The “American Dream” is
commonly understood to mean the ability of an individual in this country to
achieve anything regardless of where you start, if you simply put in the effort. I’m not sure this is, in reality, every
American’s dream, but be that as it may the “American Dream” is considered by
many to be inspirational. The idea of
overcoming obstacles and achieving great things is so psychologically appealing
it is embraced by all political parties.
Both Barack Obama and Bill O’Reilly frame their life stories in this
narrative. Not only politicians but
successful business people, sports figures, film stars, and other professionals
commonly take public pride in their ability to start with little and end up
with a lot. And it is common,
particularly by politicians and business people, to use this as a selling
point: if I can start from humble origins, overcoming enormous odds, then you
can, too, and I want to help you do it.
Perhaps it is the recent
story of the sad, short life of Freddie Gray from Baltimore that has me
thinking more about this idea, this logical fallacy. What is a logical fallacy? In short, it is an argument that would appear
to be true, but is not because the underlying reasoning is flawed. Many have argued that the American Dream is
not a possibility for millions of people, and I will not repeat those arguments
here. What I am very specifically trying
to highlight is the logical fallacy behind the assertion, “If I can make it, you can, too.” For while this assertion can
be inspirational, it can also be judgmental, a phrase that can be used to
condemn people for not being successful or overcoming their personal struggles
because of some personal failing; maybe they are lazy, unmotivated, or
underachieving. And further, it may be argued that people who
do not put forth the effort to be successful should not be
helped or assisted in life. This is
where an argument meant to be inspirational becomes distorted and dangerous. It can be used to argue that there should be
no social safety net, no welfare program, no housing assistance, no free
addiction treatment… no handouts to those who don’t try hard enough. And can one know if somebody is indeed trying “hard enough?”
Here is the fallacy
behind the argument: if a person can overcome enormous obstacles to become
successful in life, it is implied then that other people cannot always be
expected to do the same. If everyone
could overcome all obstacles, then they wouldn’t be obstacles, would they? Nobody considers the density of our
atmosphere to be an obstacle to walking, because air is so flimsy to human
beings it presents no meaningful challenge.
An obstacle is only an obstacle if it is a challenge that may possibly
not be overcome. Overcoming the
obstacles of life is only an impressive feat if not everyone can do it. Therefore, the assertion, “If I can make it,
you can, too” is undermined by its own logic.
A more accurate statement would be, “If I can make it, maybe you can,
too. But maybe not.” No, it’s not as catchy.
I didn’t know Freddie
Gray, but I know some of the obstacles he faced in life. One obstacle was that he was poor. Poverty sounds simple enough–not having
enough money. But with poverty comes such a range of obstacles it can be hard
to wrap your head around. For example,
because Freddie was poor, his family couldn’t afford to live in good housing. He grew up in an apartment, one so old and neglected
that the lead-based paint had never been removed. As a result, Freddie as a child had toxic
levels of lead in his body. The
consequences of lead toxicity are well known, it leads to cognitive and
emotional impairments that are irreversible.
Those impairments then lead to additional obstacles, a vicious cycle from which it is extremely difficult to escape.
As a psychologist, I work
with people dealing with big obstacles. Those
obstacles may be medical, psychological, or environmental. Although psychologists are trained to believe
that the ability to overcome obstacles largely comes from within, I also know that
oftentimes the obstacles we face are simply too difficult to overcome without
substantial help from others. It is
important that we never lose sight of that fact. As tempting as it is to believe we can
do anything we set our minds to, the reality is that this is often not
possible. And needing the help of others
to get through life is not a weakness or a failure, it is through humans
relying on other humans that we are drawn closer to each other and come to care
for each other, which increases our own sense of wellbeing and psychological health.