People love impossibly broad generalizations. It makes thinking, writing, and conversation much easier. Philosophy, science, and literature throughout the ages contains statements of the form: “There are two kinds of people in the world: those that do X, and those that do Y”. Sometimes, the author will get creative and divide the world into three groups. For example, in The Plague, Albert Camus refers to (1) the pestilences, (2) the victims, and (3) the healers. One of the categories is purposefully presented as the most noble one, and of course the reader will quietly suspect themselves to be part of that category.
This categorization of people into two groups is just a literary device to make a suggestion about how to live your life. What’s fascinating is that because of its simplicity, this division often become a meme and spreads like wildfire in conversations with anyone who has encountered it. It’s almost as if the human brain is hungry for a simple clear way to think about the world.
In recent years, I’ve encountered a new twist on this literary device: percentages. There was the 99% vs 1% used by Occupy Wall Street to divide based on wealth. There was the 47% vs 53% used in the 2012 presidential campaign to divide based on dependence on government. In the jiu jitsu community, and elsewhere, there was the 3% vs 97% used to divide based on the degree to which you pursue a particular goal. If you spend just 5 minutes on Google researching this last one you’ll quickly see that throughout the 20th century, people have come up with 1%, 2%, 3%, 4%, and 5% (and probably more) to make this Randian split of productive vs unproductive people.
I suspect the numerical aspect of these percentages is supposed to somehow lend more credibility to the idea itself. Of course, these numbers are not actually based in any kind of scientific reasoning. It is again nothing more than a literary device used to make a point of the following form:
There are two kinds of people in the world: good and bad. If you want to be good, you should do the following things: …
The list of how to get into the “good” category is based on a value system that comes from an ideology or even simply the environment from which the author comes. If you are a socialist, your list of how to be good might be different from that of an objectivist. If you are an Olympic athlete, your list might be different from that of a fifth-generation farmer.
The point is that we should be careful using percentages in figuring out how to live our life. It’s tempting because of its simplicity, but it’s also dangerous because it washes over the complex often-contradictory concerns that arise in our daily life. At any given moment, on any given issue, we can easily find ourselves on either side of any of the about divides.