Monday, December 11, 2006
Status Anxiety and its Discontents
Last night I was lounging around, flipping through our meager selection of channels, when I alighted upon a fascinating program on PBS World about Status Anxiety, narrated by Alain de Botton, the author of the book by the same name.
The segment I caught was Botton's study of the "Health and Wealth" Gospel movement, a particularly American phenomenon. Botton was fascinated at the prospect of scripture being used to make the case that wealth and riches were a sign of God's favor - that material richness was a sign of Godliness - a concept that Botton found inconsonant with how Christianity had theretofore been commonly understood in the European tradition.
Shown below are excerpts from a review of the book and an interview of Botton by Adam Baer of the Atlantic Monthly. According to Botton, the antidotes to our modern Status Anxiety are - Philosophy, Art, Politics, Religion, and Bohemia, because they help put things in perspective. Come to think of it, that does sound a lot like Crystals' blog!
Why do the successes of our peers drive us crazy? Alain de Botton, the author of Status Anxiety, explains.
In his new book, Status Anxiety, de Botton takes readers on a tour through the history of ideas—economic, sociological, and political - to tackle the problem of "status anxiety," which he characterizes as "a worry, so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped of dignity and respect; a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one."
This obsession with our place in society, de Botton writes, emerges from several sources: our fear of lovelessness; inflated expectations about what our lives should bring; our faith in meritocracy (which leads us to believe that modern day academic achievement sorts everyone into their rightful place), snobbery; and the fact that we are at the mercy of "fickle talent," luck, our employers, and the global economy. But status anxiety, he argues, can be cured—or at least mitigated—if we draw upon the resources of philosophy, art, politics, religion, and bohemia as tools for putting the issue in perspective. For example, we can curb our urge to grasp after bigger, more impressive things and learn to appreciate our mundane lives, he argues, by exposing ourselves to art and literature that celebrates the beauty and dignity of the ordinary. Likewise, an understanding of the ideals that drive Western religion can help us relinquish our fixation on worldly success. And we could do worse, he suggests, than to heed the observations of astute social critics like the eighteenth-century French commentator Sébastien-Roch Nicolas Chamfort, who warned, "public opinion is the worst of all."
AB - The book begins by stating that "every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories ... the story of our quest for sexual love" and "the story of our quest for love from the world." Why is the latter in your estimate a "more secret and shameful tale"?
AdB - All of us are incredibly embarrassed by our more narcissistic elements. People go to great lengths to hide their narcissism. Narcissism is, in a way, a nasty word. But it's very normal. It's the desire for people to think well of us, and accord us respect. I think the reason that desire is so carefully hidden is because it can very easily provoke envy and anger in other people. … Modesty is a survival instinct. But deep down, everyone has a desire to feel significant. It's just something we're loathe to admit to.
AB - The Industrial Revolution and the middle class it spawned are identified in the book as two main accelerators of status anxiety. In hindsight, could we have avoided the onset of this problem and still progressed as a society, economically and technologically?
AdB - Probably not. When you think of a productive economy you're thinking of an anxious economy. You're looking at many, many people who are afraid about hanging on to their places. You can either lead a simple life - the Jeffersonian ideal of the independent farmer with his simple log cabin. Or you can lead a city life. It's your choice. I guess a Marxist would say that in the ideal future we would have a noble feudal community and high technology at the same time. But on the whole I think it's perceived as a choice. Productivity and GNP are linked to the anxieties of many, many individual workers. An economy like that of France - a so-called "unproductive economy" - is in a way a more relaxed economy. Any given country will be successful at some things and unsuccessful at others. France may be somewhat unsuccessful economically, but it's successful in its long lunch break. There's that choice.
AB - Why have modern populations proved to be so incapable of feeling content with what they have and how they're viewed by so-called "reference groups," the communities that they feel close to?
AdB - I think a lot of it has to do with the idea of what's normal—of what is an acceptable standard of everyday living. And of course the bar keeps being raised ever higher in modern society. Look at advertising: its sole function is to make us feel that certain things are missing from our lives. So today it's possible for someone to feel poor if they don't have air-conditioning or a flat-screen TV in a way that they wouldn't have fifty or even ten years ago. Our sense of what it is to be reasonably well-off keeps changing, keeps rising—even though all of us are much better off than people were hundreds of years ago. But no one compares themselves to someone who lived three-hundred years ago or to someone in sub-Saharan Africa. We take our points of reference from those around us: our friends, our family. These are the people who determine our feelings of success. Which is why Rousseau wrote that the best way to become rich is not by trying to make more money, but by separating yourself from anyone around you who has had the bad taste to become more successful than you. It's a facetious point, but it's also a serious one. Feelings of wealth are relative.
