Saturday, May 15, 2021

Three Blogs From One Prompt, Part 1: Status Games

 I have raved before about my dollar-a-week subscription to The New York Times. I get considerably more than a dollar a day's worth of enjoyment and edification out of it. The price will quintuple in a few months as my deal expires...and I just might leave it as is, because it's still a phenomenal bargain at five bucks a week. 

I'm quite conscious of how a dependance on the Times for news and political opinion can make me seem and feel more American than Canadian. I do check CBC's website daily, and listen to one half-hour revolution of 680 News's news-wheel. To be fair, the only story for the last eighteen months in this country has been the pandemic. All other politics has been all but forgotten. Strictly Canadian and non-pandemic  stories being reported as I write this: Vancouver police apologize for getting caught detaining a Black retired judge (oops) while looking for a suspect decades younger. There's an extreme drought on the Prairies. And Greyhound's going extinct.

The first story is sadly common, although apologies are rare, and consequences even rarer. Some among us would suggest the media is pushing an agenda with these stories, given the thousands upon thousands of police-civilian interactions that happen daily resulting in lives saved, property recovered, and so on. Except that's supposed to be their job. I don't make the news when I do my job correctly.

The second story is about weather and climate and Canadians love to obsess over the one while ignoring the other. Last I looked, the Weather Network was the most watched channel by reach in Canada.

The third actually affects me personally, and not pleasantly. I have, in the past, relied on Greyhound to get me to Toronto, London and Woodstock. Another service called Rider Express, already up and running from Manitoba to B.C., will arrive in Ontario eventually. It can't come soon enough for me.

Anyway, I do keep an eye on Canadian news, but until this pandemic is over, it's firmly on the back burner. American politics continues to be a train wreck. Will Democrats ever grow a spine? Will Republicans accomplish their 2022 goal of making it impossible for "those people" to vote? Tune in tomorrow for "As The Stomach Turns".

But what I most love about the New York Times isn't its reportage, as stellar as that is, and it isn't their run-of-the-mill guest essays, as illuminating as they often are. It's great big meaty chunks of interview like this one right here. (Be warned: this is long.) It's also incredibly thought provoking. There are three blogs here, on wildly varying topics. 

"Status Games, Polyamory, and the Merits of Meritocracy"

You just knew I'd make a beeline for this after reading that title. 

This is an interview with a philosopher named Agnes Callard, whose area of interest appears to be social interaction. She maintains that when we meet someone new, we may play three 'games' simultaneously. She christens these "the basic game", "the status game" and "the levelling game".

The basic game is a search for common ground: shared acquaintances, likes/dislikes, et cetera. It establishes our relevance to the new person and vice versa. It's always explicit and fully transparent.

The status game is where you supply all the pertinent information to prove you are important enough to matter -- and possibly more important than they are. This can be done consciously but often isn't: our society places so much emphasis on status that we learn to insist upon it, and even elevate it beyond its actual level where we think we can get away with dong so. Done properly, the status game is not an exercise in arrogance, but your own sensibilities and vulnerabilities could well suggest otherwise. 

Speaking of vulnerabilities, the third game is the levelling game. Having just established how important we are, we then seek to show how powerless we both feel - an empathy building exercise. Like the status game, the levelling game is implicit rather than explicit, in that we're not fully aware of the game we're playing, even though we know the rules like the backs of our hands. (Weird saying. How well do you really know the back of your hand? Could you pick it out of a pile of hand-backs?) Sometimes we can play both games at once, such as when we complain-slash-brag about how busy we are. That remark says "look how popular and important I am!" AND "I don't feel important enough to carve out time for me alone." 

I first read this last night, in bed, in a green introspective haze. The status and levelling games called my teenage years forcibly to mind. I would map out every social interaction ahead of time, and totally lose cohesion if the train of conversation run off any of the tracks I had consigned it to in my mind beforehand. I knew I was a nobody, which made me desperate to appear to be a somebody. That coexisted uneasily with a massive surfeit of empathy. It all made me extremely inconsistent and unreliable. 

Now? Now I have accepted my status as a nobody, and my refusal to play the status game nonplusses people. I do play the levelling game, but it's far from a game to me. It is, in fact, the essence of communication. I will show you my vulnerabilities because they are true. Hiding those is akin to telling a lie, a great big whopper that will surely be found out in short order. Also, in telling you where I'm weak, I am inviting you to tell me where YOU are weak, which says a hell of a lot about you if you do. So I'll "play" that "game" very much explicitly, which goes against the rules. Many have found my approach refreshing, many exhausting, and many both at once. 

The thing is, although I am nobody, it does not lessen my importance. I Am A Big Deal. And so are You and so is She and so is They and so on and so on. I don't think a CEO is any more or less important than a janitor, and will treat both the same. Janitors love me. CEOs not so much. I maintain it's not because I treat CEOs poorly but because I refuse to treat custodians more poorly. 

I also put no stock in "busy", which is maybe one reason I haven't accomplished a fuck of a lot in my life. 

Collard talks about how we expect to be heard minus any insinuations we worked into our speech, while often hearing insinuations in the speech of others they may not have even intended. We are a storytelling species, after all. This is something that has bitten me more than once. It's also one way I have definitely improved.

She suggests the reason we play these games is because we have not devoted enough thought into what makes a human being valuable. There is a tension between those who would define human value in terms of being, versus those who would define it in terms of having, or getting. I think you know what side of that dichotomy I fall on. A cynic would suggest it's because I haven't got much; I would retort that historically speaking, I live like a king, and further, that having for the sake of having is a disease. But also, the kind of having she's talking about isn't material: it's more about virtues. You're not born courageous, temperate or prudent. These are qualities you (hopefully) acquire, and someone with those qualities is inherently more valuable than someone without them. 

That might be a fair assessment, except for one thing. 

Let's look at these virtues, shall we? 

LOVE. That one I have in spades, but don't always express properly.

FAITH. Belief without evidence. Sorry, no can do. If there's no reason for me to believe in something, I'm not going to believe in it. 

HOPE. That candle still flickers, both personally and for the world at large, but I can't say I am as hopeful as I used to be.

PRUDENCE: I have this in some contexts, definitely not in others.

TEMPERANCE: I lack this one almost completely. More of a glutton, if you want to know the truth. 

COURAGE: Not much. Usually if I'm doing something brave, it's because  I feel I have no choice. 

JUSTICE: I think I do have this one. I wish the world I live in did. 

I'm not particularly virtuous. But I'm better than I was, and will be better still, and who are you to suggest my acorn is less valuable simply because it's not an oak YET? 

Oh, fuck off, Ken, you're 49 and assuming you don't die tomorrow you'll be saying the same thing in thirty years. You'll be on your deathbed still assuring everyone you'll make something of your the next life

And that could well be true. I have not succeeded as the world defines success. I have had to reframe it for my own sanity, and living in this status-obsessed place and time means I occasionally have to remind myself my life has value. Not because of what I have, but because of who I am. 

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