Status Is Weird
and Values Are Bullshit
Status is weird.
Wall Street used to be cool and sexy; now it’s douchey. “Nerd” used to be an insult; now it’s a term of endearment. Electric guitar solos used to be mind-melting; now they’re just kind of annoying. People have gotten status from dueling, top hats, turtle shells, face painting, foot binding, shamanism, self-flagellation, rhyming couplets, and powdered wigs. Why is status so weird and random?
This post is my answer.
We all want status, but we can’t admit it. Why? Because it’s uncool. Wanting status makes us look selfish, insecure, and low-status. Ew. We’re not supposed to care about petty things like money or fame; we’re supposed to care about noble things like integrity or authenticity or something. Admitting we’re desperate for status is like admitting we’re horny for a co-worker or jealous of a friend’s success: it’s not a good look. So we pretend we don’t care about status, as a way of gaining status. It’s kind of confusing.
That means status games—i.e., the mutually-agreed-upon rules for winning and losing status—are fragile. We can only play a status game if we lack awareness that it’s status game. As soon as we become aware of the game we’re playing, we stop getting status for playing it. In fact, we lose status: we look selfish, insecure, and low-status. Ew. So virtue signalers cannot know they’re virtue signaling, and neither can the people who award them virtue. “Brave” truth-tellers cannot know they’re seeking praise from their political tribe, and neither can the tribe who praises them. “Rebellious” nonconformists cannot know they’re conforming to the norms of their subculture, and neither can their subculture. Status games must never be emblazoned with a neon sign that says “STATUS GAME”, or else they’ll disintegrate in the light like vampires. We have to play our status games in the dark.
So what happens when the lights come on?
The game collapses. People stop playing, for fear of looking uncool. Instead, they start playing an anti-status game to show how cool and not-interested-in-status they are. The point of an anti-status game is to show that you care about more important things than status, like integrity or authenticity or something. Anti-status games emerge in opposition to a collapsing status game, and they often take the opposite form. If people are showing off their immaculately coifed hair, for example, anti-status-seekers might wear their hair artfully tussled.
In other words, anti-status games are just another kind of status game. We could remove the “anti” if we wanted to, but it’s useful to keep it there to get a handle on what’s going on, so we can see why these games are so weird. Status games are constantly collapsing and re-emerging in antithetical forms. They give rise to anti-status games, then anti-anti-status games, and so on. Different cultures split off as status symbols twirl in fractal, quasi-cyclical patterns.
Here’s a real-world example. It used to be that being rich, and all the traits associated with it, was sexy. Driving Lamborghinis, living in a mansion, being snippy to the waitstaff, having yacht parties—all these things used to be cool. Then, gradually, over the course of decades, that changed.
The game collapsed. Flaunting one’s wealth became gross. Greed became bad. The most lucrative careers, like business and finance, became douchey. The arts, entertainment, academia, and journalism—industries that offer limited or uncertain pecuniary benefits, but that still let people flaunt their wit and creativity—became cool. Anything that looked too expensive became gauche and tacky. Anything that looked rustic and dilapidated became chic. Neoliberalism and meritocracy were discarded and replaced with more fashionable, pseudo-egalitarian ideologies.
What happened? Somehow, perhaps through converging narratives from the media ecosystem, people gained common knowledge of the “rich person” status game. The jig was up. Everyone discovered what the rich folks were up to, and playing their game conveyed a sickening desperation for status. Counter-elites invented a new anti-status game, designed to differentiate themselves from the snobs, shills, and WASPs of the Reagan era.
This new anti-status game is the one you and I are playing right now (assuming you’re part of my subculture), which means we’re playing it in the dark. The truth is, we’re just as status-obsessed as our Reagan-era predecessors, but we haven’t yet become aware of this, or become aware that everyone else has become aware of this, which is why our status game is still going strong. But once we catch on to the game we’re playing, it will collapse under the weight of self-awareness, with a new game rising from the rubble—perhaps a kind of anti-anti-neoliberalism we cannot currently imagine.
So if there’s a status game you dislike, expose it. Tell satirical stories about its vainglorious players. Translate the covert signals into a lingua franca. Attack the game’s supposed values and reveal its hypocrisy. If you succeed, the game will collapse. That’s what happened to dueling, foot binding, powdered wigs, and all the other defunct status games throughout history, and it’s sure to happen to many of the status games we’re currently playing, like educational credentialism and performative wokeness.
On the other hand, if there's a status game you like, shield it from criticism. Hide the fact that it has anything to do with status, and angrily defend any accusations that it’s more narcissistic than it appears. This kind of angry defensiveness has been common throughout history, as people sought to protect their fragile status games from collapse. “How dare you mock dueling! It’s a noble tradition of manly honor!”
When we defend our status games, we usually appeal to “sacred” values, like manly honor, beauty, faith, knowledge, equality, integrity, or authenticity or something. We have to pretend these values are intrinsically important and worth upholding for their own sake, independent of any status we get for upholding them. We create sacred narratives about how none of us are vain or self-centered at all; we’re just noble souls who are impartially motivated by an abstract love of truth or beauty or self-expression or whatever. If anyone questions our sacred narrative or mocks us for being uncool status-seekers, it might cause our fragile status game to collapse, and that would be terrible—we’d lose all our accumulated status. That’s why questioning sacred values is taboo.
Unfortunately, when deciding which status games to attack or defend, we’re biased. If we’re losing a status game, we attack it: it’s toxic and irrational and ruining everything. If we’re winning a status game, we defend it: it’s noble and pure and aimed at the betterment of humankind. That is what culture wars are all about. We say they’re about clashing values, but really they’re just power struggles between rival subcultures—attempts to shift the rules of the reigning status game in their favor. People naturally accuse their rivals of being uncool status-seekers (e.g. “you’re just virtue signaling” or “you just don’t want to give up your privilege”), while pretending that they themselves aren’t interested in status. No, they’re interested in more important things, like inclusivity or free speech or something.
But is it possible to evaluate our status games from a more rational, dispassionate perspective? Can we somehow learn to defend the status games that actually make the world better and attack the ones that actually make the world worse? Is our sorry species even remotely capable of such a project?
Maybe? Possibly? If there’s any way to pull it off, it’s by appealing to young people, or people having a midlife crisis, or people who haven’t yet won too many status points in any particular game, or who don’t yet know which game they’re most likely to win. Maybe if we urge these on-the-fence people to think a little harder about which status game to play, we can gradually, as a species, move toward status games that make us all better off.
And maybe that project—the quest to improve the world through thinking hard and seeing through bullshit—is a sacred value too, a covert status game that you and I are playing, and convincing other people to play, because we think we stand a good chance of winning it.
And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. We ultimately have to choose what bullshit story we’re going tell ourselves, including the bullshit story that we’re too cool for bullshit stories, or else we’ll succumb to alienation and despair.
So if you still haven’t found the right status game to play, please: choose wisely. Consider joining my anti-bullshit, (anti-)status game, which is the only way to understand how our status games really work. Or not. Don’t listen to me—I’m too biased. Maybe listen to a bunch of different people, so that all their biases cancel out. Anyways, think it over—give it a good think—and make the right call.
The fate of humanity depends on it.
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