On the recognition hierarchy

October 11, 2021 09:27
The first step to break free of the recognition hierarchy behooves us to be selective and prudent with regards to the demographics of those from whom we seek validation and recognition. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Contemporary society constructs itself as revolving around and predicated upon the notion of recognition. Recognition by one’s family and relatives – as quantified and concretised through relations and measurements of filial piety; recognition by one’s coworkers and colleagues – as epitomised – perhaps most aptly – by mutual rating systems through which competitors and rivals come to rank each other’s performances; recognition by the masses at large – as visualised and reflected through one’s popularity, offline or online.

These forces – on their own – do not necessarily amount to substantial detriments. After all, from Rousseau’s amour propre to Mead’s looking-glass self, sociologists and political scientists have gone to painstaking lengths in emphasising and articulating the fact that mankind is, by definition, a social animal. That we are empowered by others’ recognition, and demoralised by the lack thereof, is a natural byproduct of the confluence between evolutionary tendencies and sociological bare facts. To judge, to appraise, to critique – is natural. To crave others’ positive judgments, appraisal, and critique, is thus not only understandable, but conducive towards one’s integrating into society at large. Becoming a cog in the machine, comes with the perk of fitting in – and not jutting out like a sore thumb.

Hence enters the recognition hierarchy – individuals are ranked and judged in accordance with not just the levels of recognition they accord themselves, but also, arguably more importantly, the recognition directed towards them; afforded to them by others. Those who are more recognised enjoy a correlatedly higher level of fame, social prestige, and access; in contrast, those whose work, intentions, and achievements remain under-recognised or ill-recognised, would perennially remain at the end of the pecking order. In an age where attention is scarce and social capital is highly

Yet this recognition hierarchy – this intriguing synthesis of status, rank, and reputational hierarchies – is also stifling. It is stifling in its excessive emphasis on exhibition, on performativity, on conformity with the dominant metrics with which we are instructed and internalise the validity of judging others by – it is stifling in its repression of individuality, in exchange for parsimonious unity. Those who are recognised are endowed with the powers and capital to continually reproduce their own privilege, endowment, and signalled worth. Those who are excluded, in turn, are lamentably yet inevitably sidelined by the treadmill of fame and celebratory appeal.

Breaking free of the hierarchy is by no means straightforward. The first step behooves us to be selective and prudent with regards to the demographics of those from whom we seek validation and recognition – it is not the case that the approval of each and every one is worth pursuing or seeking out. One is bound to make enemies, friends, foes, or allies if one is doing something worthy. Recognition need not be correlated with being liked – but neither being universally liked nor universally recognised is, in fact, a feat or measurement of success. We’re much better off fighting for the right causes, for the right people, than seeking to please everyone and all. Being more discriminate and selective on our backers and patrons, also ensures that we do not succumb to the pressures and temptations of pandering to the masses. Pandering to the madding crowd would only cause us to lose sight of what truly matters.

The next step constitutes the cultivation of a self-recognition consciousness that is independent of collective recognition. We can come to recognise our own worth, value, capabilities, and utility, through lenses that are untainted and decoupled from others – including those who are nominally accredited with substantial authority and worth in political and public discourse. Do not be afraid to call out or challenge those who absurdly insert and impose their judgments upon you – for it is you who have the right to judge, as opposed to others. How should we come up with such recognition metrics? Think creatively – think about one’s fortes and strengths, for starters, and let them shine through. Do not bury them in name of adhering to what one is expected or supposed to do: for doing so would only enshroud one’s true colours. Recognise that you are worthy independent of your achievements, objective possessions, or subjective states of mind. Recognise further that it is possible to be equally successful and unsuccessful in parts, and that we can and should embrace how we truly feel, whilst simultaneously ensuring that our affective heuristics and sensations do not interfere with a foundational commitment to self-worth.

Finally, build alternative hierarchies. Why limit ourselves to publicly acceptable and endorsed bases of recognition? Why are billionaires and millionaires fawned over, when – in practice – much of the wealth of the powerful and privileged comes not from their own industriousness, but from a mixture of genetic and environmental luck? Why do we adore and embellish the life stories of successful politicians, even when their very personal ethics should and must come under question? Why do we champion and celebrate entrepreneurship only selectively, that is – when and only if it fits our conception of entrepreneurship as commercial success? It is high time that we took a step back from our preconceived notions of success – and grappled with the fact that we cannot allow others’ recognition to control and steer us in ways that are distinctively incongruous to whom we truly are. As Cyndi Lauper puts it, there’s nothing to be afraid of with our true colours.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review