The Struggle for Recognition
A sociologist's new book tracks the proliferation of awards in American culture. Scott McLemee wonders if we're all really winners.
In a memorable passage from The Philosophy of History, Hegel quotes a common saying of his day that runs, “No man is a hero to his valet-de-chambre.” This corresponds, in contemporary terms, to the familiar sentiment that even the most distinguished individual “puts his pants on one leg at a time like everybody else.” It is somewhere between wisdom and truism. But Hegel seems to take it badly. After quoting the proverb, he adds his own twist: “not because the former is no hero, but because the latter is a valet.”
In other words, the portrait of a world-transforming figure -- say, Napoleon -- left by somebody who shined his shoes and helped him to bed after a night of drinking is no basis for judging the meaning of said figure’s life. For that, presumably, you need a philosopher. Hegel mentions in passing that his quip was repeated “ten years later” by Goethe. I imagine being very casual while dropping that reference, as his students in the lecture hall go “Dude!” (or whatever the German equivalent of emphatic amazement was in 1830).
The dig at butlers seems awfully snobbish – and also rather unwise, at least to admirers of P.G. Wodehouse. But its thrust is really aimed elsewhere. He is thinking of something that is still fairly new in the early 19th century: a mass public, eager to consume intimate revelations and psychological speculations regarding powerful and influential people. This means wallowing in envy and egotism. Hegel says it is driven by the “undying worm” of realizing that one’s “excellent views and vituperations remain absolutely without result in the world.” Anyone distinguished is thereby reduced “to a level with – or rather a few degrees lower than – the morality of such exquisite discerners of spirits.”
This sounds irritable enough. And remember, the telegraph hadn’t even been invented yet. The golden age of cutting everybody down to size was still to come. Nor, indeed, has it ended.
But Joel Best’s new book Everyone’s a Winner: Life in Our Congratulatory Culture, published by the University of California Press, describes a situation that appears, at first blush, the exact opposite of the one that bothered Hegel. The word “heroic,” writes Best, a professor of sociology at the University of Delaware, “once applied narrowly to characterize great deeds by either mythic or historical figures,” but is now often “broadened to encompass virtually anyone who behaves well under difficult – even potentially difficult – circumstances.” And sometimes not even that. (When Stephen Colbert tells his audience that they’re the real heroes, it satirizes the way certain cable TV demagogues flatter the American couch potato.)
“Activists are heroes,” he writes. “Coal miners are heroes. People with terminal cancer are heroes. A word once reserved for the extraordinary is now applied to the merely admirable.”
This is one aspect of a pattern that Best finds emerging in numerous domains of American life. There is an abundance of claims to eminence and excellence. The awards proliferate as we hold public celebration of achievement in every activity imaginable. Restaurants display their rankings from local newsweeklies. Universities are almost always certifiably distinguished, in some regard or other. A horror movie called The Human Centipede (First Sequence) won the 2010 Scream Award in the category “most memorable mutilation.” I have seen the film and believe it deserved this honor. (Seriously, you don’t want to know.)
Anyone possessing even a slight curmudgeonly streak will already have had suspicions about this trend, of course. Best corroborates it with much evidence. A case in point is his graph of the number of British and American awards for mystery novels. In 1946, the figure stood at five. By 1979, it had grown to five times that many, and in 2006 (the last year he charts), there were roughly 110. “Nor is the trend confined to book awards,” he notes. “The number of film prizes awarded worldwide has grown to the point that there are now nearly twice as many awards as there are full-length movies produced. For both books and films, the number of prizes has grown at a far faster clip than the numbers of new books or movies.”
The Congressional Gold Medal honoring an outstanding contribution to the nation (its first recipient, in 1776, was George Washington) was presented five times in the course of the 1950s. The frequency of the award has grown since. Between 2000 and 2009, it was given out 22 times.
The examples could be multiplied, perhaps exponentially. The range of people, products, and activities being honored has expanded. At the same time, the number of awards in each category tends to grow. In short, the total energy invested in assessing, marking, and celebrating claims about status (that is, worthiness of respect or deference) seems to have increased steadily over the past few decades in the United States -- and Best says that discussions with colleagues in Canada, Japan, and Western Europe suggest that the same trend has emerged in other countries.
Older ways of looking at status regarded it as a rare commodity. Gaining it, or losing it was fraught, with anxiety. And it still is, but something important has changed. Hegel’s comments imply that powerlessness and lack of status were bound to inspire resentment over established claims to excellence and significance. In a condition of “status scarcity,” there is bound to be a struggle that unleashes destructive tendencies. But Best maintains that another dynamic has emerged -- the manufacture of status on an almost industrial scale, rather than a mass society in which status is smashed.
This tendency overlaps with the profusion of what he terms “social worlds” (what might otherwise be called subcultures or lifestyle cohorts) which that emerge as people with shared interests or commitments gather and form their own organizations. Giving and getting awards often becomes part of consolidating the niche.
“The perceived shortage of status,” he writes, reflecting a sense of “insufficient status being given to people like us, is one of the reasons disenchanted people form new social worlds.” Doing so “means that folks aren’t forced to spend their whole lives in circles where they inevitably lose the competition for status. Rather, by creating their own worlds, they acquire the ability to mint status of their own. They can decide who deserves respect and why.” The result is what Best calls "status affluence." There are, he acknowledges, grounds to criticize this situation – an obvious one being that status, like currency, becomes devalued when too much of it is being put into circulation. On the whole, though, he judges it as salutary, and as making for greater social cohesion and stability.
And in any case, there is no obvious way to change it. A few years ago, a bill calling for no more than two Congressional Gold Medals to be issued per year won some support -- only to end in limbo. If there is a tap to control the flow of awards, nobody knows how to work it.
"Status affluence" isn't the same as equality -- and I'm struck by the sense that it coexists with profound and growing socioeconomic disparities. As Joseph E. Stiglitz recently pointed out, the income of the top 1 percent in the United States has grown by 18 percent over the past decade, while people in the middle have seen their incomes shrink: "While many of the old centers of inequality in Latin America, such as Brazil, have been striving in recent years, rather successfully, to improve the plight of the poor and reduce gaps in income, America has allowed inequality to grow." As interesting as Best's book is, it leaves me wondering if status affluence isn't a symptom, rather than a sign that the distribution of recognition has grown more equitable. A parachute is better than nothing, but this one seems like it might be made of papier-mâché.
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