Differentiation and Status

“1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  2 Now the earth was [a] formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.  3 And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.'”

God continues to separate (land from seas, moon from sun, elements of time) and create various kinds of things (vegetation, animals), and in verse 25 looks it all over and declares it “good.”

Someone recently cited the Genesis passage I’ve quoted above as part of an argument about language’s creative capability as it differentiates among things. I couldn’t assent to what was said and now I can’t even recall the argument properly, because I couldn’t feel the sense of it at the time — I think it’s related to George Lakoff‘s cognitive linguistics ideas. In any case, my misunderstanding of an argument that’s fuzzy for me is my jumping off point :-)

I’ve been reading Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety, and his premise, in line, I think, with Rene Girard’s, is that status derives from differentiation, and violence from status. Whether rivalry leads to status or derives from it, or both, is unclear to me as yet. (I’m using differentiation in the broad sense of “distinguishing a difference.”)

God created dark and light and saw that it was good.

When I think about it, this seems rather alien to human experience most of the time; usually, when we create, discover, or theorise a polarity, like dark and light, one is “good” and the other is “bad,” which is of course another polarity. (Are we all bipolar?)

Or if we think it’s bad to use words like “good” and “bad,” we try to find other pairs to describe the poles, like effective and ineffective, creative and destructive, healing and damaging, desirable and undesirable — all of which still carry the connotations of “good” and “bad,” just slightly cloaked and more sharply described.

In this Genesis passage, God doesn’t describe anything as bad or evil. Everything God creates and sees is good. It’s not good in comparison to anything else. It’s good. This totality reminds me of James Alison’s writing (scroll down to Matthew passage) about how God partakes only of life, not of death. God is life, and not by comparison but fully. Humans, on the other hand, live in a death-focused world, where life is valuable mainly because there exists death. (Ask most of the artists.) Can we imagine what life would feel like without death to bound it? What life feels like when it’s not not-death?

Status — the way we humans often differentiate — doesn’t operate this way. (It’s the opposite! :-))  My current reading about status helps me understand why I couldn’t assent to my friend’s assertion about differentiation as a good. For one thing, his comments came after a lengthy and mutedly rivalistic discussion among three of us about male and female traits and abilities, where, without it being spoken overtly, one gender was cited as being better than the other in various and important ways.  In fact, it may be that most people of one gender have all the traits we attributed to it and the other has none; the brains of  the two genders do seem to be qualitatively different on brain scans. It’s the usually imperceptible and unconscious move from different to better that seems to govern and flourish among human relations. Even when we’re not sure which thing we feel is better in a given comparison, there’s a tendency ofttimes to want to come down on one side or another, at least slightly. (This doesn’t prove our need for certainty but it’s interesting commentary about it.)

We compensate by declaring that, e.g., there are good things and bad things about both the day and the night, both the oceans and the mountains, both men and women. Or, to take a few more examples, both the spider and the puppy, lima beans and an ear of corn, the car and public transportation, the activist and the oil company executive, the hero and the pedophile. All things, we say, have their strengths and weaknesses. Instead of being in the position of saying that one is better than the other, if that pronouncement makes us wary (and I think it makes almost all of us wary to some extent, for some comparisons, in some circumstances; that wariness seems a “good” sign to me, though substituting other words may be just an insidious surrogate for a fundamental change of heart and mind), we either register a preference for one or other other, which we maintain is just a preference, not a judgment of what’s better, or we continue to break down each entity into its many features, assigning to those features unspoken values of “goodness” and “badness,” and then we award status to the parts and the sum of the parts rather than to the whole by name.

Either way, through preference or through decomposition, we are engaged in favouritism. Almost all of us favour some things, and we dis-favour others. This is the essence of status: some (people, traits, settings, arts, ideals, etc.) are favoured while others are discredited. Differentiation is necessary for status (and for scapegoating, as Girard and others discuss at length), since if all things were (or more to the point, seemed) exactly the same, it would be impossible to label any one thing as better or worse, by definition; but status (and scapegoating) requires more than differentiation; it requires a system of preferential ordering, a hierarchy — however nebulous and unfelt it is — that derives, at some level, from our mimetic desires. [I can’t help but think here of an exchange from the Will Farrell movie, Kicking and Screaming (2005), which I will transcribe below.]

When our desires originate from the desires of everyone around us, as Girard and others assert, then we are awarding status solidly from within a system of rivalry with each other: we notice the other is different, we feel a lack, we desire something of the other (something “good”), we become jealous and envious when we don’t get it or when we get it but it doesn’t satisfy us for long, we continue to feel a lack, we accuse the other, we label the other as “bad” even while we feel that the other holds some “good” that we desire. At the heart of this process is desire, and our belief that the different “other” has what we desire, and our inability to ever actually receive, completely and permanently, what we desire from the “other.” In the beginning stages of the cycle, the other is favoured, held in high status; by the end, the other is held in low status, dis-favoured, and even then, the cycle inexorably begins again, as the other re-acquires status simply by thwarting us.

Similarly, we favour and disfavour aspects of creation and the rest of the world — personally, I’m an ocean person, a dog person, a sun-worshipper; I don’t do coffee, I don’t think fungus is a food, and I wouldn’t go scuba-diving if you paid me (probably) —  because of how they relate to us, how they inform, shape, and express our identity ot ourselves and others. It’s the same thing.

If I tell you that the day is good and the night bad, or vice versa, I’m telling you (and me) about me, especially if I tell you why I think so. In fact, if I tell you that the day is good and that the night is also good, I’m still telling you (and me) about me. For me, and for lots of other humans, making a determination of favour is embedded in my assumptions about my status, my aspirations for my status, my judgments about what has status and what doesn’t. What I award status to may not be what you award status to, although within a culture, and within subcultures, there are pretty strong status rules; but status also depends on where I fit, or think I fit, into that society or microcosm, and it depends on the measurements I use for status (also learned from within cultures, in various patterns): is “having status” synonymous with being cool? hip? good? morally right? authoritative? loving or lovable? ironic? post-modern? complex? deep? heroic? self-sacrificing?  And then we could explore all those terms further — what makes something heroic, or deep, or right? Status, obviously, is part and parcel of our identity in human culture.

Later, after some “good” outdoor time (I was inculcated early in life to believe that outdoors is inherently better than indoors — thanks, Dad! ;-)), I’m going to post my notes from Status Anxiety.


—-   exchange from Kicking and Screaming

Ann Hogan (lesbian mom): We’re at all the games, unlike a lot of the other parents.
Phil Weston: No no, not like the other parents at all! You’re better than the other parents.
Dad of another kid on the team: Oh, so they’re better?
Phil Weston: No, they’re different.
Donna Jones (other lesbian mom): What do you mean “different”?
Phil Weston: I mean, you’re different because you’re better.
Other Kid’s Dad: How are they better?
Phil Weston: You’re both better different… in a different but better way!
Ann Hogan: Uh, okay.
[she walks off with Donna]
Other Kid’s Dad: It’s a little early to start playing favorites, Phil.


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