A while back, I wrote a piece on the concept of social currency — the idea that all human interactions can be thought of as a form of bartering. For example, we never do someone a favor without expecting a favor of equal value in return. (You can come up with some exceptions: say, caring for a person on their deathbed. But I would argue we presume that, by caring for the dying, someone will do the same for us at our time. The person we do the favor for doesn’t necessarily need to be the person who returns the favor.)
Ultimately, I think we want to use this social currency to “buy” our way up the social ladder. If we can’t actually be the top dog, we want to get as close to the top as possible. What is the top? In human society, it’s the King, the president, the famous movie star, various celebrities etc. But there are also more localized versions of “the top.” In your neighborhood, it’s the neighbors that have the best party. In your circle of friends, it’s the person everyone always wants to hang out with.
I’ve been thinking about this subject, particularly trying to come up with the reasons why we want to get to the top. What do we get out of our associations with people at the top? It’s worth noting that people at the top are often fairly uninteresting, if not complete idiots. They don’t want to perform any action or express any opinion too controversial, lest it shake their hold on power. Yet many of us eagerly attempt to secure access to these people so that we may have mind numbingly bland conversations about meaningless topics.
I believe the answer to this question comes down to a fundamental truth: we are monkeys. We live by the same rules all primates do. We want to ensure our personal survival (natural selection) and the survival of our DNA (sexual selection.) If we “party with the stars” we get to advertise ourselves sexually to a large pool of potential partners. We also advertise ourselves to potential customers/employers etc. — people who can help ensure our physical survival by providing money for food and rent.
Now, these reasons make sense from a biological perspective — we are responding to the innate demands of our DNA. But they aren’t really logical reasons. I find myself wondering if it’s worth consciously overriding these demands, effectively saying “I won’t hang out with banal morons and waste my time on the social circuit.” It’s hard to do, since you’re effectively saying, “I will rarely get laid and remain under employed” but I’m teased by the amount of free time it would open up. (I should clarify here: since moving to San Diego I don’t do much socialization anyway, so I’m already living this way. I guess the question is whether I should continue to do so.)
Related to all this is the character archetype of the comedian or truth teller. I’m thinking about people like Truman Capote, perhaps Lenny Bruce though I think he’s overrated, George Carlin etc. These people seem to make their way to the top by not being bound to the social conventions of polite society. They also, however, tend to be alcoholics or drug addicts.