A Point of View: Is social climbing always a bad thing?
- 29 July 2011
- From the section Magazine
We usually think of social climbing as a bad thing, but is it always wrong to seek out the company of the successful?
There are few more distressing or pejorative tags to be labelled with than that of "social climber".
In an age when people are ready to admit to an extraordinary variety of misdemeanours, it would remain genuinely shocking to confess to a strong interest in meeting rich, famous and powerful people - as well as in fending off the appeals of lesser acquaintances whose careers have not developed as they might have done.
You can be sure there's a problem of honesty when society spends its time brutally condemning a behaviour which most of its members seem to be quite interested in, so it's perhaps time to take a frank look at the phenomenon of social climbing - and see what exactly is wrong with it, and if there are any times when it might be OK.
Part of the reason the label is so shocking is that it fails to make any distinction between varieties of social aspiration, some less vicious than others.
Putting them all in the same boat, it implausibly forces everyone sensible to deny any interest in the whole topic. And yet social climbing, like anger or envy, has its good and bad versions, and like these other so-called sins, is an inherent part of our make-up that we would be wise to understand and to nuance - rather than deny and attempt to stamp out in shame.
There are as many ways of being interested in those at the top of society as there are ways of reading books.
What looks to be a unitary activity in fact shelters a range of approaches. Being fascinated by esteemed figures is not a sign of evil per se, just as reading Moby Dick is not in itself a proof of intelligence. One has to dig a little deeper, to figure out how the interest is unfolding before one can deliver judgement.
Let's start by being kind on the activity.
No doubt social climbing would be looked on more benevolently if we described one manifestation of it as "sightseeing" or "ethnography".
To pass over an old chum from primary school in order to take up a chance to meet Bill Gates or Barack Obama should not be thought a depravity - rather evidence of an entirely natural, indeed desirable, curiosity about the way the modern world works.
It is an incoherence of our mechanisms of judgement that one should be labelled a serious and honourable person for sitting alone in bed reading a scholarly book on the robber barons of 19th Century America (filled with details on how they made their wealth, the attitudes of their compatriots, their relationship with religion, their personal habits etc), and yet that it might be deemed trivial, desperate and shallow to want very badly to take up an opportunity to have dinner with a group of titans from Silicon valley.
Social climbing also becomes a little less absurd if one acknowledges how much of it is really a strategy for survival.
A great many people's interest in going to parties and having a conversation with the powerful is not idle pleasure-seeking, but an attempt to keep oneself in line for work, based on the true supposition that bosses often look more benevolently on those they have met socially.
To make a bee-line for a plutocrat may hence be no less serious, and no less worthy of respect and dignity, than a boar hunt on whose successful conclusion the fate of an entire primitive community might once have hung.
Parties carry mortgages and food bills on their backs. We may not be taught to associate corporate events with heroism. They involve battles fought with the most bathetic of instruments, with bad jokes and remarks about the quality of the canapes, but they are battles nonetheless, comparable in their intensity and demands to the tracking of furtive animals through the deadly forests of the prehistoric world.
It's impossible to be a social creature, to be part of society, and not feel miserably ripped apart by envy quite a lot of the time. Of course, few emotions are as taboo for us as envy.
If we chuckle at Gore Vidal's famous quip - "Every time a friend of mine succeeds, a small part of me dies" - it is because it gives us a rare chance to own up to a feeling that we are otherwise largely forced to endure in lonely silence.
Then again, as social creatures, we should be careful to deny ourselves the chance to feel envy fairly regularly. To refuse to feel envy is also to refuse any chance of growth or development, for our envious feelings are in truth important guides to what we should aim for in life.
To shut yourself off from all envious feelings is also to shut yourself off from what you actually want, and might one day have - if you can bear to look frankly at what is still missing.
It is only right, indeed healthy, for anyone starting out in business or sport or cookery or art to envy more successful people - to pour over their success and feel crushed by a sense of inadequacy by comparison. How else could one ever have the energy to achieve?
Envy becomes noxious when we become helpless before it. We can fall into hatred, pure and simple, and then, gradually, a self-destructive bitterness.
The most envious people are often consciously unaware of their envy, and their inadequacies infect their judgements on everything. The person envious of another's love life will start to make abstract speeches about how romantic love is an illusion.
We are in danger of missing out on something valuable when we simply label envy a sin. Like many of our drives, it has positive and negative components, which need to be balanced and managed - rather than simply cut out like a cancer.
We might respect envy as the first step, painful but inevitable, towards generating something we can be proud of - something that will make others envious.
What really marks out corrupt as opposed to forgivable social climbers is the former's strong belief that the rich, powerful and famous are at heart better than other people. They don't merely accept that these types are lucky or gifted in a particular area, they sincerely hold that they are finer human beings. This is the route to true snobbery as well as to a vicious neglect of anyone who cannot display the necessary badges of success.
In the 16th Century, the French philosopher Montaigne advised us to remember the role played - in his words - by "chance in bestowing glory on us according to her fickle will: I have often seen chance marching ahead of merit, and often outstripping merit by a long chalk".
So Montaigne asked that we keep a rein on our excitement when meeting the powerful and wealthy and on our judgements when encountering the poor and obscure.
As he wrote: "A man may have a great suite of attendants, a beautiful palace, great influence and a large income. All that may surround him, but it is not in him. Measure his height with his stilts off."
There are better and worse people at large in the world, but it is naive and cruel to assume that they could be so conveniently located on the basis of how much money they have or what work they do.
It is this the snob refuses to believe, trusting instead in the existence of water-tight elites whose members unfailingly win out over the rest of us - electricians, nursery teachers or writers whose names one has never heard of.