Thursday 22 August 2013

ETC: We Fear Fame

Going for another three part post series as summer winds down. About, well, I'm not entirely sure. Things I've noticed about society, I guess.
Part 1: We Fear Fame
Part 2: Cliques are Inevitable
Part 3: How to Cope

Here's my point to start out: People fear fame. Or if we don't, perhaps we should.

Stop laughing at me!!!

It begins with an individual desire to not get noticed by society. Maybe it even starts in school, where if you stand out, something bad will happen. You'll get teased, or you'll have to live up to unreasonable peer expectations, or you'll end up receiving a lion's share of the work. Which could be athletic work just as much as academic.

Then again, you don't have to attend formal schooling to see the negative results of becoming famous. People will start to look for your flaws, in order to get a scoop, or so that they can believe themselves to be better than you. Corporations will try to take advantage of you for their own material gain, perhaps even outright stealing your ideas. All you do is blog? Spammers will see you as a tool they can exploit. In general, fame ensures that you won't be able to live quite the same way you're accustomed to any more.

The trouble is, we are in the digital age, where "everyone" is connected. But within that connectivity, the government is suspicious of terrorism, the corporate world is scared for their profit margins, and still more people merely want to find a scapegoat for their psychological problems. In short...


Back to the high school analogy. If you get a phone call home, it's usually bad news. I know as a teacher I wish I made more good news calls, but I'm usually too wiped out after the bad ones, not to mention doing the job itself. Plus I hate phones. I think part of the reason parents of "good" students come in on interview night is because that's the only time I manage to talk to them all semester.

But consider the workplace too. If you're singled out there, it's probably because something went wrong, either with you, or with someone else, which is now creating a lot of extra work for you. Why? Well, if things are going RIGHT, that's the way things are SUPPOSED to happen, so people don't check up on you then. What's to notice?

Troublingly, the attention we give to corporate workers is becoming akin to the attention we give to inanimate objects. You don't think about how you use the faucet in the kitchen either, until it stops working properly. (Mine's acting up.) One could apply the same reasoning to government too... as long as officials aren't hugely screwing up, we ignore them.

Personally, I think there's some backlash here from the past few decades of "everyone is a beautiful snowflake", and giving trophies to the losing teams. Since everyone is now "special", NO ONE is special. Unless there's some problem, in which case, what's WRONG with you, idiot?

That guy from "The Matrix" beat me up!

Well, okay, that's a bit unfair. Sometimes a person rises above. They're doing amazing things, and they're singled out for something good instead! Except that's just as bad, because...


Someone tosses out a remark on twitter, and with enough momentum, suddenly they (or worse, someone with a similar name!) are being told they'll get raped, or that they're a Nazi, or some other horrible overreaction. Even outside the digital world, when someone gets a promotion at work, there can be resentment, or they're told it wasn't for their skills, or they're now simply seen as someone to beat or take down.

Don't hate me because I'm beautiful...
Being that supposed "overachiever" means you're now in the spotlight. People are now waiting eagerly for your next great idea - or for you to screw up. This can be a source of additional stress, making it harder to continue on as you were before this momentary fame was thrust upon you. Then if (when?) you can't live up to such "larger than life" expectations, people wonder why you changed, what happened to your abilities, what went WRONG?

This is especially bad because, as humans, we'll remember negative events more easily than positive ones. So chances are we'll forget all that the good stuff that got you noticed, just the bad thing you did once all eyes were on you. Heck, we even do this TO OURSELVES. You have a really GREAT Monday to Thursday, but then Friday afternoon goes badly and BAM, the whole weekend is shot as you try to rebuild your self esteem.

I feel like mentioning Dalton McGuinty here. He did a bunch of good things for Ontario education, then decided one day to legislate teachers back to work before they were even in a legal strike position, using a "Putting Students First" Act. The hell? What went wrong there?

By the way, the "negative events" article I linked to above has another bombshell - we tend to see people who say negative things as being smarter than those who are positive. (Supposedly our primitive survival instincts rank bad things as being the items requiring more urgent attention.) Meaning, those people who are POUNDING on the guy who's stuck his neck out with a brilliant idea? They'll be seen by the majority as the more intelligent choice.

Still, you're resilient. You're forward thinking, you have a grasp of the big picture. You rise above the pressure, keep doing what you're doing, and follow up with other great ideas! That's STILL a problem, since...


Congratulations! You're famous. You've graduated from spotlight to lightning rod. Now half of everyone aware of you (in education, say) will be all "OMG Dan Meyer is totes my hero!!!oneonetwo" and the other half will be more "Dan Meyer is teh sux, I don't like his weird new maths!!factorial". (With apologies to Dan Meyer. Sal Khan could have been used as an example there instead.) This is more of a problem when actual media is involved, as they may want the lightning rod's opinion on every new thing, regardless of relevance, even as they comb through every bit of online history for that one time the public's new darling got drunk at a party.

It's a Thor thpot.
The famous person also been pigeonholed. People will expect more of the same - or better! Think movie stars getting roped into sequels. Or as implied above, even the public might expect their hero(ine) to be just as good at topics outside their field - even if there's no evidence to support that thoery. Consider JK Rowling made the conscious effort to separate herself from her own name, and that didn't work out as planned. Heck, I'll argue that if you really are worth your salt, fame itself probably wasn't your goal to begin with, so you won't be satisfied to keep doing the same thing over and over... but damn it, the public wants more Sherlock Holmes, so he's back from the dead.

Granted, sometimes the criticism of one single individual is justified. But not often. So would you agree that fame is not something we're seeking? Because here's where it gets worse. Our chosen alternative to fame ISN'T obscurity. No one really wants that either! We still have a psychological desire to be noticed, and to be recognized for the good things that we do. So what is the choice instead of fame?


Routine. Stay the course. Don't rock the boat. Only stick your neck out if you know it won't get cut off - and don't leave it out there too long, that's dangerous. Hey, times are tough, I need this job! I can't afford to screw up anything, and you'd better not screw up anything for me either!

Frankly, there's very little real leadership anymore. We aren't blazing new trails, we're maintaining the existing ones while getting people to jump on that bandwagon. Worse, to "lead" politically these days doesn't mean to come up with a visible plan, it means attack the OTHER side. And not their plan either, because as I said, no one plans, to attack their CANDIDATE. Convince the public you're less Meh than the alternative. And then stay the course - or at least appear to do so. We are stuck in a world of STATUS QUO, because the alternative, to stand out in this world of critics, is horrifying - whether what we stand for is good OR evil.

Way back in November 2012 I blogged about how Democracy is Broken, and I think this is at the heart of it. These days we're all "Oh, the government hasn't majorly screwed up lately? Whatever then, don't care." Meanwhile, the people who DO get in gain a sense of entitlement. They'll do whatever they like, and we must have been cool with that, because we picked them, right? I'm thinking a bit of the Canadian senate scandal, but I think it stretches beyond that. Beyond even government.

I suspect the next great things in the world are either going to come from someone who doesn't play by these rules... or they will come from a group collective. (Our corporate darlings!) Because notice how at the beginning I said that it was an individual desire, to effectively blend in with society.

It's a lot safer for a GROUP to gain fame and notoriety. There's strength in numbers, and the ability there to push forwards with new ideas... but there's also a danger. Which is the topic for my second post: Cliques are Inevitable.

Before we delve into that, any thoughts so far?

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