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22 September 2021

How to win the virtue game

The morality contests of the online world and our relentless pursuit of status.

By Janice Turner

Years ago at an awards dinner, I found myself talking to one of the country’s most august, respected and well-paid journalists. He was up for a prize. So was I. But since he’d already won every conceivable award, often multiple times, I assumed one more engraved lump of Perspex would mean nothing to him. “Oh, no,” he said frankly. “I still really, really like winning awards.”

If I’d read Will Storr, I wouldn’t have been so surprised. Status has no final destination, he argues. People who’ve acquired enough laurels to rest on usually just want more laurels. He quotes research that found “the desire for status is ‘never really satiated’ because ‘it can never really be possessed 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 first on the credits for “Yesterday” 50 years on. Macca can’t let it be.

The Status Game is a strange book. Storr admits that, like most journalists, his knowledge is broad yet shallow. So it brims with fascinating stories to illustrate his thesis: that humans are driven by the desire for status within many arenas of our lives. We learn about 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 release him into a new life, because out of prison he’d be a nobody, while inside he’s King Con.

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In pursuit of status stories, Storr skips through world history and dips into psychology, science and anthropology. Reading him, I feel as though I’m listening to a Ted Talk, beguiled by the articulacy of the tech guy with the cool trainers and well-trimmed beard, bestriding the stage, clicking his PowerPoint thingy. But when he stops talking, I’m left underwhelmed.

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The book is an eloquent, entertaining discourse on the obvious. For example, Storr tells us teenagers become status-conscious around 13 when they feel more defined by peers than parents, but while boys compete physically, girls trash each other’s reputations. Disrespect of a man’s status – “dissing” – can lead to gang violence. Pulverise his status further with sexual or emotional humiliation and he may even become a serial killer or the Unabomber. A prestigious high-status pursuit becomes lower status when adopted by common folk: so Burberry lost its cachet when soap stars began to relish its beige checks.

Reading The Status Game, I found an odd question brewing: what would Karl Marx think? Storr’s analysis is the most unmaterialist possible interpretation of history. Most of us strive to win games within our caste or tribe or social class because victory brings not just a serotonin hit 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, so is the size of a logo on a handbag,” he writes, as if they are equivalent, when the first two transform lives while the last is often a hollow capitalist consolation prize for the poor.

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Storr is right, however, that symbolic status has extraordinary potency within existing groups. Belief that your football team, community or nation is the best can be sustaining when you have little else. “Humans have a bias for their own that’s universal, subconscious and triggered at the slightest provocation,” he writes. Storr quotes the Cider with Rosie author Laurie Lee, staring 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 the whole of India, and “we’d look at each other as if we were centurions”. Remainers often assume Red Wall Leavers were too thick to understand they’d lose out financially from Brexit, when in fact many prized national identity over cash.

It is when Storr applies himself to the online world that his theories produce true insights. Our sense of well-being is relative not to everyone else in society, but our immediate peers. “It’s actually our smaller games that matter,” he writes: the sense of being valued in your family, office, combat unit, gang of mates. So when a device is created that allows us to compare ourselves with the entire world at any moment, status anxiety escalates. Leaked documents recently confirmed the link between Instagram use and anxiety, depression and low self-esteem among teenagers.

Storr calls the smartphone a “slot machine for status”: it supplies instant affirmation with every “like”, plus access to infinite new arenas in which to play status games. No wonder we can’t put our damn phones down or stop having pointless Twitter spats with strangers. Or – most bizarrely – that we break off from private events such as, say, a friend’s wedding where we’re loved, to post photographs online to be rated or snarked at by total strangers. The status we enjoy in the intimate moment is no longer enough: it must be bolstered by external validation. Or rather we are now two status-seeking organisms: our human self and our social media avatar who plays in a limitless, far scarier arena for the tiny possibility, via a tweet that goes viral or achieving notoriety in a niche forum, of winning big.

There are, according to Storr, three types of status games: dominance 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 last that has particular modern resonance as celebrities such as footballers, always bellwethers of fashion, no longer boast about their bling but their charitable works.

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Storr argues that virtue status games, which naturally predominate in faith communities, also operate in all closed worlds such as cults or even within moments of collective madness. Storr reminds us of a story with many modern parallels: the satanic abuse scandal of the 1980s, when police, health visitors, doctors, counsellors, journalists and even Oprah Winfrey were drawn into believing that children were being abused in bizarre devil-worshipping rituals. It didn’t matter that there was zero evidence of “blood sacrifices”: the status of too many people became invested in the “truth” for them to forswear it.

Likewise on Twitter, political opinion has hardened into closed groups who gain status not from winning arguments or convincing opponents, let alone affecting real-world change, but from causing “the reputational death” of those representing a counter-view. Moreover, in what Storr calls these “tyrannically tight status game[s]”, people compete to assert extreme, untenable positions to gain kudos as the most “virtuous” even if, say, demanding the police be defunded could undermine the physical safety of the black people you purport to defend.

It is hard not to agree with Storr that such status games are wearying and draw us away from sources of genuine human satisfaction. Yet his cures come over as somewhat half-hearted. We should allow others to “feel statusful” (an awful word) so it is “more likely they’ll accept our influence”. This is unlikely online, where such magnanimity will be seized upon as evidence of weakness. We should also “reduce [our] moral sphere” – ie, stop picking online fights with randoms and concentrate on the good opinion of people we cherish. But Storr’s last words of all, “The meaning of life is not to win, it’s to play”, actually made me LOL. It’s not only a cliché, but the antithesis of his book. Besides, most of us will strive for dominance, whether winning plastic trophies or gilding our legacies (our post-mortem status) until the moment we log out of 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

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This article appears in the 22 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Great Power Play