The Rocket Scientist and the Reversal of Modernity
When what’s on your shirt is more salient than successfully landing a probe on a comet, the processes that built modern freedoms and prosperity are in reverse.
Most species have dominance (top-down status) as their dominant status strategy. Homo sapiens are distinctive in developing two other status strategies as social currencies of cooperation. Prestige, based on success and competence, and propriety, based on adherence to norms and conventions.
In an interview with the Triggernometry boys, author Will Storr, talking about his excellent book The Status Game, observes that the modern world was built on a shift in status strategies. The dominant status strategy had been, as it has been in most complex societies, that of virtue, of propriety.
In Catholic and especially Protestant Europe, a particular prestige status strategy began to become more prominent. Folk began to gain status through inventing gadgets, finding useful ways to employ them, and in expanding our practical understanding of the world around us.
This was prestige through success and competence in increasing our systematic mastery of natural processes. It fuelled the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. The vast increase in our capacity to harness energy created the mass prosperity that the modern world is built on.
Consequences of the growth of mass prosperity and changes in our understanding of the natural world include the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage and legal equality for women. The shift created societies with far more opportunities, far more evenly distributed. More recently, it has seen mass exits from poverty around the globe (but particularly in Asia). All built on expanded communication, cheaper transport, increased mobility from applied technology and expanded scientific understanding creating expanding mass prosperity.
Applied technology was typically more important than scientific understanding in driving and underpinning these changes. Indeed, until quite recently, science was often playing “catch up”; trying to build explanations of why technology worked in the way it did.
As part of this expanding understanding, the human-origins (or anthropogenic) scholarly literature came to differentiate dominance (top-down status) from prestige (bottom-up status). Identifying the importance of the latter as a currency of social cooperation.
Storr has further divided the latter (and I am slightly changing his terminology) into prestige (success and competence) and propriety (virtue and conformity to prevailing norms).
This further differentiation is a profoundly useful analytical advance. Especially if we note that the latter, due to the application of social norms (sanctioning those who do not follow normative expectations), can veer into dominance territory.
We can now precisely identify the moment when that elevation of prestige from competence and success that built the modern world went into reverse (at least in the Western world). When the dominant status game shifted back to promulgating and enforcing a conception of virtue.
That moment was 14 November 2014. The date when Rosetta mission Project Scientist Matt Taylor, having been in a charge of landing, for the first time, a probe on a comet, was publicly humiliated for wearing the “wrong” shirt.
Landing a probe on a comet is hard. It is technologically tricky. Someone who understands the technical details described it as “like a fly landing on a bullet”. Doing so is a classic competence-and-success achievement that grants prestige. This was certainly how the technological and scientific success was initially reported in the media.
The world had, however, moved into the age of social media. More specifically, like buttons and retweet and share buttons had been introduced into social media platforms, thereby creating mob dynamics and channelling peer pressure.
Dr Taylor had worn a shirt (apparently made for him by a female friend) that had a lot of scantily-clad women on it. A firestorm of criticism followed coming from folk, few, if any, of whom, it is safe to say, had ever had anything to do with anything remotely as clever and difficult as landing a probe on a comet.
Especially in an age of the mob dynamics and channeled peer pressure of social media, to ostentatiously perform propriety is a lot easier than being conspicuously competent.
A social media firestorm of criticism led to Dr Taylor being publicly humiliated and forced to apologise in his moment of public achievement. The new sense of propriety clearly trumping the prestige of scientific and technical success.
This mattered, for anyone can wear a shirt. So everyone and anyone was clearly a potential target of the new sense of propriety, and the old protections of prestige through ostentatious competence did not protect.
Turning points do not come out of nowhere. There is a long history of developing ideas and critiques that led to The Shirt Humiliation.
A major indicator of where things were going had occurred 15 years earlier, with the reactions to Ayatollah Khomeini (then Supreme Leader of Iran) issuing in February 1989 a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie and his publishers over Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. Many cultural figures, commentators and political leaders in the West sided against the eminent novelist and of favour of “not giving offence”.
But this remained a fight over literary expression, not one reaching deep into the status games of the non-literary. The November 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh extended the murderous complaint to film. The Mohammad Cartoon controversy of 2005 was similarly a manifestation of literary expression, though extending into political cartoons. These controversies had cost lives. The Charlie Hebdo massacre of January 2015 was an even more brutal expression of Islamic intolerance of other people’s free expression.
But all these were specifically Muslim problems, based on the notion that Sharia constitutes the inferred rules of the Sovereign of the Universe, so apply to everyone. However much Western commentators, politicians and others may have failed to stick up for freedom of expression, it still seemed to sit within the box of literary expression and difficulties with Islam.
What made The Shirt Humiliation different is that it had nothing to do with Islam, or literary expression. Anyone could wear a shirt. The Shirt Storm made it very public, and very clear, that anyone could be targeted for failing to fit in with the new currency of propriety.
