Wednesday 28 September 2016

How status anxiety fuels protests and poor decisions

Joe Barry

Published 10/08/2016 | 02:30

Alain de Botton. Photo: Julien Behal
Alain de Botton. Photo: Julien Behal

The recent referendum in Britain has thrown up more questions than answers. While a small majority voted to leave the EU, no one seems to quite know why.

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A lot of soul searching is taking place in the columns of the British newspapers, mostly trying to get to the bottom of what went wrong and why people would vote to exit from a union with other nations that promoted equality, free trade, a high degree of economic security and a greatly reduced risk of war.

What made them feel so bad? It would seem that referendums are a flawed means of discovering public opinion on specific issues. People tend to vote against the government of the day, rather than thinking through carefully what the issues really mean. A good example of this would be our own relatively recent referendum held in 2013 to see if the Irish people wished to abolish the Senate.

At that time, most of the people I spoke to felt that the Senate was a waste of public money and we would be better off without it. However, on the day, the majority voted to retain it. They did so not because they felt strongly on the issue, but rather to give the then government a sharp shock and as a means of protesting about matters that had nothing to do with whether we retained our Senate or not.

The same has occurred in Britain, where dissatisfaction with their government motivated the voters rather than strong feelings for or against the EU. This is, of course, dangerous stuff and the repercussions will be felt throughout Europe for many years to come.

So why do we behave in this irresponsible manner?

I found some of the answers in a great book called 'Status Anxiety' by Alain De Botton. It is a well-researched work that probes how and why we act in certain ways, by backing up theory with historical fact.

The vast majority of people would deny that they are concerned about their personal status but on the other hand, we should consider the way we behave and how we act to bolster our self-esteem.

There are endless tales of families who almost go hungry in order to have a new car in their driveway or wear the latest fashions, solely to impress the neighbours. This is not restricted to suburban areas but is far more widespread. Just look at the passion in rural Ireland for owning land, almost regardless of its cost.

"Fear gan talamh" or "Man without land" is a well-known old Irish saying of contempt and has its roots in the ongoing desire for status among our own peers.

The possession of land in past centuries provoked much hatred and violence and perhaps the best example of this was in John B Keane's famous play 'The Field'. This was a classic example of one man's almost insane desire for status among his local community rather than just the acquisition of an economic asset. When talking to his son about the land they hoped to purchase, the Bull McCabe tellingly said "one day we will be important people".

The point of all this is simply to illustrate that people behave in different ways depending on their economic circumstances and wealth can make us less satisfied. Think of the recent water charge protests.

Virtually all other developed countries have water charges but for some strange reason, here in Ireland, a small minority decided to protest about them. Is this about more than just a water charge?

Of course it is, for this is yet another protest against Government rather than that specific issue.

According to De Botton, western civilisation has given us an extraordinary increase in wealth, life expectancy and economic opportunity.

Blessed with riches and possibilities far beyond anything imagined by our ancestors who struggled to survive in medieval Europe, modern populations have nonetheless shown a remarkable capacity to feel that neither who they are nor what they have is quite enough.

This is borne out by statistics regarding really poor populations worldwide such as the genuinely deprived in Bangladesh, many of whom, despite having only the barest means of subsistence, are not only generally happy but also feel equal to their neighbours and are immune from status envy.

'Status Anxiety' is an entertaining and thought provoking read and tells us a lot about ourselves and how, despite our relatively high standard of living, we have become dissatisfied with our lot.

Happiness? Less is seemingly more

We all know that money does not buy happiness, but this knowledge does not stop us striving to have the trappings of wealth, usually just for outer show.

It would almost seem as if the more we have, the less happy we are.

Yet, acquiring status does not require financial wealth. We revere the great artists and musicians in our communities, even if they are in poor economic circumstances. We also praise individuals like Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who devote their lives to helping the poor.

People with those talents are very much in the minority however, and are perhaps admired as they pose us no threat. America has always been held up as an example of freedom and equal opportunity but in the 19th century, the French historian, Alain De Tocqueville, having visited there, reasoned that there is a strange melancholy often haunting inhabitants of democracies in the midst of abundance.

He suspected that deprived classes in other countries, prior to the arrival of democracy, had the benefit of a mental calm that their successors would be denied. In recent years, democratically elected governments have continually delivered their voters additional benefits. Has this made anyone happier? It would appear not.

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