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One up, one down, then one to the ri-i-i-i-ight

Your Humble Blogger recently read Potter on Supermanship, and the idea expressed in the work at Yeovil of being one-up or one-down has stuck with me. It’s amazing how big a role one-up-ness plays in our lives.

Some of it is spending a fair amount of time with young children, five to seven years old or so, for whom one-up-ness is hugely important. If a five-year-old can catch out an adult saying lunch when what is meant is breakfast, well, that’s a five-year-old that is one-up on an adult, and how often does that happen?

Actually, it happens all the time, at least to me. Sometimes it is deliberate. My primary method for entertaining such children is making easily catchable mistakes, such as substituting the word moose for whatever nouns in a sentence can be inferred. Such hilarity! Ah, well.

Children, of course, are so rarely one-up on adults that I find it easy to forgive them their glee in such one-up-ness as they can temporarily grasp. Well, and children are naturally one-up in games and sports, in that an adult’s victory over a child makes the adult one-down among his adult peers. But in life, in choices of dinner entrees and schools and entertainment, of bedtime and clothing and hairstyle, in leisure activities and chores and family time, children are so utterly and thoroughly one-down that the temporary (and often fictional) one-down-ness of adults is understandably savored.

It’s less appealing in adults.

No, no, let’s be clear: there is a difference between winning and being one-up. Just as an adult who scores off a six-year old goalie is one-down, so is the winner or loser of a contest often irrelevant to one-up-ness. Winning can be appealing in an adult, as can exulting in victory. Gloating, not so much.

But just as the work at the Institute moved from Gamesmanship to Lifeitselfmanship, one-up-ness and one-down-ness infiltrates much more of our lives than games. In fact, I find it much easier to forgive a friend who gloats over victory at Fluxx or Word-O-Rama than to forgive one who gloats at a victory in grammar or argument. Nor is it entirely, or even mostly a matter of simple victories of that kind. No, most one-up-ness (as the work of the Institute makes clear) is a matter of off-hand remark, in-joke, snark, primness or vulgarity, self-righteousness or self-pity, put-downs and put-offs and put-asides.

If it helps, here are some thoughts on the topic: It’s OK to be wrong. When somebody corrects you, you win, because you have improved your knowledge and the other person has not. It’s OK for other people to be wrong, even on the internet. If somebody assumes you know something that you don’t know, they made the mistake. But don’t let them feel one-down, because that’s not nice.

It’s OK to be on the outside. It’s OK to like popular music; it’s OK if other people don’t like the unpopular music that you like. Same with movies. And books. And art. And people. Other people’s ignorance of your favorite people, art, books, movies and music is neither a criticism of your taste nor a character flaw. They can continue in their ignorance without being one-down, or they can gain exposure without anyone else going one-up.

Everybody—everybody—is born one-up. If anybody’s one-up-ness makes you one-down, then keep in mind that there are more of them than there are of you.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Agreed, ten thousand times.

Relatedly, it's ok to not know something. (Digression, though possibly related: My father used to be a professor at a large university, and gave multiple choice exams for which each question had an "I don't know" answer. Answering "I don't know" gave you fewer points than getting the question right, but more points than getting it wrong - so if you couldn't narrow the choices down enough to make a reasonable guess, you were better off admitting that you didn't know.)

"multiple choice exams for which each question had an "I don't know" answer"

I like it.


shoot. i bet $25 the next post would be about mccain's tax plan.

(ooh! rebecca solnit piece on this!)

"No one can make you feel inferior without your permission." - Eleanor Roosevelt

I wanted to say more, but I can't quite sharpen my point. The whole ethic of OneUp really disturbs my equilibrium. But I can't help thinking that in this culture (and it really is a cultural phenomenon), we teach that Being On Top is more important than Showing Concern for Others Feelings. I can't help think this is very very wrong, and I hope not to pass it on to my children.

hapa-that's McCain's “tax” “plan”; an actual tax plan would have to be a plan, and involve taxation.


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