I read an interesting paper today focusing on how latter-day aristos (‘hipsters’) market themselves to their peers as wealthy and high status individuals by engaging in conspicuous and costly displays of their environmental consciousness. I was aware of the effect before reading the paper, since it is obvious by looking at them, but it was interesting to see it carefully thought through. The entire paper is worth reading, and the money shot is this:
Thus a paradox of the new status signaling. The group that is the cultural elite of the so-called neoliberal order expends a great deal of resources signaling their disapproval of the neoliberal order so as to elevate themselves higher in the pecking order of that very same group.
Which is of course what makes elite preening so infuriating—they are the very thing they’re claiming not to be. They can afford things ordinary people can’t, and these aren’t simply symbols of wealth but of their moral superiority.
The paper focuses on economics, but there is a social analog which I tend to call worthless opinions. A worthless opinion is when the holder is more or less insulated from the effects of his beliefs for whatever reason.
The reason the opinion is worthless is because the holder will not suffer any negative consequences flowing from holding a bad opinion. Absent negative consequences, there is no reason for the person holding the opinion to devote any real thought to the matter. For the purposes of worthlessness, the opinion holder only has to believe that he is insulated from consequences—not that he actually is.
When there is no real cost to holding an opinion, someone without principles will choose the one that benefits him, increases his status, or is simply aesthetically pleasing regardless of how silly or poorly thought out it is.
Luxury opinions are an especially pernicious variation on worthless opinions. In the case of luxury opinions, the holder selects a belief that apparently harms him as a way of signaling that the cost of holding the opinion is not significant to him. A man who holds feminist beliefs is demonstrating the security of his power and status by adhering to a belief system which devalues him and all men. I wouldn’t suggest this is the sole reason someone might compromise their self-interest, but it is among the more rational and relevant to ostentatious public displays of virtue.
The reason this is an evil form of status signaling is that not all men can bear the cost of those beliefs. A male feminist from the upper middle class may advocate for the enactment of biased laws on domestic violence whose consequences theoretically fall on him but practically fall on lower status men. When I say they may do that, I mean they have done that already.
Hence the blossoming populist anger that is flowing through America and Europe in the current year 2016. The lower classes are tiring of being held in contempt by a gaggle of powdered fops whose beliefs on a wide range of issues are not the result of any care for the health of the nation or concern for its people, but which are luxuries for themselves and their peers.