Ross Paton is a Writer with an interest in International Politics, Religion and Foreign Policy. Here we talk about awards, journalism, the arts, and more.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Awards signal excellence in some performance accepted by a distinguished set of members of a community with a specific domain of said performance. However, this can become a channel for inauthentic self-esteem boosting, i.e., awards without merit. What are some symbols of this in the West, in general, and in the UK, in particular?
Ross Paton: Sadly, it is tempting to say that the West is beginning to symbolise this more generally. Far from being a simple acknowledgment of someone’s talents, awards are an unconscious recognition that people lack motivation to do the job for its own sake. Getting rid of the Oscars would leave society with the actors who act for the joy of acting, and gently filter out those who want fame. Less journalism awards would help to defog the perception that you should be rewarded for what was once considered a public service. The more depressing thought is how few people might survive these narcissism culls, given our ever-rising cultural emphasis on fame. Awards don’t just corrupt the artist too. The artistic process becomes a slave to the opinions of others; both in its catered construction to win them, and in its value if you should fail.
Jacobsen: How can award culture and narcissism consume an individual unduly and, in the end, destroy them, even their lives and livelihoods?
Paton: This question is ultimately about what it means to be good. That might seem like exactly the kind of abstract start to an answer that repels you from reading on with an immediacy more pronounced than even the word ‘poststructuralism’ could induce. But doing good things day to day, is concrete. In fact, it doesn’t get more real than that.
The why of doing good matters. If from my current view of my window I notice an elderly lady struggling with a bag of shopping, which prompts me to abandon my keyboard to help her; I am undoubtably doing a good thing. But why I chose to help her, can deeply taint both myself and the otherwise helpful act. If for example, I take a picture with her outside her home, shopping safely delivered, and swiftly take to social media to sanctimoniously crow about it, something quite perverse has gone afoot.
I have revealed that my intention behind helping was not for the sake of helping, but was for being seen to help. That my action to help, comes from a desire to be praised for helping. The redeemable aspect of charity is about doing something for nothing; doing something for something is no longer charity – it is a transaction. This desire to be seen to help, underlines that award culture more generally can twist what should be acts of charity into transactions, long before either have taken place. The old lady through my window becomes an opportunity for social media popularity, rather than someone in need of help.
This is linked to why there is that almost imperceptible discomfort we all have when left alone with someone for the first time. That slight, but definite premonition where your body knows that this is the moment in the absence of group safety, that the social pretences could drop and the murderer behind it would cease to lurk.
More specifically our body knows that this situation is frightening, because it knows something that we are in serious danger of forgetting. That we are most truly who we are when no one is watching. We should never stray towards forgetting, that when you’re locked in a room with someone and no-one else watching, that all bets are off. I don’t know who said it, but I’ve never quite forgotten hearing that morality is what you do when no-one is looking.
Understanding this, makes what social media has done to us yet more terrifying. In an analogous way to social pretences, it has made us forget that we are who we are when no one is watching. In the social media age, being virtuous, decent and good has become inexorably tangled in telling and showing others about how virtuous, decent and good you are. Meaning those of us in the snare of social media, are no not building our moral foundations on what is good, but on how our actions are viewed by others.
Take away the people watching and the willingness to be a good person you built on their approval comes crashing down; because most fundamentally, when you’re alone in that room, awards culture will leave you bereft of a reason to do good.
I know at least three people who fit this frame; they either do good to be viewed as good, or outright pretend – often with hilarious results. Despite having had a few laughs at their expense, I also really pity them. We live in a cut-throat job market where the allure of pretence is compounded by too few meaningful, or even adequately paid jobs. The hierarchical job ladder which people are frantically trying to climb, manages to reward pretence, while social media provides the perfect tool to fool others into believing it. The systemic nature of this allure should not be dismissed; frankly you’d have to be a fool to not even feel its pull.
But personal responsibility is similarly not to be dismissed. This desire to be liked consumes some individuals to the extent where they even lie about their very identity. This problem is most pronounced in activist circles. Young middle-class men with the shamelessness to lie about being working class, ex-religious converts, homelessness, or even belonging to another nationality should take particular credit here. It is a strange sign of the times when those who (rightly) bemoan identity politics, lie about their own identity, then use the fabrication to build their profile as an ‘activist’. As Derren Brown (yes – the mentalist one) identifies, ‘…a reaction against a movement tends to inherit its structure.’ Indeed, in some cases their lying is so hilariously axiomatic, and the absence of push back so correspondingly conspicuous, that you begin to wonder if you are alone in your suspicions of the fraudsters
Fortunately, they are relatively easy to spot. Coats which drop further down the waist than a pair of shorts are a warning sign – as is good, perfectly-groomed hair appearing consistently across social media photos. After all, we all share the same amount of time in a day; the amount of it one spends in front of a mirror should not be allowed to increase without the raising of eyebrows. Consistently well-groomed hair and obnoxiously long coats should remind us of Wilde’s line; ‘[to] treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.’ As someone managing a (thankfully decreasing) problem with vanity, I can smell this stuff out like a bloodhound; after all, it’s always the bad traits that we are vulnerable to which disgust us the most.
Jacobsen: What are negative outcomes of excessive award culture, including, but also apart from, narcissism, where everyone becomes a star or a legend in their own minds?
Paton: I’ve used social media as an example because the sanctimony we see on it is something we’re all familiar with by now; but awards culture spreads much wider.
Awards in your workplace for example, detract from the internal drive to work hard; that we should work hard because I want to be the kind of person who doesn’t leave work unfinished. On a wider basis, if your job is worth doing, awards detract and confuse from what should be driving you; if it isn’t worth doing, awards are the rotten carrot enticing you to stay on the production line.
Careerism too, can be viewed as an extension of how awards culture corrupts. In politics – the most consequential of professions, which motivation builds the better parliamentarian; the blacksmith policy maker, who knows that knowledge and arguments are the hammer and anvil to the robust policy sword he wants to forge, or someone vying for the award of the next step on the workplace ladder? The problem with the latter motivation is that is gives you more room to bullshit. To claim the work of others, or to build a pretence of hard work. You can be wily enough fool a person in an interview room, but you can’t pretend that your sword is sharp forever.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Ross.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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