Status anxiety

This is the unabridged version of the essay I wrote as my term paper for Social Theory. It’s written in the style of Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety, which comes strongly recommended to anyone curious about the Western micro-level identity crisis. The version of this I handed in for credit was about 25-30% shorter; I welcome comments or feedback in the comments.

But considering the growing number of others I’ve spoken with this week who are uncertain as to where they’ll be three weeks from now, this seemed a good time to post this.

 


 

 

“To be shown love is to feel ourselves the objects of concern: our presence is noted, our name is registered, our views are listened to, our failings are treated with indulgence and our needs are ministered to. And under such care, we flourish.”

– Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety, p. 6

 

0. Status Anxiety

Status anxiety is a fear, “so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives,” that one is incapable of living up to standards one believes to be held over one’s head.[1] To whatever extent one believes oneself incapable of measuring up, and to the extent one believes these standards worth measuring up to, the product of those factors will be the extent to which status anxiety is felt. Potential causes and remedies are numerous. In the following sections, I will discuss some of each, beginning with the most foundational, in addition to the role of the “generalized other.”

 

  1. Lovelessness

In order to properly discuss lovelessness, it is necessary to first come to an understanding of love. To be loved is to feel oneself an “object of concern,” a concern which may come from individuals or from society at large.[2] With regard to the latter type, de Botton writes that love from society is given as a consequence of high status.[3] High status can presumably be innate or acquired: it can be conferred on the children of noble, wealthy, or powerful families, or acquired through some form of effort, such as hard work or the nurturing of talent. In a true meritocracy, the first category does not exist, a notion I will return to in the following section. For our purposes, however, the state of lovelessness can be described as the feeling that the world does not care about us.

It should also be mentioned that lovelessness implies the absence of both the love of familiars and the love of the general public. The love of familiars is a trait shared by most human beings; because it is so common, it is often taken for granted, and its absence bears little weight on whether or not one feels acceptance from the general public. Acceptance from the general public, on the other hand, is more complicated. In meritocratic societies, status is, from the perspective of the individual, both esteemed and viewed as highly conditional upon his or her doing something to deserve it. It tends to be the case that individuals have acceptance from society at large unless they do (or, in some societies, are innately) something undesirable. Because of its seeming conditionality, however, it also tends to be the case that the less one has to concern him or herself over survival, the freer he or she is to worry about his or her status.

To the extent the approval of others is decisive in shaping our own feelings of self-worth, it is the fear of lovelessness—arguably more than lovelessness itself—that produces the greatest status anxiety. In wealthy societies, that is, individuals are both more aware of the phenomenon of generalized love and more aware of discrepancies between the amount they receive and the amount their peers receive. One’s status does not necessarily have to be high in order for that person to enjoy a sense of approval, and he or she will tend to feel more threatened by a peer who achieves slightly more than by a stranger who achieves significantly more.[4] Insofar as a person understands his or her approval to be a fleeting luxury, however, the fear of replacement by a close yet better alternative may provoke anxiety.

 

  1. Meritocracy

A true meritocracy is a society in which individuals have status in proportion to their talent.[5] Meritocracy evolved out two forces, one positive and one negative: on the positive side, the myth of the intrinsic equality of all human beings delegitimized concepts like primogeniture and hereditary nobility. Out of the collapse of the old forms of social hierarchy, then, came an aristocracy of the deserving—a “natural aristocracy,” to borrow Thomas Jefferson’s phrase, of those best fit to rule by virtue of their qualifications. Long before mutations such as Social Darwinism ever took root, however, the notion of the self-made man (and it was at the time primarily men) emerged out of the notion that the most qualified were the most fit to rule. This claim—based as it was on yet another myth, that of equal opportunity—had the sinister tendency to assume that those who led deserved to do so. Under the assumption that opportunity was also equally distributed, which would thus posit a level playing field, the most deserving would necessarily be those who succeeded. Never mind cheaters, false starters, or saboteurs—in a model society, there was no place for such maliciousness of character.

In meritocratic societies, it tends to become painfully clear, especially in early adulthood, that one is worth to society only that which one contributes to it. As a result of this, the individual is imbued with this burden of contribution in order to receive that which he or she needs from society as a whole: validation, another term for generalized love.[6] Validation in meritocracies is conditional upon meaningful contribution to society; contribution is a result of fulfilling one’s purpose, or role, to a sufficient extent. Historically, this role has been thought of as immutable.[7] As I will discuss in the following section, it is the case in most meritocracies that individuals have a large degree of freedom to choose what this role will be, within certain constraints.

The further one digs into the myth of the meritocracy, however, the more contingencies one finds as necessary components of a true meritocratic society. Yet, in a brilliant example of pluralistic ignorance writ large, this myth remains one of the most poignant and key centerpieces to American social culture. The notion that any child, no matter how humble his or her origins, can be anything he or she wants to be carries the bitter aftertaste that if he or she fails to do so, he or she is a failure. Thus, the expectations one levies on oneself not to fail come to form the reverse side of the coin to the individual’s need to feel validation. In a true meritocracy, one’s position in society is justified by one’s abilities. And insofar as the absence of this reality remains generally unacknowledged, we are like Betty Friedan’s housewives: unable to feel quite comfortable challenging the notion that this may be all there is.

 

  1. Expectation

Meritocracy began an awkward cohabitation with the myth of substantive equality of individuals on the basis of their character. This, in turn, led to the divorce of an individual’s expectations of him or herself from his or her actual abilities to achieve them. It is thus that individual expectations of themselves have come to take on a more sinister quality to them than society’s expectations of individuals. In essence, a meritocratic society has no expectation of individuals but that they will contribute to it—it may assign a few behavioral norms innately, still others once an individual has outlined his or her beliefs, intellectual prowess, or field of occupation. Rarely, however, will it assign an individual’s specific role.

In this country, we are free to aspire independent of the nature of our initial life status. The most disadvantaged child in the most far-removed corner of the United States can still aspire to its presidency, its celebrity, or its financial elite. While it is rare for them to do so past a certain age, it is less rare for children of all ages and capacities to be raised with the expectation of coming to change the world. When this does not come to pass, they may be left with a bitter, broken sense of disappointment and self-disparagement that can be broken only by a sense of acceptance by the generalized other.

The dark side to the purpose game is that, amidst the mutual understanding between society and its members that validation comes from the satisfaction of one’s purpose, it is assumed that those belonging to society, presumably everyone, will have a purpose, and likewise that this purpose will be discoverable. This second tenet, the discoverability of purpose, creates an expectation that one will in fact discover one’s purpose, likewise that one will be able to fulfill it (for it would be awfully inefficient of society to establish purposes for its members that they couldn’t fulfill). This satisfaction must be within one’s reach. Ideally, then, the purpose of things such as education is to help individuals discover their purpose.

But herein lies the dysfunction of expectation: in a culture that teaches its young to aspire indefinitely, their expectations of themselves may rise disproportionately to their purpose, likewise to their ability to achieve their expectations. Thus is formed the predisposition to feelings of worthlessness that plagues the world’s richest society. In watching our peers, who in most cases come out of similar backgrounds to our own, become more successful than us, we are subject not only to the illusion of an expectation that we must too achieve similarly lest we be discovered to be worthless (or at least a little less valuable than we think we are), but the sense that because we have not done so, we must in fact be less valuable. This blinds our own ability to feel validated and shatters our expectations little by little over the course of a lifetime.

The myth of meritocracy, then, can seal this misery by purporting that he or she who achieves the most deserves the most. This, as mentioned in the previous section, precludes the possibilities of cheating, false starts, or sabotage; if we see that those who are similar to us are achieving more, they must be somehow better than us, if their achievements are taken to be (as they are in a pure meritocracy) the absolute measure of status. When status is taken, as society often suggests, to be an accurate assessment of individual worth (beyond the pure monetary sense), a status discrepancy between us and those we have come to understand as our equals will greatly disturb us. Insofar as we understand ourselves primarily in relation to others, especially to our familiars, a feeling that we are worth slightly less in proportion to others like us will feel more significant than a chasm that may actually separate us from true prosperity or destitution.[8] Meritocracy would have us accept this as just, suggesting that feelings of worthlessness or invalidity are an inescapable part of life.

 

  1. The internalization of norms and the generalized other

Insofar as society “requires us to make ourselves its servants,” it seems counterintuitive to even belong to a society.[9] Society requires its members to “submit to rules of action and thought that we have neither made nor wanted and that sometimes are contrary to our inclinations and to our most basic instincts.” And yet, society is not something we choose necessarily to invest in or to even belong to. Society is imbued with moral authority that long predates our ever belonging to it; it was not consciously formed, but rather can be described as a form of kosmos, one that exists only in the minds of those belonging to it. It is a weight that is felt by all but perceived and grasped by none. For this reason it is necessary to localize society outside of ourselves, even though it is formed and exists within us, because it is only something worth following if it is something that can command our attention because it is greater than, beyond, us.

Society requires of us that we serve it, and thus the justification for the need for a purpose. Without a purpose, it is impossible to know how to serve society. Purpose is designed to narrow the range of possibilities by which one can come to understand that one has served society well, at least to the extent society expects of one to serve it. Absent this understanding, one can never be sure that one has fulfilled one’s obligations to society. This generates anxiety. In much the same way as a lack of values results in an infinite threshold for attaining satisfaction—and much the same way as this, therefore, leaves one destined to remain unfulfilled—a sense of purposelessness can negate the feelings of validation society may be directing toward us, shielding them so that we never feel them and remain somehow convinced that we are inadequate. Thus, if it is true that “only in so far as he takes the attitudes of the organized social group to which he belongs toward the organized, co-operative social activity…in which that group…is engaged, does [the individual] develop a complete self,” then purpose is a prerequisite of belonging.[10] And if “the self reaches its full development by organizing…individual attitudes of others into the organized social or group attitudes,” this implies the individual must compare him or herself to others (in Mead’s words, to “determine himself in relationship with the group to which he belongs”) in order to understand where he or she “best fits.”[11]

Without such purpose, we are animals. In the Christian paradigm, we are not animals because we are capable of love. Thus, the current predicament: absent love, which comes on the generalized level from status, we feel not only inadequate but inhuman. All but the most reclusive or most despised of us will benefit from some extent of interpersonal love. But that alone isn’t enough: we must have some validation from society what we belong, a validation our meritocratic society provides us when we contribute something to it (even if that something be nothing more than the shining example of our character, which in itself provides moral uplift and thus contributes). Thus, the necessity of purpose for the amassment of generalized love: status anxiety related to lovelessness will tend to stem from a lack of a sense of purpose, from inability to fulfill one’s purpose, or from an intermixture of these.

 

  1. Some solutions to status anxiety

Religion, in particular the Christian religion, purports to solve many problems of status anxiety by flipping them on their head. It is particularly hostile to the idea of meritocracy, starting by attacking the foundational claim that the playing field is always equal. In earthly matters, it often flat-out denies this, claiming instead that the materially successful and prominent are often the most blinded to God on account of their intoxication with their own pride and status. Instead of aspiring to high status in the earthly realm, Christians are taught to aspire to love and to please God, in a sense a different “generalized other,” and to live righteously, itself a byproduct of humility that often (but not necessarily) precludes the attainment of material wealth as an end in itself.

Even if, as Christianity claims, individuals are all worth the same at the spiritual level, they may have different abilities. But in no way does this suggest that those of higher ability are worth more; rather, in the Christian understanding, God distributes spiritual “talents” as He sees fit. This implies not only that people do not achieve their own worth but also that earthly status is a product of His design, and by human standards is a matter of random chance. It therefore remains the case that those who receive more simply accrue more expectations and responsibilities, not more worth.

Christianity inverts lovelessness in two ways: first, by the notion that validation comes from obedience to and enjoyment of God, which, rather than contribution to society, is the definition of one’s purpose. Secondly, it inverts lovelessness also by the promise that God loves all human beings despite their status, this being first and foremost as sinners, a common and equalizing quality to all. Similarly, Christianity inverts expectation by promising that “what happens on earth is but a brief prelude to an eternal existence.” [12] As such, it will therefore “offset any tendency to envy with the thought that the success of others is a momentary phenomenon against a backdrop of eternal life.”[13] By recognizing that “our miseries are bound up with the grandiosity of our ambitions,” Christians can choose not to be miserable by ceding their ambition in favor of obedience and submission to God.[14] If there is no superior status to be had, in other words, an individual cannot feel unfulfilled for not aspiring to attain it.[15]

On the other hand, religion may also contribute to status anxiety, especially when distorted. In some cases, a status hierarchy of holiness may exist in proportion to the righteousness of one’s living. Such a distortion might confer higher status on the “most righteous”; a materialist distortion such as the prosperity gospel may even connect material wealth to piety. Under such distortions, it may easily be the case, as it is in bohemia, that traditional sources of status anxiety are simply swapped out for others.

Bohemia attempts to combat lovelessness that an individual may feel from his or her alienation from society’s expectations by proposing a way of life that is essentially counter to those expectations. It is allegedly a lifestyle of freedom: if, as Thoreau famously claimed, “Man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without,” then the most successful individual will be the freest from the burden of society’s expectations.[16] Unlike religion, however, bohemia is less an all-inclusive inversion of the problems of status anxiety than simply an alternative means of easing such tensions. There is still an implicit hierarchy of merit in bohemia: the bourgeois (and the bourgeoisie by extension) are less valuable, the creative and the libertine more valuable. Rather than being placed on material success and individual achievement, value is placed on artistic creativity and ingenuity. But as this, too, is a form of achievement, bohemia doesn’t escape the meritocracy as much as it simply rebels against it. The misunderstood artist can never escape the burden of expectation, however. In most cases, a bohemian’s new society, with its alternative norms, does no more than his original society to help him meet the burden of compliance.

 

  1. Personality

My own solution to status anxiety is still in the works. I cannot claim development of an effective way to deal with it; I adhere to the Christian faith, and as such have a teleological understanding of my purpose that conforms to the Christian expectations. Still, status anxiety is a touchy subject, not only for me but for potentially any individual who questions their value to society. In my case, the primary non-faith component of my identity is tied to a history of high achievement. What caused me the most status anxiety as of late has been watching my peers solidify their post-graduation plans while remaining very uncertain as to my own; it is tempting to think that because I do not have a plan, I am somehow less valuable than my peers who do have plans, even while knowing at some level that my value is not actually tied to what I contribute to society.

This is perhaps one of the greatest consolations my faith has given me as of late. It would not be accurate to state I “deal” with status anxiety, but rather that my understanding of Christianity, which I have attempted to convey in part five of this essay, is such that my faith tends to alleviate it by giving me a new set of concerns. The impulse to compare myself to others is always fighting against what I know as the truth, that if I must compare myself to someone, it should be to God, for against God all human beings are equally powerless. God is a great equalizer; though of course it is one thing to declare this and another to actively believe it in any given moment, this understanding is still a consolation when I am tempted to fall into despair from inability to contribute to society.

Of course, as I have explained at length in this essay, it is not ultimately the inability to contribute that causes despair. Rather, it is because, in this meritocratic society, contribution is theoretically how one goes about attaining generalized love. A lack of generalized love, or even perceived discrepancies between the amount one receives in relation to others, contributes to status anxiety—almost as though status anxiety were a form of envy of others’ portions of generalized love. Inability to contribute is not some altruistic fear, then, but a profoundly selfish concern. The ability to make a significant contribution is important because it promises validation. In my case, it is here that I am given pause amidst my own search for a way to contribute to society: if what I seek is the validation of others, then my search has become an idol, and it is my responsibility as a Christian to cast that aside.

 


 

[1] Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety (New York: Vintage Books, 2004): vii.

[2] de Botton, 6.

[3] de Botton, 8.

[4] de Botton, 26; 239.

[5] Now, the first myth of meritocracy holds that this is usually a byproduct of success—it could be said, just as well, that it is a form of reverence, a respect for what one has done or contributed to society, for who one is, for beauty, power, intellect, ability, goodness of character, or some amalgamation thereof.

[6] Another term for this would be “acceptance.”

[7] de Botton, 30.

[8] de Botton, 26.

[9] Emile Durkheim, “The Origin of Beliefs,” in Theories of Social Order, ed. Michael Hechter and Christine Horne, 2nd ed. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009): 51.

[10] George Herbert Mead, “Play, the Game, and the Generalized Other,” in Theories of Social Order, ed. Michael Hechter and Christine Horne, 2nd ed. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009): 61.

[11] Ibid, 63-64.

[12] de Botton, 37.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, 238.

[15]It can be the case when distorted, nonetheless, that a status hierarchy of holiness exists in proportion to the righteousness of one’s living. Such a distortion might confer higher status on the “most righteous”; a materialist distortion such as the prosperity gospel may even connect material wealth to piety. Under such distortions, it may easily be the case that traditional sources of status anxiety are simply swapped out for others.

[16] Ibid, 275.

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