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the issue

The Rankings

For social animals, membership in a group certainly has its privileges. You can circle your wagons against a foe, for example, or share the hunting, foraging, and cooking. But membership comes at a price. The curse of being a social animal is that you can never be anything else. There is no escape from the pecking order, the status within the pack, the infernal ranking of your abilities and attributes. You can’t say, “I’m tired of being an alpha dog, or a beta dog. From now on, I’ll just be me.” Because there is no “me” without the pack.

Everything you are, or think you are, depends on how you stack up against other people. You are smart because others are less smart, strong because others are weaker. You are tall, short, or in between because of where you fall on a curve derived from where billions of other people fall. You are an American only because other people are Swedes, Ghanaians, Koreans, or Bedouins. Your politics, so important to your sense of self, are defined by those to the left or right of you.

Really, anything you might say about yourself in a personal ad, including “I enjoy walks on the beach”—a claim that distinguishes you from the majority of Iowans—is significant only because it pegs you as one type of person and not another. Are you considered a good storyteller? Surely it’s because quite a few other people have trouble ordering the facts of their lives into anything resembling a story; they tell the punchline first or, forgetting their point, end all their anecdotes with “so . . . ” Are you the kind of person who devours Jane Austen? That matters only because certain people find Jane Austen a bore or don’t read British novels. The car you drive—a BMW is it?—says a lot about you. You’ve been quite successful, you appreciate German engineering, you enjoy having extra power in reserve, you like to travel in style. The car speaks volumes, thanks to the guy you just cut off in the Ford Focus, the low-status dogcart to your high-status chariot, and the millions like him.

No, there is no separating yourself from the group. Even antisocial hermits define themselves in relation to the masses whose company or approval they shun. Ted Kaczynski, nursing his grudges in his little backwoods shack, railing against technology in thousand-page screeds, mailing off the occasional grease-stained Unabomb, was utterly consumed by his status as an outsider. We may not have been thinking about him, but you know he was thinking about us.

The self is entirely relative. There is no strong, no weak, no rich, no poor, no fair, no plain. Only stronger, weaker, richer, poorer, fairer, plainer. Without each other, we are nobody. So the least we can do is try to get along.

  © 2011 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155