Show Hide image

The reputation game: how to control the way we appear in the eyes of others

From Harvey Weinstein to Taylor Swift, celebrities have become their own PR agents – and we are following their lead.

In Reputation, translated into English by Stephen Holmes and Noga Arikha, the Italian philosopher Gloria Origgi writes that we all have “two egos, two selves”. There is the physical and mental sensation of being you. Then there is the version of you that exists in the social world – a hazy, shifting, warped image of the real thing.

This is your reputation. It is you, because it derives from your actions, and also not you, because it is composed of other people’s opinions. It is a portrait of you that you didn’t commission and don’t own. Origgi is interested in the power that this second self exerts over the first. A person’s reputation can push him towards certain decisions instead of others. It can make him feel pride or shame. It can open doors or slam them shut.

“We think we know someone, but the truth is that we only know the version of them that they have chosen to show us,” writes Taylor Swift in the essay that accompanies her new album, Reputation. In reality, we know the version that other people have shown us. As Swift knows only too well, a person’s image is never wholly under her control. Our reputations are always filtered through the sentiments, prejudices and interests of others, which in turn influences how we see ourselves. In 1902, the American sociologist Charles Cooley coined the term “looking-glass self” to describe how we regard ourselves through the eyes of others. The looking glass is a distorting mirror.

Today, everyone’s second self is encoded in contrails of data: pictures, ratings, clicks, tweets, searches and purchases. Corporations and governments rake over this information and fix us in it: we are subjected to the scrutiny applied to celebrities but without the fame or the free stuff. In one possible future, everyone will be ranked like hotels on TripAdvisor. In one possible present, in fact: the Chinese government is implementing a scheme that will give each of its 1.4 billion citizens a score for trustworthiness, with the stated aim of building a culture of “sincerity”.

In the West, even without the intervention of the state, we have created a system in which everyone can be held accountable to their public image. As Swift writes, hers is the first generation with the responsibility of “[curating] what strangers think of us”.

Since nobody can opt out of having a reputation, we have to learn how to manage it. In other words, we need to become our own PR agents. The Reputation Game is written by two people from the PR business, David Waller and Rupert Younger. They introduce a useful distinction between two types of reputation: capability and character. The first refers to competence in a specific task, such as cooking a meal, providing mortgages, or making aircraft engines. The second refers to moral or social qualities. Someone can have a great reputation for competence, while at the same time being regarded as slippery or unpleasant. Uber is good at what it does, but you wouldn’t invite it home to meet your mother.

Capability reputations are sticky: they take a long time to wash away. An author who writes great novels early in his career can produce many mediocre ones before people start to question if he is any good (naming no names, Salman Rushdie). Character reputations are more flammable, especially in a world where social media can instantly detonate bad news. A strong reputation for competence defends you against character problems, but only for so long, as Uber is finding out. When your character reputation is destroyed, competence becomes immaterial.


I’m Harvey Weinstein,” he used to tell people. “You know what I can do.” The news about Weinstein broke after these books went to print, but both have something to say about it. Weinstein had a powerful capability reputation that protected a sullied but serviceable character reputation. Actually, he had two capability reputations. As well as being someone able to get artistically ambitious movies made, he was perceived, in Hollywood, to be capable of destroying anyone who crossed him. This latter reputation stopped women talking and journalists publishing. It acted as his flood barrier. Only when his reputation as a successful movie maker went into decline did the dam break.

Reputation is a second-order phenomenon. It is not constituted merely by what people know about the person or entity concerned but by what people know about what other people know. As Origgi puts it, “Reputations are maintained by a circulation of true or false opinions about opinions.” Before his defences collapsed, Weinstein’s monstrosity was hinted at in magazine profiles, joked about in the comedy series 30 Rock and flagged up by Courtney Love. In the aftermath of his fall, Hollywood insiders spoke about how his behaviour was an open secret. “Every­body knew” became the new “Nobody knows anything” (the screenwriter William Goldman’s often-quoted axiom about the movie industry). But until everybody knew that everybody knew, Weinstein was safe.

