Why People Are Terrible, Pt 3: Fashion And Celebrity Culture
Welcome to another edition of my landmark series, tentatively titled "Why Are People Such Shitheads: A Comprehensive Study In Why People Are Shitheads." This is Part 3 (all parts are below) and today we're answering the question:
Why are people so obsessed with celebrities, fashion, cars, brands, bling ... all of that Kardashian bullshit? Why can't they focus on what really matters?
If you're already a fashionable trendsetter in your social group, feel free to skip this one! For the rest of us, an awards show red carpet interview sounds like they're making up words to mock us. "Here's Meryl Streep, dropping jaws in Elie Saab Haute Couture, famously shunning the Karl Lagerfeld Chanel ..."
That shallow obsession with style and fame is literally ruining the world. While landfills are choked with barely used goods discarded because they're no longer cool, eco-friendly buildings and cars go unsold purely because they're "ugly" (there's a reason Elon Musk wanted his Tesla models to spell "S-E-X-Y."). We won't learn about healthcare policy, but will obsessively read about which pop star has a rivalry with Taylor Swift this week. Why is our species so easily distracted by this shit? The answer is more complicated than you think ...
There Is A Secret Language Being Spoken All Around You
What if I told you that an entire class of human beings can speak telepathically, and that they're constantly having silent conversations you're unaware of? That's happening! Kind of. It's a metaphor.
The communication is occurring in the form of ultra-specific fabric shapes and colors, product labels, and hair styles. Everything about a person's appearance is communicating a complex message. I mean, you already knew this to an extent -- a backward Red Sox cap implies a lot of things about a man which may or may not have anything to do with baseball. But most of us nerds are only able to pick up the language in broad terms. We know when clothes are dressy or trashy or garish, and that's about it. It's like watching a foreign horror movie on Netflix without subtitles -- you know a Korean family is being tormented by a demon, but you don't know why.
The crucial thing we unfashionable types tend to ignore is that our own appearance is also communicating lots of things about us, all of the time. There's no way to opt out of this program, any more than an illiterate person can negate their disadvantage by declaring that "reading is bullshit." That's because all of this stuff is, in fact, important.
Understanding This Language Is A Full-Time Job
"So crack the code for me, dammit!" you demand. "Tell me what I'm missing!" Well, first, let me ask you a seemingly unrelated question: What is dancing? Like, why is it a thing that humans do? The answer is that dancing well is also communication, and the primary message it sends is that you are good at dancing. That's it. Likewise, the primary purpose of the secret language of fashion is to communicate to others that you speak the secret language.
If that still sounds like recursive nonsense, think of it like an inside joke. Let's say I'm a fan of the show Rick And Morty, and I hear somebody in the break room at work pause from making their sandwich to say, "I'm a pickle, Morty!" That's not a statement or even a joke -- it's intended only to communicate that they are the type of person who loves that show. If I respond, "I'm Pickle Riiiiick!" then there is, again, zero information in the actual words. To an unfamiliar listener, it's nonsense. The only thing my response is communicating is "I also speak your language," because my ability to speak that language means something important.
Well, most fashion choices -- the careful selection of brands, the fierce rejection of looks that are outdated or out of season -- are simply communicating "I know what the secret fashion rules are, and am able to adhere to them." This, incidentally, should clear up a common source of confusion among guys who'll see a girl dressed in "provocative" clothing and say "See? She wants men to get aroused by her body!" If you ask that woman, she'll say she dresses to get compliments from other women. She's not lying.
It's kind of like how guys buy sports cars even though they have no intention of ever going 100 MPH down a winding road, or how gun enthusiasts buy assault rifles even though they don't anticipate a firefight. We all buy things that are "sexy" for reasons that are often far removed from sex. Instead ...
It's About Status (Not To Be Confused With Wealth)
Let's all admit something: Every single person reading this treats people differently based on how they're dressed. If you get a knock on your door in the middle of the night from a stranger asking for help, how wide you open the door will depend largely on what said stranger is wearing. A well-groomed man in a suit will get a different reaction than that same man with a week's worth of stubble wearing the top half of a clown costume and absolutely nothing else.
