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Abrar Fahyaz

“Envy is pain at the good fortune of others.”

– Aristotle (Rhetoric, Book II, Chapter 10)

That’s pretty much the gist of it; what and why envy is. And I believe it’s safe to say that we all recognise envy, however detrimental it may be, to be a fundamental part of human nature. Nonetheless, in my opinion, what we often fail to consider is the fact that with envy being an instrument of nature, we ourselves are also bound by it.

Jealousy and envy are generally used interchangeably, often times synonymously. But there’s a rather distinct difference between the two. For one, jealousy is desiring something that one wishes for but does not yet possess. Or, alternatively, it’s the possession of an object of desire which one intends to maintain. It can basically be described as a defensive reaction to a perceived threat.

Envy however, is inherently offensive. Unlike jealousy, where one might strive to improve themselves to figuratively mark their territory, envy simply boils down to a cynical resentment and a general disdain for the object in question, with no aspirations of claiming the object whatsoever. Jealousy is being bummed out because your friend scored higher than you, envy is being reminded of your own inferiority when reading about how some kid graduated from Harvard at the age of 13.

“Yeah, that’s very cool and all,” you might say, “but why bring any of this up?” Well, it’s mostly because I want to shed light on an issue that has been bugging me for a while and which, just like the more well documented “generational envy” is and always has been, an ever-present entity of our society. Something I like to call “optical social envy”. 

But before we get into all that, I believe some historical context would not be gratuitous, and what better place to start other than Inter-War Germany. The principal boogeyman of the modern era, the Nazis, rose to power by, among other things, exploiting an already persistent fear among their populace of how the Jews (or the Judeo-Bolsheviks, as they put it), who accounted for less than a hundredth of the nation’s population, had become disproportionately more wealthy and influential than they should’ve been.

This perceived dominance of the minority over the majority emerged as one of the primary reasons for the widespread hatred of the Jews and other targeted groups; an envious wish to usurp from power those who were deemed to be inferior, regardless of whether or not these people were ever in power in the first place. It’s a variant of social envy where the higher class being envied aren’t actually elite but only appear to be so from “certain” angles. Hence the  name “optical social envy”.

“It is not the absolute differences between men which feed envy, but subjective perception, the optics of envy.”

– Helmut Schoeck in Envy: A theory of social behaviour

Karl Jung, one of the founding fathers of Psychology, described Hitler as the “mouthpiece of the collective unconscious”. Essentially, the average German may not have had any personal grievances with the Followers of Moses, but it still nonetheless bothered him on some level that individuals of Jewish ethnicity held positions of cultural, economical, and political significance in his country. He did not wish to be in any of those positions himself, he only wished that they weren’t either.

Now, returning back to the present, parallels to what went down in the Weimar Republic can be drawn with the numerous social issues plaguing our society today, albeit in a rather rudimentary form. For instance, there’s the idea of “Muslim appeasement and the growing influence of Islam in Bharat” — a rhetoric regularly championed by Nationalist Parties in India. There’s the belief that immigrants are supposedly stealing jobs, replacing the native culture and influencing the government policies of the nations they’re immigrating to, widespread among conservatives in many European countries and the United States, a prospect some dread to such an extent that they have gone as far as to term it “white genocide”.

And last, but definitely not least, there still remains the age old belief in a conspiracy masterminded by a cabal of Jews who secretly control all the world’s governments. Different beliefs but all based upon the same idea; if the members of the group that we’ve been taught to hate are succeeding in any form, then there has to be a sinister plot brewing.

As Schoeck said, envy isn’t rational, even though it appears to be so, it doesn’t care about inequality or one’s position in any sort of hierarchy. It’s a rationalisation of one’s preconditioned beliefs. If anything is even perceived to pose any sort of threat to the complete hegemony of one’s power, it’s enough to provoke a response. And while it might be comfortable to dismiss this phenomenon as something that happens to ‘other people’, it disregards the universality of envy. We, ourselves, are also guilty of optical social envy; as is evident from the prevalence of a particular conspiracy theory about how adherents of a certain religious minority have slowly been taking over the government and that things have deteriorated so far that Muslims have become second class citizens in their own country, in Bangladesh.

This certain conspiracy theory is one among many that have been able to strike a chord with our subconsciously pent up envy, which explains their popularity despite making claims as ludicrously sensational as the one mentioned above. And though not immediately apparent, opinions like this are present all around us. So, while it might not be feasible to make everyone let go of this irrational fear, I believe it worthwhile to at least try raise to some awareness against it.

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