Status Seeking

Posted: June 18, 2011 in Culture, Idealism, Idle Nonsense

I blogged briefly on esteem needs, which is closely related to status seeking, and I’m bothered by continued conjecture in some quarters about the issue, not that I ever expect anything to be settled. Human nature is too complex to boil down to a few rules, and everyone has their pet theory or plausible explanation about what motivates action in life — me no less than others. Here are a couple ideas I’ve seen floated (mostly at Ran Prieur’s blog, see his entry on June 1, 2011) about status seeking, which I will paraphrase.

Seeking and protecting status is an evolutionary holdover from a time when those of high status were more insulated from threat and violence than rank-and-file members of social systems. The basic problem I have with this is that evolution is a primarily biological process that has been misapplied to other things where change over time can be observed, which is often conflated with progress. Computer operating systems have changed over time, but they haven’t evolved in any meaningful sense. (Some would snark they haven’t progressed, either.) Status is an artifact of culture, and to speak of cultural evolution is to introduce distortions into one’s thinking. Insulation from threat is still operative, even though we live in a supposedly egalitarian society. For instance, high-ranking military officers and corporate executives are pretty well removed from flying bullets and grunt work experienced by foot soldiers and laborers. Some of high rank even have security details to block any possibility of exposure to the rabble. It’s obvious that some are valued more than others.

Because democratic societies flatten social hierarchies, one can essentially behave like an alpha male (or female) continuously and few will challenge your bluff. First, conformity is not the same as equality. It’s pretty clear that while we have a narrow range of narratives provided to explain and describe modern life, we are certainly not over hero worship or raising some few individuals to the level of idols. Athletes, actors, singers, politicians, and anyone with a modicum of fame develops a kind of floating aura that confers status over the plebes. A few people of extraordinary confidence can probably carry off the bluff necessary to establish high rank where none has actually been earned or awarded, but the rest of us would look egotistical and absurd and are likely to be ignored.

The only people who don’t care about status are those who have never experienced high status and accordingly diminish what others value. Status is a social construct, like many others, and may have some biological origins (like pecking orders within wolf and dog packs). However, among humans, social ordering doesn’t typically take root until adolescence. Most of us who attended public school are familiar with the fairly radical shift in social orientation from grade school, with its homogeneous homeroom communities of around 30 students, to middle school or junior high, where students quickly autosort themselves into cliques. A top dog (or several) often emerges, leaving some riding on coattails and others totally disenfranchised. It’s pretty intense at that stage of life, but once through the gauntlet, status typically returns to background noise as one joins the flow of adult life. Those who become fame whores and seek to perpetuate their status are ironically the “cool kids” who experience a sense of loss when others realize it’s mostly a bunch of nonsense. The rest of us just grow out it.

Hipsters are infuriating because they’ve figured out how to hack the system and obtain status markers too easily. This assumes everyone wants or admires status, which I find suspect, and relies on envy of those who supposedly have status. However, hipster credibility is primarily a commercial behavior, e.g., wearing the right clothing or eating at the right restaurants to induce others to imitate the same behaviors. Marketers employ “cool hunters” to identify and reinforce emergent trends, so manipulation of what’s cool is at work and fluctuates constantly as things rise and fall in popularity. It’s worth noting that post-ironic chic is an assiduous repudiation of style quite popular among hipsters.

No one of high status is allowed to question the dominant narrative, and anyone who does is stripped of status. This one I agree with, but as suggested above, this is really one example of the intersection between conformity and status. It’s rare to see someone who is highly regarded turn around and impeach the very thing from which he or she benefits. For instance, someone might refuse an award out of humility or to make a political statement, but the Oscar acceptance speech we will never hear is the one where the winner laughs at the audience and The Academy for buying into the notion that the Oscar (or any one of a million other benefits heaped on celebrities for being celebrated — an incestuously self-reinforcing cycle if ever there was one) means anything.

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