Accepted Inequality

David Brooks reviews socially acceptable vs. unacceptable ways to display one’s superiority. Some accepted forms:

Academic inequality is socially acceptable. It is perfectly fine to demonstrate that you are in the academic top 1 percent by wearing a Princeton, Harvard or Stanford sweatshirt. …

Fitness inequality is acceptable. It is perfectly fine to wear tight workout sweats to show the world that pilates have given you buns of steel. These sorts of displays are welcomed as evidence of your commendable self-discipline and reproductive merit. …

Sports inequality is acceptable. It is normal to wear a Yankees jersey, an L.S.U. T-shirt or the emblem of any big budget team. The fact that your favorite sports franchise regularly grounds opponents into dust is a signal of your overall prowess. …

Technological inequality is acceptable. If you are the sort of person who understands the latest hardware and software advances, who knows the latest apps, it is acceptable to lord your superior connoisseurship over the aged relics who do not understand these things. (more; HT Tyler)

A world that disapproves of most all superiority displays could be one with a distaste for overt inequality, and sympathy for the less fortunate. In contrast, a world that disapproves of only some superiority displays while relishing others looks more like a world where folks with some types of excellence have won a battle to be seen as higher status than folks with other types of excellence.

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  • DW

    Some types of excellence are indisputably tested in public fora. Sports games, and mate-compatibility, for instance. And let’s not forget that inequality is the baseline in nature.

    The college/high school difference is an interesting one, though, non?

    • Bill


      You must be quite the romantic.

      “C’mon, honey, I rank higher in many of the arbritrary scales…’

      • PA

        Like you can deny that such things exist…

        Love? Lies. Emotional/Social Intelligence? Not so much.

  • Underlying this post is an implicit argument that, if we accept some inequality, we should accept other sorts, right? Or is it just to make those who identify as acceptable high status feel phony, or unjustly high status, because other would-be high status folks are in prison, for instance (and the acceptable high status folks don’t deserve their positions)…. not sure. Maybe it is just to say that we should all be more explicitly status seeking in our conversations (though I’m sure that will never ever happen).

  • Matt

    I wonder what the specific cause is for most of these variations. Are they influenced more by culture, government policy or economics? I’m sure its all three but I would guess that culture leads the way. I wonder how much they vary across different countries, or even states. How have they changed over time? Is there any empirical data on trends and what may cause them???

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  • Acceptable where? Try wearing your Princeton sweatshirt in a biker bar and see how far that gets you.

    Brooks is a shallow thinker on deep subjects, and he takes his whitebread upperclass professional DC world for all of reality.

    At first glance I thought his conclusion was pretty good:

    Dear visitor, we are a democratic, egalitarian people who spend our days desperately trying to climb over each other. Have a nice stay.

    And then I realize he has thing exactly backwards. We are a status-ridden people, like all human beings, who are making slow and imperfect progress toward egalitarianism. He even nods towards this, but I can’t tell what level of irony is meant:

    On the other hand, ethnic inequality — believing one group is better than another — is unacceptable (this is one of our culture’s highest achievements).

    • y81

      Brooks is a shallow thinker on deep subjects, and he takes his whitebread upperclass professional DC world for all of reality.

      This is very well-put. For instance, in many rough and tumble commercial circles, flaunting your wealth by showing everyone your private plane is 100% acceptable, whereas boasting of your fancy-pants college degree would be derided. Similarly, really high-status individuals (not star reporters, but executives) frequently make a point of their technological ineptitude. They have people to do that sort of stuff for them.

      • lemmy caution

        This a good point. Different groups have different acceptable status displays. For example, there are rules that metal-heads have about the acceptable wearing of concert t-shirts.

  • claudio

    Here is Spain, inequality, even academic one, is highly discouraged in schools. To the point that some kind of tests have been cancelled to avoid presenting some kids smarter than others. But, of course, all those kids wear Messi shirts just because he is better than others.

  • It is out of bounds to boast of your superior chastity, integrity, honor or honesty.

    Um, what? A significant amount of human interaction involves precisely this type of boasting.

    • I would go farther, much of human interaction consists of falsely boasting about ones excessive chastity, morality, integrity, honesty. Especially in politics.

      In real life, no one expects people to be truthful about sex. The GOP’s persecution of Clinton for his lie about sex was about politics, not about trying to enforce morality. At the time, Gingrich was cheating on his wife.

  • Nylund

    I’d disagree a bit with the spending inequality. You see people wear fancy clothes, drive fancy cars, buy fancy homes, buy fancy TV’s, eat at fancy restaurants, etc. without too much social blow back.

    And for the others? Moral inequality, and religious inequality? Is it really so distasteful to display these? Well, yes, in some circles, but tell that to the moral majority and the Christian right and how their political activities are predicated on the very idea that they are superior in these ways.

    “It would be uncouth to wear a Baptist or Catholic or Jewish jersey to signal that people of your faith are closer to God.” Well, yes, if you’re anything but Christian. If you’re Christian, you may not wear a “jersey” but imagery, especially the cross, can commonly be seen in jewelry, on bumper stickers, and if you’re in my part of the country, as an icon to be made out of rhinestones to adorn your jeans, shirts, etc.