Look at the self-help section of American bookshops, where my books are occasionally found. There are basically two kinds of books on those shelves: the first kind are the ones that say, "You can make it, you can be anything you like, you can be a billionaire by Friday." Then there's the other kind that tells you how to cope with feelings of low self-esteem - how to be a friend to yourself. This is the modern United States: a society that tells everyone they can be extraordinary. That creates feelings of shame among those who don't feel extraordinary. I think it's interesting that in England three-hundred years ago, people at the bottom of society were called "unfortunates." Interesting word, "unfortunates." Nowadays they're called "losers." That tells us a lot about how things have changed.
AB - You propose gaining an understanding of the causes of desire for status as a way to curb it. Do you see that as the only way? I've noticed an increasing sense of serenity and perspective coming over my peers in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq war. Could we be looking at a valley in the otherwise seemingly ever-upward-trending graph of status anxiety's progress? Could trauma be a solution?
AdB - Anything that restores perspective can be helpful. And by perspective I mean something that takes you away from the here and now of modern life, in which we're constantly surrounded by images of who's up and who's down. Now, that might be something as grim as the thought of death. 9/11, as we know, has been a giant memento mori hanging over the U.S. and the world: a reminder that death can find us very suddenly at any moment. That's a challenge to our workaday sense of needing to get on. People who have had a close brush with death tend to say that their priorities have been altered. What the neighbors think, and where you are on the ladder of life shifts in relevance. That's why the Christian moralists have traditionally stressed death as an agent that contributes positively to Judeo-Christian values. But of course it's very hard to keep the possibility of death constantly in the front of your mind, particularly when there are big corporations heavily invested in trying to get us to buy a new car, or go on holiday. They don't ask us to think about the grave nature of life. That kind of reminder tends to come from literature and art, and often has a hard time getting heard amid the clamor of all the media-driven messages.
AB - You suggest that the rise of meritocracy has trained us to see the rich as deserving of their fortunes rather than as sinful or corrupt. But, speaking for myself, in the wake of Enron and Martha Stewart, and given the state of modern government, I definitely consider more rich people than ever to be cheaters. I kind of always have.
AdB - That's interesting. It's not a typically American perspective. Americans usually tend to have this idea that we're moving toward some system of fair competition where there won't be any more Enrons, and the school system will make everything equal. Personally, I think the whole idea of meritocracy is bananas. I mean, the idea that you can create a society where you arrange people in descending order in relation to their merit as human beings, and give them money in relation to that system is completely illogical. Because there are so many factors that go into people's personalities. The modern worldview is that you can look at someone's resumé and make a judgment about how noble and worthwhile they are. Something's wrong with that: there are just too many other factors at play. I have a lot of sympathy for the old Christian view that the only person who can tell the worth of another human being is God, and He can only do that on the day of judgment. I think we need to be humble in judging other people, and in judging our own value. There's an arrogance that comes over people who think the system is just. The more just you think the system is, the crueler you're likely to be, because if you generally believe that those at the top deserve their success, you have to believe that those at the bottom deserve their failure. That's when you start talking about people as "losers," and saying things like, "Winners make their own luck." So there's a very nasty side to this otherwise very nice-sounding idea that we should make society fairer. Success is never totally deserved just as failure is never totally deserved. And I think there are too many overly happy billionaires who say things like, "No one ever helped me, so why should I help anyone else? Why should I pay taxes?" And one wants to say, "Yes, of course. But…"
AB - You say that there are five "unpredictable reasons never to count on either attaining or holding on to our desired position within a hierarchy." These include: dependence on fickle talent, luck, employers, an employer's profitability, and the global economy. In your view, to what extent is a person's ability to attain "success" dependent on savvy status-building strategy, as opposed to innate talent or merit?
AdB - I guess first of all, without being pedantic, we should examine the word "success." A person who's very successful in business might be very unsuccessful at reading Plato. Every time we use the word "success" it's a loaded word. But assuming that you're using the word in the modern economic sense, there is always a debate about how much to listen to other people. You hear business people say things like "I didn't listen to anyone about leaving this sector and now look at me." In publishing and art you hear this a lot too. Van Gogh, for example - everybody was telling him to get into a more productive line. But he didn't; he stuck with what he was doing. So aiming to please other people too directly can have a rather unproductive fate.