How to win the game of virtue

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Years ago, at an awards dinner, I found myself speaking to one of the country’s most august, respected, and highest paid journalists. He was up for a prize. Me too. But since he had already won every award imaginable, often multiple times, I assumed that another piece of engraved Perspex would mean nothing to him. “Oh, no,” he said bluntly. “I still really, really love winning awards.”

If I had read Will Storr, I wouldn’t have been so surprised. The statute has no final destination, he argues. People who have acquired enough laurels to rest generally want more. He cites research which found that “the desire for status is ‘never really satisfied’ because ‘it can never truly be owned by the owner once and for all'”, and refers us to Paul McCartney, the Beatle , who was still bitching about John Lennon’s name being the first in the credits of “Yesterday” 50 years later. Macca can’t let this happen.

The status game is a strange book. Storr admits that, like most journalists, his knowledge is vast but superficial. He is therefore full of fascinating stories to illustrate his thesis: that humans are driven by the desire for status in many areas of our lives. We find men in a Micronesian community ranked by their ability to grow the biggest yam, or the leader of Turkmenistan who renamed the days of the week, the months of the year and even the word for bread after himself and members of his family to stamp his supreme status. Or the killer who sabotages attempts to free him into a new life, because out of prison he would be nobody, while inside he is King Con.

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In search of status stories, Storr travels through world history and delves into psychology, science, and anthropology. Reading it, I feel like I’m listening to a Ted Talk, seduced by the technician’s articulation with the cool sneakers and the well-trimmed beard, straddling the stage, clicking on his PowerPoint thing. But when he stops talking, I’m disappointed.


The book is an eloquent and entertaining speech on the obvious. For example, Storr tells us that teens become aware of their status around age 13 when they feel more defined by their peers than by their parents, but as boys compete physically, girls degrade each other’s reputation. Failure to respect a man’s status – “report” – can lead to gang violence. Spray his status further with sexual or emotional humiliation and he may even become a serial killer or the Unabomber. A prestigious high-status suit becomes inferior when adopted by ordinary people: so Burberry lost its cachet when soap stars began to savor its beige tiles.

Reading The status game, I found a strange question brewing: what would Karl Marx think? Storr’s analysis is the most intangible interpretation of history possible. Most of us strive to win matches within our caste, tribe, or social class, because winning doesn’t just bring a serotonin shot of satisfaction, but real prizes: better. jobs, elite education for our children, bigger houses, sex with more attractive partners. “Money is a status symbol, power is a status symbol, just like the size of a logo on a handbag,” he writes, as if they were equivalent, when the first two transform lives while the latter is often a hollow capitalist consolation prize. for the poor.

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Storr is right, however, that symbolic status has extraordinary power within existing groups. Believing that your football team, community, or nation is the best can be sustainable when you don’t have much else. “Humans have a prejudice for theirs which is universal, unconscious and triggered at the slightest provocation,” he writes. Storr quotes the Cider with Rosie author Laurie Lee, looking as a child at the map of the British Empire. When Lee and his friends were poor and “lived on boiled and baked cabbage,” they saw that their country controlled much of Africa and all of India, and “we looked at each other like we were centurions ”. Remainers often assume the Red Wall Leavers were too thick to understand they would lose financially from Brexit, when in fact many preferred national identity to money.

It is when Storr applies to the online world that his theories generate real ideas. Our sense of well-being is not relative to everyone in society, but to our immediate peers. “In fact, it’s our little games that count,” he writes: the feeling of being valued in your family, your office, your combat unit, your gang of friends. So when a device is created that allows us to compare ourselves to the whole world at all times, status anxiety escalates. Leaked documents recently confirmed the link between Instagram use and anxiety, depression and low self-esteem in teens.

Storr calls the smartphone a “status slot machine”: it provides instant affirmation with every “like”, as well as access to endless new arenas in which to play status games. No wonder we can’t put down our damn phones or stop having unnecessary Twitter chats with strangers. Or – most bizarrely – that we break away from private events like, say, a friend’s wedding where we are loved, to post photographs online to be evaluated or harassed by complete strangers. The status we enjoy in the intimate moment is no longer enough: it must be reinforced by external validation. Or rather, we are now two status-seeking organizations: our human self and our social media avatar playing in an unlimited and far scarier arena for the small possibility, via a tweet that goes viral or makes itself known in a niche forum, to win big. .

There are, according to Storr, three types of status games: domination where you win by brute force, success defined by talent and achievement, and virtue, where you win by asserting your ideological purity and goodness. It is the latter which has a particularly modern resonance since celebrities such as footballers, always forerunners of fashion, no longer boast of their bling but of their charitable works.

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Storr argues that virtue status games, which naturally predominate in religious communities, also operate in all closed worlds such as cults or even in times of collective madness. Storr reminds us of a story with many modern parallels: the satanic abuse scandal of the 1980s, when police, medical visitors, doctors, counselors, journalists and even Oprah Winfrey were tricked into believing children were being abused. as part of strange devil worship rituals. It didn’t matter that there was no evidence of “blood sacrifice”: the status of too many people had invested in “the truth” for them to give it up.

Likewise on Twitter, political opinion has hardened into closed groups that gain status not by winning arguments or convincing opponents, much less by affecting change in the real world, but by causing “death.” of the reputation ”of those who represent a counter-point of view. Plus, in what Storr calls these “tyrannically tight status play[s]People compete to assert extreme and untenable positions to win praise from the “righteous” even if, say, demanding that the police be reimbursed could harm the physical safety of the blacks you claim to be defending.

It’s hard not to agree with Storr that such status games are tiresome and take us away from sources of true human satisfaction. Yet his cures seem somewhat timid. We should allow others to “feel statutory” (a horrible word) so that they are “more likely to accept our influence”. This is unlikely online, where such magnanimity will be seized as evidence of weakness. We should also ‘reduce [our] moral sphere “- that is, stop choosing online fights with chance and focus on the good opinion of the people we cherish. But Storr’s final words,” The Meaning of Life n It’s not about winning, it’s about playing, “LOL actually told me. This is not just a cliché, but the antithesis of his book. Also, most of us will strive to dominate, whether it’s winning plastic trophies or gilding our heritage (our post-mortem status) until the moment we disconnect from life.

Janice Turner is a writer for The Times

The status game: on social position and how we use it
Will Storr
William Collins, 416pp, £ 20

This article appeared in the September 22, 2021 issue of The New Statesman, Great power play


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