Sunday, 7 June 2015

The age of the naked emperor


Prestige lost by want of success disappears in a brief space of time. It can also be worn away, but more slowly by being subjected to discussion. This latter power, however, is exceedingly sure. From the moment prestige is called in question it ceases to be prestige. The gods and men who have kept their prestige for long have never tolerated discussion. For the crowd to admire, it must be kept at a distance.
Gustave Le Bon - The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895)

A powerful insight from Le Bon, especially relevant to an age such as ours which purports to value and promote equality. This is what many seem to fear, the levelling power of familiarity, the threat to prestige. The threat is genuine - we see its effects everywhere. Declining respect for religions, royalty, presidents, prime ministers, business leaders, major charities and institutions such as the BBC.

We it in major controversies such as the catastrophic climate narrative which now seems so silly and irrelevant. Yet the public is still expected to swallow it largely on the basis of their respect for both scientists and tame institutions such as the BBC. 

Unfortunately for climate science, the dishonesty has become embarrassingly obvious. In part because Le Bon’s caveat is much more difficult to achieve in the modern world. For the crowd to admire, it must be kept at a distance. No doubt that’s where the infamous settled science ploy comes from.

What next? The decline of universities? Having a degree is no longer the distinction it was. The gods and men who have kept their prestige for long have never tolerated discussion. Universities would be well advised to keep this interesting issue off the agenda, as I’m sure they already know.

How about presidents, prime ministers and high officials? We are already familiar with their deficiencies, but no doubt there is more to come if respect continues its apparently inexorable decline. We live in revealing times with hordes of naked emperors strutting their flabby stuff.


Demetrius said...

I recall a time when to maintain Prestige was all among not just politicians but managers and others. It accounts for a lot of things that went very badly wrong in the past.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - yes. Teachers, parents, the clergy, doctors and many others too.

Sam Vega said...

Interesting. There is surely a whole book waiting to be written on the ways in which that distance is maintained.

It is also interesting to speculate how far respect can actually fall. Is there an absolute zero? Would new sources of respect emerge as the old ones decline (a bit like Mosca's theory of "social forces" - new elites become powerful because they harness new social forces such as the media, religion, etc. and use them to oppress others.) Will "ordinary people" maintain respectful attitudes towards one another in everyday life, or will it all disappear, like the loss of some skill such as hedging or quill-making?

A K Haart said...

Sam - I think ordinary folk often respect each other for their skills and personal qualities and that may even increase.

Elites are using new social forces, climate change for one, but whether they are likely to gain respect from them I'm not so sure because it is increasingly difficult for them to maintain their social distance.