In a psychology experiment conducted in 1968, people were asked to fill out a questionnaire while waiting for the experimenter to return. As they did so, smoke was pumped into the room. When participants were working alone, they reacted or reported the smoke almost immediately. When they were in groups, they were slower to act, waiting even to the point at which they were choking, because nobody wanted to be the one seen to be panicking unnecessarily. They took surreptitious glances at the others, and when they saw them not reacting, they didn’t react either. The function of a fire alarm, then, is not just to let everyone know there is a fire – it is to let everyone know that everyone knows.

In the case of Weinstein, the New York Times and the New Yorker sounded the alarm – or rather, they amplified an alarm sounded by the women who agreed to go on the record. Suddenly, everyone acknowledged the fire. But there was already plenty of smoke, circulated by his many victims in preceding years. Waller and Younger note the role that gossip plays in keeping reputations in check. It “helps flush out the boss who is lazy, the head teacher who is a bully or the colleague who is untrustworthy”. This is true, but bullies, idlers and cheats don’t get flushed out until the gossip is publicly validated.

Reputations are made up of opinions, but some opinions count more than others. As Origgi writes, reputation has formal and informal ingredients. The first category includes official qualifications, institutional imprimaturs and endorsements from the powerful. In any system, there are gatekeepers with the power to raise up or pull down reputations; to admit or exclude individuals from the circles of the capable or good. Weinstein’s iron grip on the machine of validation was what enabled him to get away with his behaviour for so long. He was assisted by the heads of Hollywood studios and talent agencies, who are mostly male. The word “valid” is rooted in power: it derives from the Latin word validus, which means potency. Men are the validators.

Then there are the informal ingredients of reputation: rumour, innuendo and gossip, all of them are disreputable. As Origgi puts it, “Informal reputations have a terrible reputation.” When Theresa May launched her leadership campaign in 2016, she said, “I don’t gossip about people over lunch,” and we all understood. Gossiping is a sign of low character. To refrain from it indicates probity, to ignore it is good judgement.

But I don’t trust people who don’t gossip. There is something cold and bloodless about them, and I have always felt as if they are hiding something, from others or from themselves. I think Origgi is probably right when she suggests that the disdain for rumour and gossip conceals “a drive for authoritarian control”. Formal reputations can be established by a few individuals at the top of a hierarchy. Gossip is egalitarian and subversive.

While Weinstein maintained his power over the media, what kept the story of his abuses alive was women talking to women, in whisper networks, text messages and WhatsApp groups. Gossip is conventionally characterised as feminine. While this is partly a result of the male horror of intimate conversation, it’s also because, for centuries, it has been a weapon deployed by women in an asymmetrical battle with adversaries in possession of all the heavy artillery. Gossip is dangerous because it is unaccountable, but it is what you resort to when you do not have a seat at the tribunals at which reputations are made or broken. It is the smoke you pump into a room when nobody will let you in.


Of the two books, Reputation is the funnier and the more serious. Origgi is ravenous for insights whatever their provenance, and her book is a giddy blend of cross-disciplinary perspectives. Reputation can be recondite – it includes sentences such as: “Thus, just as ontogeny does not recapitulate phylogeny, so ontology does not recapitulate philology.” (I mean, duh.) But it mixes crunchy intellectual provocations with literary allusions, catty takes on academic life and some juicy riffs, including one on why Origgi’s highly educated friends invest magical powers in certain doctors. There is even an author selfie, taken with a slightly uneasy looking Tim Berners-Lee.

The Reputation Game, which is aimed at a business audience, is a more sober affair.
David Waller was a journalist for the Financial Times and is now a management consultant. Rupert Younger was the co-founder of Finsbury, a successful PR firm, expensively acquired by the advertising group WPP in 2001, and he went on to found the University of Oxford’s Centre for Corporate Reputation. Younger is described in the book as a “leading academic” who is “a member of the senior common rooms” at two Oxford Colleges. I confess I don’t know what that means – free biscuits? – but it sounds impressive, which tells us something about the reputation game.

Waller and Younger are nothing if not well connected, and they interviewed a vast array of eminences, including Reid Hoffman (the co-founder of LinkedIn), the novelist Hilary Mantel, the rapper Jay-Z
and, rather inexplicably, the disgraced stockbroker Bernie Madoff. These conversations yield almost no memorable quotations whatsoever – but then, successful or prominent people do not automatically make good interviewees. Quite the opposite: their reputation, or their institution’s reputation, imposes tight constraints on what they can or cannot say, and they are usually too well practised in public speech to say anything interesting.