    Although, it’s probably true that wouldn’t go over so well if the displayed iconography was non-Christian (or not within the Judeo-Christian framework).

    • Bill

      “You see people wear fancy clothes, drive fancy cars, buy fancy homes, buy fancy TV’s, eat at fancy restaurants, etc. without too much social blow back.”

      There are many be who are oblivious to unacceptability and often surround themselves with the equally obtuse.

    • y81

      Umm, at least in New York City, Star of David necklaces, mezuzahs on front doors, and menorahs in windows in December are pretty common. So the view that public displays are stigmatized if you are “anything but Christian” is demonstrably false.

  • Unnamed

    It’s hard to imagine a completely egalitarian human society that was free of all status differences, so the fact that our society involves some mix of acceptable and unacceptable status displays doesn’t seem like very strong evidence for any particular hypothesis.

    Brooks also doesn’t do a very good job of distinguishing the cases where high status displays are acceptable from when they’re not; it doesn’t divide neatly into domains. Brooks said that academic inequality is socially acceptable but church inequality and cultural inequality are not, but repeatedly name-dropping “Harvard” into your conversations is not okay, wearing a cross necklace is fine, and disparaging Justin Bieber and his fans is also fine.

  • Rob

    The comedy of our permissible expressions of deviation from slave morality (

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  • Eric Falkenstein

    In Helmut Schoeck’s book Envy he discusses the dysfunctional cultures all have an excess of undisguised envy. An extreme example are the Navaho, who reportedly have no concept of luck or of personal achievement, and believe that one person’s success can only come at another’s expense. You can expropriate wealth, even power, but you can’t expropriate intelligence, beauty, or athleticism. That doesn’t mean people are more tolerant in these areas, just that it isn’t remotely practical.

  • lemmy caution

    The Amish are a good example of a culture that does some crazy things to cut down on the external signs of inequality. They are pretty successful at it.

    • Bill

      An extreme example of little value to the the discourse.

  • Brooks equivocates about what’s supposed to be “acceptable” about inequality’s various forms. Usually, he means signaling the given inequality is or isn’t OK. But he may abruptly change his meaning, so that what is problematic or not about a particular inequality is its realization, rather that its advertisement. This is most conspicuous when he talks about income inequality. This is really the form where advertisement is unacceptable. You have to buy useful products or give to charities to signal wealth. It wouldn’t do to burn money. Brooks says income inequality is OK, and he supports the claim by pointing out that athletes can negotiate high salaries without suffering social reproof. Brooks simply changes the topic, when it comes to income.

    The taboo on overtly broadcasting wealth has more to do with preventing social revolution than with suppressing certain statuses. Those with high income have plenty ways to display their wealth; they can forgo overt showmanship—and if they want to keep it, they better.

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  • Brooks is in a panic over the 1% vs. 99% meme that OWS has so successfully promoted and he’s doing whatever he can confuse the issue. This is the second post he’s devoted to it. He’s kicking up all the dust he canI’ve critiqued both of these posts at Truth and Traditions:

  • Dave

    People conform to fit in,gain acceptance and,avoid conflict. David Brooks was trying,in a humorous way,to explain to foreigners how to navigate this.

    As he points out this is hard,non-intuitive and I might add,ever changing. Since he is a New Yorker,it wouldn’t work where I live.

    Some how I can’t get upset or outraged that people try to escape from the tyranny of group disapproval and gain acceptance from other humans by donning certain apparel,adopting certain,behaviors or frequenting various venues,or purchasing the necessary accoutrements based upon the current unwritten rules .

    Personally I have never worn a tuxedo. That does not mean I feel compelled to condemn everyone who has,nor exclude me from associating with those who do.

    What is decried now days is inequality itself,not its material results. Once all mouths are fed,the jealous are not satisfied must turn to another target.

    The affluent adopt pseudo- modesty in defense against the swarm of social gadflies. Watching this and commenting on it as Brooks has observed is entertaining.
    If you get too upset about inequality or wish to eliminate it you ruin your own mental health while trying to ruin the fun of those the better off .

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  • DanT

    There is a common theme for all of the socially unaccaptable displays of superiority: they overtly indicate social status!
    – My ancestry conveys social status, so it is not OK to boast about it.
    – Money doesn’t always indicate social status, so it is OK to boast about it in some but not all circumstances.
    – Technical superiority conveys no social status, so it is OK to boast about it.

    This provides support for the hypocritical human hypothesis: while engaged in social discourse, we don’t overtly display social status but find ways to covertly do so. The executive who admits technical incompetence, then says he has people for that, is showing weakness in an area that doesn’t matter when actually displaying the strength of his social status that does matter.

    There is a significant sub-culture that does not follow standard social queues – the geek culture. Unlike social status, geek-cred comes from being dedicated to and/or knowing more about a geek subject (comics, games, science fiction worlds, computers) and openly displaying it. I think parts of geek culture are a backlash against the hypocritical humanness of mainstream culture.

  • PA

    In general I feel this whole post could be shortened too:

    “We are generally OK with inequality where we can rationally justify it.”

    Which is another way of saying we are obsessed with logical inequality.

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