What we forget is that we are always in the position of the plaintive person on the other side of the door, 24 hours a day, only being evaluated on much finer criteria. You are continually being judged based on your clothes, shoes, jewelry, hair, hygiene, posture, and mannerisms by people who are trying to determine one thing: your social status. Not how rich you are -- that's but one factor (the law student may have less money than the local meth dealer, but clearly has higher social status).
For uncool people like myself, what hits us like a truck in high school is the realization that humans (and all social animals) develop hierarchies which determine who has access to the best food, mates, etc. Ideally, that status would be based on who is the most fit -- which ape is the best at fighting, mating, socializing, and ... who can fling their shit the farthest, I guess. But your abilities are worthless if you can't convey them to other members of the tribe. That's why we need things like clothes and cars to signal our status.
The reason the fashion world seems so frivolous and petty is that at some point, style only serves its own purpose. In a sufficiently complex society, the most important ability isn't fighting, socializing, or mating, but conveying status. Now hang on, because we're about to go down the rabbit hole, here.
This Is Where Celebrity Worship Comes In
The fact that the Kardashian family gets up to $500,000 for mentioning a particular brand of cosmetics in an Instagram post would seem to be a symptom of a decadent society on the verge of collapse. Celebrity sort of makes sense when the person is actually great at something, but how do you explain these people who are just famous for being famous? We now know the answer, though -- being good at fashion (that is, conveying status) is important and thus earns them the very status that they are conveying. They're not trying to fool anyone; the ability they are conveying is their ability to convey ability, which is something everyone wants to learn. See? It all makes perfect sense, and is not in fact a howling spiral into the maw of madness.
And keep in mind -- if we didn't have Instagram (or mass media in general), we'd still do this -- we'd simply find someone in our own social circle to be the trendsetter. Even among chimpanzees, lower-status members of a group will carefully observe and imitate high-status members. If you aspire to move up the ladder, you look at those above you. Powdered wigs came into fashion centuries ago because exactly one king decided to start wearing them.
Ultimately, Being Good At Fashion Signals That You're Good At People
People are obsessed with style and trends because it proves that they are good at style and trends, which indirectly proves they are good at socializing. "I am now demonstrating to you that I spend lots of time meeting and interacting with people, am good at observing behavior and social cues, and thus have learned how to give a good presentation of myself." It's the same thing you're clumsily trying to convey when you put on a suit for a job interview. Your mistake is in thinking that the job interview ever truly ends.
Unless you're extraordinarily talented, wealthy, or charismatic, this is the most important skill you'll ever learn (or fail to learn). Presentation means making a good first impression, and in face-to-face interactions (the most important ones), that first impression is mostly visual. Remember, to 99.999 percent of the people you'll encounter in your lifetime, your first impression is the only one you get -- they'll literally never see you again. That means that for most of the world, you are your first impression, a moment frozen in time, one that to a large degree is colored by whether or not you had a stain on your shirt. You can rail against that all you want ("Don't judge a book by its cover!"), but it's not physically possible to get to know everyone on a personal level. That means this shallow surface stuff matters, and always will.
Even in a virtual world like online gaming, players spend hundreds of millions of dollars on digital clothes to dress up their characters. (One game alone, Overwatch, generated $61 million in sales to players who wanted to make their digital avatars look cool.) That's much of what online gaming does for us -- it gives us a second chance at achieving social status we couldn't achieve in real life.
So yes, you're right in that what you wear shouldn't matter, but "shouldn't" is the least powerful force in the Universe. And I know with absolute certainty that in the recent past, you've made fun of the way someone was dressed. You can choose how you play this game, but you are going to play it one way or the other.
Why Are People So Dumb About Politics?
Every election descends into petty bullshit. How can millions of people be stupid enough to vote for ? Why does a supposedly advanced society make democracy look so hard? Well ...
Imagine Fragments Of Brain Scattered Across A Floor
We've got a fairly left-leaning/progressive audience here at Cracked, and at the time of this writing, there had just been a months-long campaign to undo Obamacare. This, your daily headlines told you, would also "slash" Medicaid -- the healthcare program for the poor:
Do something for me: Grab a post-it note and draw a line graph showing how much you think the Republican plan would have cut Medicaid over the next several years. It's clearly a sharp downward line, but how far does it drop? In half? A third?