The story of how the authors secured an interview with Madoff is at least amusing. They write to him, care of the Butner Federal Correctional Institution in North Carolina, asking if he will correspond via email. He agrees on the condition that they send $200 to cover some mysterious “costs of correspondence”. The authors agree. Madoff asks them to wire the money to a PO box in Des Moines, Iowa. They do so, but don’t hear anything back, so they write asking if he received the funds. He tells them that he hasn’t, gives them a new address and asks them to try again. They send another $200 and wait. Again, nothing. They chase it up. “I am at a complete loss,” Madoff replies. So they send more money, this time by a different route. Only then does Madoff confirm that he has received the funds.

He then proceeds to relate, in his emails, what he calls “my tragic history”: a version of events in which he emerges, miraculously, as the wronged party, beset by aggressive investors and trapped by the vagaries of financial markets. Bewilderingly, the authors appear to take Madoff at his word and invite the reader to feel sympathy for him. Their naivety is hard to explain, except, perhaps, by the deep-rooted instinct of PR professionals to paint clients in the best possible light. The Madoff chapter closes with the words, “After many years of success, he has lost the reputation game.” Isn’t life cruel?

Maybe there is a contrarian reading of the Madoff story that accords with his version of it, but to make that case, one would need, at the very least, to interview the victims of his former reputation: the many investors, not all of them rich, whom he first deceived and then deprived of their money in order to enrich himself. Waller and Younger interview only one other person on the subject. He does confirm Madoff’s account – but then, he is Madoff’s attorney. A reluctance to make character judgements is also evident in Waller’s and Younger’s discussion of Russian oligarchs, who are admiringly portrayed as “tough, smart and uncompromising” entrepreneurs, rather than as, say, unscrupulous and exploitative chancers.

Waller and Younger reserve some of their warmest words for people in their own profession. PR entrepreneurs “display an unstinting appetite for bringing people together. Night after night, their homes are open to editors, ministers, ambassadors, EU commissioners and CEOs… who are invited with the promise of fine wines and electrifying conversation.” How enchanting! That crinkling noise you can hear is the sound of chocolate spheres being unwrapped from gold foil.

I wonder if crooks, oligarchs and dictators are invited, too. If you recuse yourself from character judgement, presumably anyone is welcome as long as they are powerful. Yet – as Tim Bell recently discovered – even PR titans are vulnerable to the perception of amorality. (Bell Pottinger, the company Bell co-founded, imploded after accusations that it had helped stir up racial tensions in South Africa on behalf of a client.)

Waller and Younger describe the role of a PR executive as a network broker: a “junction box” through which people from different spheres of influence can connect. It’s an oddly passive self-conception, and perhaps it explains why The Reputation Game is such an oddly passive book. Waller and Younger assemble abundant material – interviews, case studies, summaries of academic research – but they don’t impose themselves on it, which is good practice for hosts but not authors.

Fresh insights or provocative opinions are altogether rare in these pages. In their place, we learn, “Timing is an inestimably important factor in politics”; that reputation “is not always fair”; and, “Authenticity is important in today’s complex and uncertain world.” A discussion of the post-power reputations of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair – an interesting question – weaves and wanders without so much as stubbing its toe on an interesting answer. When everyone is a potential guest, judgement cannot be risked. I only hope they never interview Harvey Weinstein. 

Reputation: What It Is and Why It Matters
Gloria Origgi
Princeton University Press, 272pp, £24.95

The Reputation Game: The Art of Changing How People See You
David Waller and Rupert Younger
Oneworld, 304pp, £18.99

Ian Leslie is the author of “Born Liars” and “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief

A 1907 painting of Spinoza, who was excommunicated from Judaism in 1656. Credit: SAMUEL HIRSZENBERG
Show Hide image

Why atheists are true believers too

How atheisms are imitating the religions they claim to reject.

In 1995 Richard Dawkins became the first ever “professor for the public understanding of science” at Oxford University. By the time he retired, 13 years later, it looked as if he had privately renegotiated his contract; for he was now functioning as Oxford’s very own professor for the public misunderstanding of religion.