The media firestorm over That Shirt derived in part from the bogus “media effects” theory that postulates images in the media profoundly affect how people act towards each other. A claim that has little evidence supporting it and much evidence against.
Indeed, evidence suggests that images often have a cathartic or ameliorating effect. The text-based printing press that led into the the Reformation and the Wars of Religion and voice-based radio that has incited murderous demagoguery from Weimar Germany to Rwanda have been very effective in inciting hatred and mass murder. The politics of mass television has tended to rather calmer. At least before social media and its mob dynamics and channelled peer pressure. (Of which text-based Twitter is the worst inciter, though the image-perfectionism of Instagram seems to be particularly disastrous for adolescent girls.)
Despite this, the images of scantily-clad women on a shirt offended the sense of virtue, of propriety. An offence promulgated by screeching complaint.
We have since discovered that there is no protective catharsis from giving in to such criticism, in offering public apologies that are really acts of submission. Such public acts of submission just confirm the power of the strategy of screeching propriety, of the strategy’s shading into dominance.
Those who attempt to redeem themselves by apologising mistake a vicious status strategy for sincere activism. (Then again, so do many of those who are committed to the ostentatious-propriety status strategy.)
Hence the urge to humiliate, to destroy reputations, to ruin lives and livelihoods, has only gathered strength since. All based on replacing the prestige of success and competence (which is hard) with the (far easier) status game of propriety, of ostentatious (indeed performative) virtue that mob-dynamics/peer pressure social media so enables.
A moving propriety
This is a notion of virtue, of propriety, that evolves according to shifting criteria coordinated through networks and continually updated. So folk who happily accepted the rules-until-now of “progressive” propriety can find that the Overton Window of acceptable discourse and behaviour has shifted under them. Leaving them to be publicly excoriated as offending against the current, ever-evolving, instantiation of propriety.
A recent, particularly vicious, manifestation of this process has been what has been done to teacher, writer and anthologiser Kate Clanchy. Writer Helen Dale provides a useful summary of the case. A particularly nasty example of the vicious, entitled cruelty that goes by the term ‘cancel culture’, though ‘callout culture’ is perhaps a more useful label:
There were complaints to her professional regulator (she’s a HS teacher with the usual ‘working with children’ & ‘safeguarding’ permissions). This included making up falsehoods about her teaching career with a view to getting her disciplined or sacked.
There were repeated attempts to identify the students whose identities she’d occluded in Some Kids I Taught (as one must do in a memoir).
There were repeated attempts to make connections between the named and published (student) poets in an earlier anthology Clanchy had edited and people described in her memoir. This was done with a view to flushing them out and turning them into separate news stories.
There were repeated attempts to out one of her students who is gay. He is now in his 20s. She had to contact him overseas and warn him what was coming.
Kate Clanchy was interviewed by Freddie Sayers of Unherd magazine. It is quite clear that she accepted the progressive world view and is profoundly hurt and disoriented to find herself savagely excommunicated from it.
She explained how the campaign against her began when people accused her of “exocitising and commodifiying” her immigrants students after she published an anthology of their poems. From there, Clanchy felt a campaign building against her. Following the publication of her memoir — for which she won the Orwell Prize — she was accused of being “racist and ablest”, even though she was trying to celebrate her student’s differing cultures.
Kate Clanchy had received prestige and honours for doing what was both a prestigious and a proper thing to do: until it wasn’t. She was not stripped of prestige and propriety for something new she had done. She was stripped of such because the ostentatious-virtue game had moved on.
Such sudden shifts are, of course, disorienting and intimidating. But callout culture is clearly not only the enforcing of a new morality, it is also an instrument of social dominance. As Freddie deBoer has observed:
(Here’s a fun tip for you all: if you have the power to get someone fired or otherwise ruin their life you are not a powerless, marginalized Other.) …
… it’s the activist class, the Twitter-obsessed class, the collegiate class, the vengeful “progressive” NPCs that have poisoned the well by normalizing attempts to destroy people they disagree with. …
But you don’t get to threaten people’s lives, which is very common in some social media spaces, and you don’t get to silence anyone, and you don’t get to dox anyone, and it’s profoundly fucked up to try and separate someone from their job in a world where you have to work to eat.
But this is precisely what you do if what you are playing is a status game of social dominance. How and where that status game arises from is a matter for another post.
For the moment, we can just observe that this ever-evolving, highly-networked, status-through-ostentatious-propriety matters. It is pervasively replacing prestige through competence and success with a new notion of propriety where what shirt you wear is so much more important for your status in the social media public sphere than being clever enough to supervise landing a probe on a rocket. So important that you can be forced into a humiliating public apology.
The process of propriety via ostentatious virtue trumping prestige through success and competence has only accelerated since.
We are all massive beneficiaries of the status-through-prestige that created the modern world.
The new status-through-ostentatious-ever-evolving-propriety that trumps competence, success and reality-tested achievement is very unlikely to do better. On the contrary, it risks progressively unravelling some or all of those achievements we have so massively benefited from.