Divided We Fall: Five Effects of Status Competition

As The Spirit Level so eloquently described, inequality breeds status competition. Today in the UK we can see very clearly the ugly effects of this all around us – just use your senses. The effects range from the very grave and pernicious to the just plain irritating which, nevertheless, degrade our quality of life and serve to distance us from other people and damage our relations with them:

  • Welfare warfare: those on benefits are routinely in the firing line along with immigrants. It’s another free punch for those of us lucky enough not to be on benefits and another set of heads that we can stand on as we scramble to secure our own position.
  • Status dogs and status cars: we can also assert our position in the war of all against all by buying an anti-social dog? What better way to say to the world: “back off”? And why is it never asked what makes increasing numbers of people feel the need to say “back off” in the first place? Those of greater means can instead buy unnecessarily tank-like cars with daft macho names like Warrior, Defender or Challenger to tell others to back off.
  • Careless driving: talking of cars, it seems we are increasingly driving without due care and attention – as if we are the only ones in the world and no-one else matters. Well, in a society that seems to embrace a rats-in-a-sack view of life, is it any wonder?  Recent research from the US also shows that behaviour behind the wheel tends to be worse further up the income scale as people’s sense of entitlement grows.
  • Cosmetic competition: greater numbers of younger people are turning to cosmetic surgery to boost their appearance and sense of self-worth. When life is an endless catwalk what else can you do?  From Keeping up with the Kardashians (yes, the programme is really called that!) to the sheer awfulness of certain other reality TV shows best avoided, we are endlessly encouraged to gawp and admire the world of the rich and beautiful. Of course, it helps to preserve and normalise inequality that while stamping downwards on the less fortunate we also look enviously upwards to the materially more fortunate and seek to be like them. 

Material differences create social distances and from this flows most of the social problems we face, from scapegoating to consumerism, from anti-social behaviour to a lack of trust, from fear of others to outright violence. For a more cohesive, caring and kinder society – and a less depressing and annoying one as well – inequality must be reduced. All else is tinkering at the edges. What sort of a world do we really want to live in and bequeath?  Time to decide…

Bill Kerry, Secretary of the Equality Trust.