In The God Delusion (2006) he argued that the existence of God was a scientific hypothesis which was almost – almost – demonstrably false. Miracles were scientifically impossible (yes, professor, I think we knew that: the clue was in the word “miracles”). And the creation story in the Book of Genesis was very bad science indeed. Opposing the stupidities of modern “creationism”, and all the other pseudo-scientific or anti-scientific dogmas of the fundamentalists, is one thing. Criticising the moral evils committed by religious fanatics is another, and no less worthwhile. Yet to treat religion itself as merely a defective form of science is a strangely crude error, rather like thinking that poetry is just a way of conveying factual statements that are to be tested for their truth or falsehood.

In his new book, Seven Types of Atheism, John Gray – who, I should mention, is no more a religious believer than I am – has little time for the so-called New Atheism of Dawkins and Co. The confusion of religion with science is only one of the points he objects to. Even if it can be shown that religion involves the creation of illusions, he argues, that does not mean that religion can or should be dispensed with; for “there is nothing in science that says illusion may not be useful, even indispensable, in life”. As for the idea of the American New Atheist Sam Harris that we can develop “a science of good and evil” which will contain all the correct liberal values: Gray sees this as a piece of astonishing and culpable naivety, ignoring nearly two centuries’ worth of evidence that scientism in ethics and illiberalism go happily hand-in-hand.

If this short book were just another intervention in the Dawkinsian “God debate”, it would be very short indeed. In fact it would get no further than page 23 where, at the end of his brief opening chapter, Gray concludes damningly that “the organised atheism of the present century is mostly a media phenomenon, and best appreciated as a type of entertainment”.

But the New Atheism is the least of the seven varieties that make up the subject-matter of this book. The others are all much more interesting, being connected with significant elements in our culture. And if the phrase “our culture” sounds parochial, well, that is an issue Gray deals with explicitly, pointing out that what we call “atheism” is something much more specific than just a rejection or absence of religion as such. It is a rejection of certain religious beliefs – and that narrows the field already, as many religions of the world are not primarily belief-systems at all. In particular, Gray argues, it is a rejection of belief in an omnipotent creator-god, which means that while atheism is Christianity’s close relative, it bears no relation to Hinduism or Buddhism at all.

So this is a book about post-Christian thinking – most of it, in Gray’s view, pretty bad thinking, too. One of his targets is secular humanism, which he describes as “a hollowed-out version of the Christian belief in salvation through history”. Another is what he calls “making a religion from science”, a delusion which he traces all the way from Mesmerism in the late 18th century, via dialectical materialism in the 19th and 20th, to those futurist thinkers today who dream of uploading a human being’s consciousness to computer circuits, thereby rendering it immortal. And another is political religion, “from Jacobinism through communism and Nazism to contemporary evangelical liberalism”.

Obviously there are overlaps between these three varieties of modern atheism; dialectical materialism, for instance, has also formed part of the creed of Marxist political religion. The one fundamental thing they have in common, on Gray’s account, is that they are all doctrines of progress, of an onwards and upwards march of humanity through history. Whether he is right to say that secular humanism is committed to this view, I am not so sure; doubtless, those who believe in humanist ethics will also think that if more and more people adopt their ethical system the world will become a better place, yet it’s not clear why they should regard that as inevitable.

But one thing at least is clear: John Gray regards all belief in human progress as the most pernicious of delusions. Despite all his eloquence on this subject, some readers may feel that his argument runs away with him, taking him further than he needs to go. It would be enough, surely, to say that the basic moral qualities of human beings have not changed over time, and that there’s no reason to think that any improvements in human behaviour that have taken place are part of a pattern of inevitable progress. Yet Gray goes further, claiming that there has been no real improvement at all.

The abolition of slavery? Slave auctions in “Islamic State” territory have been advertised on Facebook. The abandonment of torture? It has persisted at Guantanamo Bay. Well, yes; but having pockets of slavery here and there in the world is not the same as the situation 200 years ago, when it was a huge and entrenched institution, questioned only by a small minority. Yes, torture continues, but not as a standard judicial procedure. And in many countries there have been substantial, long-term changes in attitude and treatment where female subjugation, child labour and the criminalisation of homosexuality are concerned. Surely there must be some way of acknowledging this, without relapsing into Pollyannaish Steven Pinkerism?

