve thought a lot about this. What I call leveling is a process by which our social standings get circumstantially alterred under duress. It is a protective response to rid yourself of what you perceive as the weaker of your species so you can survive. It is completely subjective.
I have been in many situations in my life where a friend I had in school, or an acquaintance from my neighborhood would get thrown into the mix of experiences with me and my opinion of them would change. Drastically. What sometime follows is an alliance with a more unlikely soul who shows you qualities you can appreciate in such circumstances..
The leveling has taken place in kindergarten, summer camp, Boy Scouts, Catholic school, (terrifying) reform school, the military and business. It is the process where the perception of another person is dashed when the screws get tightened. And they always get tightened.
Under extreme external pressure, personalities change, the person either shows emotional strength or the facade falls away. Kids I preferred to play with before summer camp wouldn’t make my cut after that experience. Now you wouldn’t think something as benign as summer camp would elicit terror, but let me disabuse you of that notion. If Camp Copithorne happened today, someone would go to jail.
Some of us kids on that bus into Freedom, New Hampshire in 1958, swore allegiance to each other based on familiarity and social standing. But all that gets washed away when the pressure gets amped. At twelve years old, the spigot opens. Bed wetters were marginalized and tormented. Fully. I will hold the details for another day, because the intention here is show how social preferences evolve under pressure.
Boy Scouts. Going to Camp Sayre was another social experiment gone awry. We split off into packs and declared war on each other. The namby- pamby versus the street kids. Cruelty in abundance. Someone actually tried to set my bunk on fire. Ostracism ruled the day when human weakness reared its ugly head. Again, you find yourself updating your guest list.
In 1963, I was once again taken off the street and poured into a situation with some of my street-wise contemporaries and again, they didn’t fare so well in my opinion. My view of them changed under the extremes of incarceration.
Reality sets in when, at the Police Station, your best friend from childhood is brought in shackled, points the finger at you and wrongly accuses you of a crime he himself committed. Social pressure at work.
I remember one sunny day, as three of us were handcuffed together coming out of the bowels of East Cambridge Courthouse, heading to the Division Youth Services, in Roslindale, the guy in the middle said, “Shit, I must be the worstest, I got both of my hands cuffed.”
I thought to myself, “now this is a guy I can do time with.” That little speculation disintegrated by night fall. What happened there was a litmus test of terror that had you changing sides quickly. I’m sure his view of me changed also.
The Army. In 1966, I was part of the largest military draft in history where another leveling occurred. Thousands of us were conscripted into mandatory military service and loaded on to trains headed for South Carolina. (Today, if you google “largest draft” you get basketball.)
Again, on the way to Fort Jackson, me and the usual suspects from my neighborhood were pledging allegiance to each other based on social mores and perceived pecking order. You know how this ends. Like most movies where the protagonist gets developed beyond his pay grade, the same formula. For better or worse.
Business. This is where it always got interesting. The pressure to produce in a heavily propagandized, political and petty environment will separate the wheat from the chaff in a hurry.
Gossip and speculation either killed you or cured you. This, for me, was the most challenging, non confrontational situation, because I found it almost impossible to battle perception. It worked for me and it worked against.
I saw the worst in people in that particular situation and it changed me forever. I run solo these days and am loathe to associate myself with a team of any kind, lest I be subject to, or have to participate, in a leveling process again.
You can pick your nose and you can pick your friends but choose your allies carefully.