On status

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. The column below looks at the idea of status and asks, does the fact that someone qualifies for a title mean they have in effect achieved some status in the eyes of others? Or is status, like respect, earned? Very often status-seekers simply assume the former, never pausing to question the possibility that the latter might, in fact, hold true.

On status

By: Gareth van Onselen

13 February 2012

What is it that compels some, on achieving a certain status, to elevate it above their own character, as if wholly subsumed by their new station?

You can be sure insecurity and low self-esteem have a role to play.

Typically it manifests in their attitude toward the title bestowed upon them. And that inclination is often at its most acute when public office is involved. They become the position they occupy and suggest to others they be recognised exclusively by their formal designation.

Often, the idea of ‘respect’ is invoked, to motivate for such behaviour. And yet that is to misunderstand the role and purpose of a title: it is there to indicate one’s standing in an organisation, not in the minds of others – any admiration on that must front must be earned. Certainly it cannot be demanded. To think otherwise is a kind of denial.

Likewise, the office to which any title alludes is an ideal. Hence the question: Is that person fit for public office? Ideals are something towards which one constantly aspires yet which are never fully attained; the principles and values that define them, never instantaneously realised by mere promotion. But the insecure desperately need the affirmation they associate with the ideal their office represents and so conflate it with their own nature. And what better means to that end than a title – the ultimate reference to an office, but to which they alone holds the rights.

It makes sense, then, that such status-seekers enjoys a particularly close relationship with bureaucracy and deference – the former a help mechanical means to achieve the latter. And an environment where status is confused with respect in this way is inevitably a bureaucratic one.

Real status comes with admirable behaviour, it cannot precede it. It can be enforced through fear and intimidation but that is to engender obsequiousness, not respect.

Gareth van Onselen writes in his personal capacity. He is employed by the DA as a Director of Political Analysis and Development. This column first appeared in the Business Day.