Here's the reality:
Yep, the Republicans' deep, slashing cuts involve spending $60 billion more on Medicaid over the next decade. We'll come back to that in a moment.
The first thing you need to remember about voters is that you're not talking about people at all. Not whole people, anyway. Do the math: How much of your total time, money, and energy do you devote to politics? Maybe you spend a half hour a day reading headlines or arguing with a guy at work about gun control. Maybe you donated $50 to Planned Parenthood or bought a sticker for your car depicting Calvin peeing on capital gains taxes. The point is, the total life energy the average person devotes to this has to range from nothing to 5 percent. For most of you, if you spend a single afternoon at a protest, you'll instantly be the most political person any of your friends know.
So don't think of it as millions of people voting for bullshit; think of it as millions of fragments of people, each one devoting just a tiny sliver of their time and brainpower to figuring out where they stand on thousands of complex issues not even experts fully understand. Of course we depend on slogans and shorthand. And when it comes time to decide which party to join, it's not even the slogans and shorthand that matter, because ...
Joining A Team Keeps You Alive
Every election -- and most major world events -- can be rooted back to one, single cause:
It doesn't matter what side we belong to, as long as we belong to a side.
If an alien showed up on earth, the first thing they'd notice about humans is that we'd be better off with fur. The second thing is that we really like to join tribes. The urge is as fundamental to your day-to-day as gravity. Everything about how you talk, what you wear, what you drive, what you eat -- all of it is geared toward expressing not your individuality, but what group you belong to. "I am a fan of this band. I root for this sports team. I play this type of video game, on this specific platform. I vote for this political party." You can often predict how someone will vote based on what shoes they're wearing, or what cable dramas they watch. We have that urge to join a team for the exact same reason we have urges to eat and fuck: Ancient humans who could function well in a tribe survived, while those who could not died with their torsos full of spears. We even know which hormones reinforce those urges.
Now, it's not that your personal beliefs don't matter at all. They do. But you know how when you're hungry, you usually eat whatever is available to you (aka the only reason the Subway chain even exists)? Well, it's the same when you feel that urge to join a team -- you go with whatever is available. My go-to example is this interview with a Neo-Nazi, in which he reveals that he only joined because he grew up in a neighborhood where everyone was in a gang and the skinheads were just the one that approached first. It was months before he even found out they hated Jews, and at that point he went along because those were his boys. They had his back and he had theirs.
Due to a basic evolutionary survival mechanism, that's all that matters. Therefore ...
We Usually Learn Just Enough About Issues To Win Arguments
So that graph above, showing the Medicaid "cuts" ... I'm curious to hear how many of you read literally dozens of articles on the subject without ever having that part plainly spelled out. See, these are deep cuts in the sense that under current law, Medicaid costs are absolutely exploding. They were projected to skyrocket almost 50 percent in the next ten years (from $415 billion to $624 billion).
Reducing that amount absolutely does mean leaving people without coverage (which is bad!), but calling them "cuts" without explaining that it's actually reining in massive growth is leaving out the entire context for why anyone would suggest cutting it in the first place. It's a good example of how we not only don't try to understand the other side, but actively avoid it -- hell, some of you are already pissed off that I even shared that graph.
This is a huge problem. We don't ingest facts to educate ourselves; we do it so that we have ammunition to use against the opposing tribe. Therefore, it doesn't matter if we're oversimplifying or skewing (we'll point out that guns kill 30,000 Americans every year but omit that two-thirds of those are suicides) because we know our side is right and winning is all that matters. Which is to say ...
All Mental Energy Is Devoted To Defending The Tribe
If it helps, no, I don't think both sides are the same. I wouldn't have voted for Donald Trump even if his opponent had promised a rattlesnake in every toilet. But there is a reflex when someone criticizes one of "our" positions, a sick feeling of betrayal in the gut. "He was one of them all along! Look at this old tweet I found!" That reaction isn't coming from the logical part of the brain -- that's the tribalism speaking. Those urges are great for motivating turnout on election day, but bad for understanding issues.
And be honest: Do you understand the issues? Have you dug into the boring parts? Can you tell me off the top of your head how California would fund its proposed single payer plan? I can't. So how do we ever improve if we can't bluntly call out the flaws in our own positions? It's one thing to believe healthcare is a human right (as I do); it's another to acknowledge that no one has any idea how to fit it into the federal budget, considering our doctors, hospitals, and drug companies charge twice as much as those in other countries. No, you can't just make them take less money without risking a collapse. (Nurses and physical therapists can change jobs, investors can pull their money out of pharma, potential medical students can study law instead -- you can't force people into an industry at gunpoint.)
It's unbelievably complicated. All of the world's smartest experts bitterly disagree about how to make it happen, if it can happen at all. Saying, "Healthcare should be free to all, and that's that!" is the equivalent of "Make America Great Again." It's just a slogan that separates Us from Them. And that's just one example of how ...
All Of This Makes Nuance Impossible
Those people who voted for that dumb person or thing you hate did it because they tried to turn politics into something it rarely is: a black-and-white battle between good and evil. The moment you insist on seeing it that way is the moment your brain just slips into another, dumber gear. It's more fun to read about Neo-Nazis than to analyze the performance of low-income minorities in charter schools.
Think of the most black-and-white issue you can imagine. Giving food to starving children, you say? Alright, did you know there is bitter debate and piles of data over the subject of whether or not food aid has actually helped impoverished countries at all? It turns out it's hard for Sub-Saharan African countries to get a local economy going when their farmers are having to compete against free imports, which means they don't have money to plant the next season's grain. Saying "Everyone should have food!" doesn't solve the problem, and the people arguing against donations aren't pro-starvation. Likewise, those who point out that the federal budget doesn't have infinite money -- even to save lives -- aren't literally Hitler for saying it.
And the thing is, all of these broken thought processes are easy to spot when viewed from the other side. We laugh out loud at people who insist coal is patriotic or that gun background checks will somehow result in communism. But they are able to ignore those leaps in logic for the same reason one person could champion both Bernie Sanders ("He'll bring down Wall Street!") and Elon Musk ("He is saving the world using billions of dollars he got from investors, who surely do their trading on some other street!"). I mean, are you sure that dramatically raising the minimum wage results in more money for workers? Some studies say it doesn't.
But there's no fun in nuance, and pie charts don't get the blood pumping. So we'll keep our politics simple and only engage that one tiny sliver of our brains. Be sure to start by declaring that anyone pointing out nuance is either a traitor or a coward afraid of real change!
Why Do Successful People Tend To Be Dicks?
Specifically, why do they tend to be so abrasive and snide, just on a personal level? Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, a bunch of the bosses you've probably had -- you know the type. (I feel like I'm missing another really obvious example, but I can't think of it right now.) Is being an abrasive jerk a perquisite for success in this world? What does that mean for nice people like you? Well ...
No One Knows How To Deal With Failure ... So We Compensate In Weird Ways
You've seen the bumper stickers and inspirational Facebook memes about how success is all about dealing with failure. ("It's not about whether you fall, it's whether you get back up!") And that's true -- accomplishing something usually feels like getting eaten and then shit out by a dragon. But contrary to what the bumper stickers imply, the ones who persevere aren't fueled by grit and determination; they've just developed some kind of defense against failure's crippling side effects.
Failure, after all, comes with its own brand of depression -- a mournful numbness, grieving the death of the thing you thought you were. It's a spiteful voice in your head saying, "What do you mean you should 'do something' today? You saw what happens when you do things!" Well, the psychological defenses against it are often just as ugly. They are, in fact, the same nasty sharp edges you feel slicing into you the moment you disappoint one of these hard-charging personalities.
Failure Brings Enough Guilt To Derail Most People
One of the weirdest, shittiest lessons we learn growing up is that failure means you did something wrong. If a company goes out of business, or a person loses their job, or a society collapses, it must mean mistakes were made -- natural selection at work. Who cares that the company failed because it was bankrupted by a phony patent lawsuit, or that the employee lost their job because the boss wanted his girlfriend to have it, or that the extinct society was buried by a volcano they had no way of knowing was even there? We have to believe they fucked up along the way, or else that would mean that maybe the Universe isn't fair, and that undeserved catastrophe could strike even us.
So every one of those type-A businesspeople out there can vividly remember the first time they did everything exactly right and still ate shit. It's crushing, because that's something that would never happen in a movie or a video game -- if you make the right choices, you win. Right?
Not in real life, bucko. Now, a normal, sensitive person really struggles to internalize this. To watch your marriage or business or project fail, to see other people suffer -- you're so sure it has to be something you did (or failed to do) that the guilt wrecks you, plants you on the sofa. It's better if you don't try again, because clearly you're not cut out for it. But ...
"Winners" Find Ways To Silence That Guilt
You know that thing rappers do where they all have multiple songs about how the haters doubted them and now they've shown them all? Even if they've literally been successful since they were teenagers? Looking back, I highly doubt Dr. Dre's statement that "Now all I get is hate mail all day sayin' Dre fell off." I doubt he got any hate mail, let alone enough that his local post office was forced to do additional deliveries throughout the day to keep up. What is more likely is that Dre heard vague rumors of a single hater somewhere, and multiplied that opinion many times over until he perceived that's what "everybody out there" was saying. Why? Because those are the doubts he has about himself. The voices were coming from inside his own skull all along.
Well, you know their coping mechanism, because they tend to put it into song form: a brash assault on those who dared doubt. Making the threat external instead of internal, so that it's out there where they can attack it. This is not the only way to deal with self-doubt, or even the healthiest way. It's probably not healthy at all, in fact. But it does work, and not just for rappers.
"Perseverance" Is Often Driven By Ugly Impulses
Here's another universal truth that they don't stitch onto pillows: Sometimes vices can cancel each other out. Somewhere out there are bloodthirsty psychopaths who never killed anybody because they were just too lazy. There are people in your life who hate you, but would never confront you because they're cowards. There are others who wish they could lie to you, but know from experience that they're bad at it.
That means that when you encounter a really nasty character trait in somebody, you're actually seeing a tool that has saved their ass in other contexts, kind of like seeing someone eat soup out of a plunger. For example, old people love to lecture millennials about their ugly sense of "entitlement," but every successful person believes they're entitled to what they have. They couldn't succeed without that belief.
The posters on the wall at the gym will tell you that hard work pays off, but once again, the people who internalize that often do it in a shitty way. "I'm owed this reward. I'm entitled to it." As a nice person, you may feel bad that you have a heated apartment while the homeless freeze. Not this guy -- he knows that we live in a Universe in which that homeless person must have screwed up along the way, or else they wouldn't be homeless.
These kinds of people don't persevere because they're optimistic about the future; they do it because they're sure that the Universe is a machine designed to produce rewards only for them, and which requires payment in sweat.
You Can Be Successful Without Selling Your Soul ... But Selling Your Soul Definitely Makes It Easier
Obviously, there are plenty of successful people out there who aren't walking YouTube comments. We've carefully picked a lot of polite but driven people to run Cracked, for example. But the whole reason I treasure those people is that I know how rare they are. Do you dearly love your family and loathe being away? Guess what: You're going to be competing against some heartless machine who grinds day and night, abandoning loved ones without a backward glance. In the movies, it always ends badly for that person. The seductive dark side can make you powerful, they say, but in the end the jerks always gets toppled by their own hubris. In real life, those people often live long, happy lives, and in their 70s become president (yes, all of them).
We try to teach kids that being sensitive and kind is its own reward, that it may mean sacrificing wealth in favor of true riches. But then the veterinarian who deeply loves animals realizes that love actually inhibits them -- the emotional toll of even one failed surgery makes them scared to take the right risks later. Meanwhile, the arrogant, animal-hating prick across town can stitch up hurt bunnies with one hand while also getting a blowjob from his secretary. Your noble dream may be achieved by some other smirking asshole who's driven only by a burning desire for money, accolades, and nasty office sex.
To get ahead, you don't have to be a piece of shit, but you do have to gain the piece of shit's ability to shrug off failure. And you may never be as good at that as they are.
Next time on Why Are People Such Shitheads? I'll be answering the question: "Why are people such rage-filled assholes these days?" I would have written these all at the same time, but things have been a bit crazy around here.
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