On Social Climbing

There are few more dIstressIng or pejoratIve tags to be labelled wIth than that of On Social Climbing

 In an age when people are ready to admit to an extraordinary variety of misdemenaours, it would remain genuinely shocking to confess to a strong interest in meeting rich, famous and powerful people – as well as in fending off the appeals of lesser acquaintances whose careers have not developed as they might have done.

Part of the reason the label is so shocking is that it fails to make any distinction between varieties of social aspiration, some less vicious than others and by tarring all of them with the same brush, it implausibly forces everyone sensible to deny any interest in the whole topic. And yet social climbing, like anger or envy, has its good and bad versions, and like these other so-called sins, is an inherent part of our make-up that we would be wise to understand and to nuance – rather than deny and attempt to stamp out in shame.

There are as many ways of being interested in those at the topof society as there are ways of reading books. What looks to be a unitary activity in fact shelters a range of approaches. Being fascinated by esteemed figures is not a sign of evil per se, just as reading Moby Dick is not in itself a proof of intelligence. One has to dig a little deeper, to figure out how the interest is unfolding before one can deliver judgement. No doubt social climbing would be looked on more benevolently if we described one manifestation of it as ‘sightseeing’ or ‘ethnography’.

To pass over an old chum from primary school in order to take up a chance to meet Bill Gates should not be thought a depravity – rather evidence of an entirely natural, indeed desirable, curiosity about the way the modern world works. It is an incoherence of our mechanisms of judgement that one should be labelled a serious and honourable person for sitting alone in bed reading a scholarly book on the robber barrons of 19th century America (filled with details on how they made their wealth, the attitudes of their compatriots, their relationship with religion, their personal habits etc.), and yet that it might be deemed trivial, desperate and shallow to want very badly to take up an opportunity to have dinner with a group of titans from Silicon valley.

‘Social climbing’ also becomes a little less absurd if one acknowledges how much of it is really a strategy for survival. A great many people’s interest in going to parties and having a conversation with the powerful is not idle pleasure-seeking, but an attempt to keep oneself in line for work, based on the true supposition that bosses often look more benevolently on those they have met with socially. To make a bee-line for a plutocrat may hence be no less serious, and no less worthy of respect and dignity, than a boar hunt on whose successful conclusion the fate of an entire primitive community might once have hung.

Parties carry mortgages and school fees on their backs. We may not be taught to associate corporate events with heroism. They involve battles fought with the most bathetic of instruments, with bad jokes and remarks about the quality of the canapes, but they are battles nonetheless, comparable in their intensity and demands to the tracking of furtive animals through the deadly forests of the prehistoric world.

What really marks out corrupt as opposed to forgiveable social climbers is the former’s strong belief that the rich, powerful and famous are at heart better than other people. They don’t merely accept that these types are lucky or gifted in a particular area, they sincerely hold that they are finer human beings. This is the route to true snobbery as well as to a vicious neglect of anyone who cannot display the necessary badges of success.

There are better and worse people at large in the world, but it is naive and cruel to assume that they could be so conveniently located on the basis of how much money they have or what work they do. It is this the snob refuses to believe, trusting instead in the existence of water-tight classes whose members unfailingly win out over electricians, nursery teachers or novelists whose names one has never heard of. By all means we should be able to indulge our curiosity for those who manage to bend the normal rules of existence – but we should also cut the doctrinaire connections too often made between wealth and virtue and attempt to ensure that we have taken people’s stilts off before we begin to evaluate them.

AlaIn de Botton
Botton was born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1969 and now lives in London. He is a writer of essayistic books that have been described as a ‘philosophy of everyday life. ‘He’s written on love, travel, architecture and literature. His books have been bestsellers in 30 countries and have been translated in 16 languages. Alain also started and helps to run a school in London called The School of Life, dedicated to a new vision of education.