One reason for Gray’s emphasis on the theme of temporal progress is that it fits these various secular atheisms into a larger pattern – that of salvation through history. And this brings us to the core of his argument: out of the whole range of major religions, only Christianity works in a historical dimension like this, which means that the secular atheisms are imitating, or unconsciously reproducing, a central feature of the very religion they claim to reject.

He makes this point again and again. These modern atheists’ view of the world is “inherited” from Christianity. Their belief in progress is “a secular avatar of a religious idea of redemption”. Jacobinism and Bolshevism were “channels” for the millenarian myths of Christianity. Bolshevism was in a “lineage” going back to medieval millenarianism. The apocalyptic myths of radical Christian movements “renewed themselves” in secular, political forms.

Having watched Gray wield his scalpel so effectively on other writers’ arguments, I can’t help thinking that this one deserves a few incisions. What does it mean to say that a communist who yearns for the coming of the classless society is really expressing just the same view as a millenarian looking to the reign of Christ on earth? The form of the belief may be roughly similar, but the content is entirely different. And if these are “inherited” ideas standing in a “lineage”, what is the evidence of a continuous chain of transmission – from, say, the 16th-century radical Anabaptists of Münster (whose chaotic quasi-communist experiment Gray describes in graphic detail) to the Bolsheviks of Petrograd and Moscow? As for the religious myths “renewing themselves” in a secular guise: this seems perilously close to the mindset of Dawkins’s theory of “memes”, which Gray has scornfully dismissed as hardly a theory at all.

Gray also mentions a Gnostic “impulse” that has recurred, unchanged, over two millennia. But if the same impulse can produce a religious idea in one period and a secular one in another, it seems that the impulse is something that stands behind both, itself neither secular nor religious. In which case, the modern atheisms may be not so much reproducing religious beliefs as expressing some basic yearnings that are pre-religious or non-religious in themselves. These are dark theoretical waters, and I am not convinced that Gray has got to the bottom of them.

Yet what he has done is to produce a marvellously stimulating account of some major currents of post-Christian thought, in which ideas and arguments leap constantly off the page like white-hot sparks from an anvil. The dismissals are concise and often devastating; but there are also wonderfully funny details, lovingly accumulated by a wry observer of human foolishness. It is nice to learn, for example, that Auguste Comte’s secular religion of Positivism imposed on its followers “special types of clothing, with buttons placed on the back so that they could not be worn without the help of others – thereby promoting altruism”. And I would challenge anyone to read Gray’s account of the cult of Ayn Rand, with its compulsory cigarette-smoking and rational tap-dancing, and not laugh out loud.

But what of Gray’s own post-religious beliefs? He certainly does not belong in the fifth category discussed here, that of “misotheists” – the Marquis de Sade, Dostoevsky and William Empson – whose views were shaped by a positive hatred of God. (Here, at least, he has no difficulty in showing that some kinds of atheism are dependent intimately and inseparably on Christian theology.) Gray’s own sympathies are divided between his two final varieties: the naturalistic, undogmatic and guaranteed progress-free atheism of the philosopher George Santayana; and the philosophico-theological theories of Spinoza and Schopenhauer, which argued obscurely both that a greater reality, possibly to be identified as Spirit or God, existed, and that to talk about it as a god who created the world, or intervened in it, or issued commands to humans, was to misunderstand it entirely.

Santayana was himself an admirer of Spinoza, and towards the end of the book, Gray quotes his characterisation of the Dutch-Jewish philosopher as follows: “By overcoming all human weaknesses, even when they seem kindly or noble, and by honouring power and truth, even if they should slay him, he entered the sanctuary of an unruffled superhuman wisdom.” I am not sure that this is quite the image that readers should take away of Gray, whose tolerance of human weaknesses – at the personal level, if not the intellectual one – seems admirably generous. Nor can it be guaranteed that people will acquire unruffled superhuman wisdom by reading this book. More likely they will find themselves tremendously, even painfully, ruffled. And I mean that as high praise, for an author who is one of the greatest intellectual provocateurs of our time. 

Noel Malcolm is editor of the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes and a fellow of All Souls, Oxford

John Gray will appear in conversation with Jason Cowley at Waterstones Trafalgar Square, London WC2, on 2 May (newstatesman.com/events)

Seven Types of Atheism
John Gray
Allen Lane, 176pp, £17.99

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief