Interviews June 2004

The Status-tician

Why do the successes of our peers drive us crazy? Alain de Botton, the author of Status Anxiety, explains

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?

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.

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.

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…"

You detail the history of the word "snob"—explaining that it arose from aristocratic students at Oxford and Cambridge writing "sine nobilitate" (without nobility) or "s.nob" next to the names of ordinary students on testing lists. It would seem that you've traveled among some snobs yourself, being a Cambridge man who theorizes about philosophy. Because of this have you suffered from a particularly acute form of status anxiety yourself?

I understand snobbery as latching onto one or two things about a person and using those things to come to a definitive view of their whole character. We tend to have this idea of snobbery as a sort of British, landed aristocracy-type phenomenon—Are you a Duke? Where do you hunt? That sort of thing. But I think that form of snobbery has gone out the window. The dominant form of snobbery today is career snobbery. When two meet people for the first time, one of them says "What do you do?" And according to the answer, the person asking the question either finishes his drink or wanders off. So a lot hangs on that answer. We've all experienced it—I've certainly experienced it. And what's particularly horrible is that you feel the definitiveness of the judgment. You want to say, "I'm a nice, interesting person. I have a sensitive soul. And I, too, had a teddy bear when I was little." But the other person just has no time. You're out. You have nothing to show for yourself. And that is one of the worst feelings that you'll experience.

Of course the opposite of a snob is your mother. Ideally your mother doesn't care what you do, she cares who you are. But most people are not our mothers and have a much less accepting way of evaluating us. I've made some TV shows in Britain, and some academics have said, "Oh, you've been on television, you're not serious." "He sells a lot of books, he can't be serious." Or "There are jokes in his book, well he himself must be a joke." All kinds of very crude ways of judging the value of someone. You know, when I wrote that book a few years ago about Proust, a lot of Proust academics said, "By definition it's got to be a stupid book because it's sort of popular and the title's a bit silly."

To play devil's advocate, couldn't it be said that your writing of this book (and others) is itself an act of jockeying for status? To what extent, if any, are you aware of a desire on your part for "love from the world" as a motivator in your work?

Sure, absolutely. But I think the key thing to ask is, What do you want to be loved for? Most of the things that people do in a work arena are to some extent for the sake of respect. There are probably three things that motivate people in their work: the desire for money, the intrinsic satisfaction of the work, and the desire for the good opinion of the community. One question to ask is, Whose respect do you want, and for what? For a writer it's: Do you want high sales? Who are you aiming to please? Do you not care at all? To some extent, my work answers those questions itself. I obviously care less about the good opinion of, say, The New York Review of Books, than about the opinion of the common reader. Which is a decision independent of sales. It's an aesthetic decision.

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Adam Baer is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, and Slate, on NPR, and elsewhere.

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