It’s 7:30 am, and my alarm rings. The first thing I do is blindly feel my bedside table for my phone (knocking half a dozen books off the table in the process), slide to unlock, and then graze through my Facebook notifications to see how many people “liked” the photo I posted the previous night.
Admit it – we’ve all felt it. The satisfaction of seeing “Person X and 49 other people liked your photo” might be incredibly short-lived, but it’s indicative of our innate desire for recognition. This desire for recognition existed far before the proliferation of social media – humans have always craved the acknowledgement of their worth or status by other human beings.
As adolescents on the cusp of adulthood, the struggle for recognition seems particularly pertinent at this stage of our lives as we endeavor to define and distinguish ourselves. What do I stand for? Why do what I do? Identifying our own motives is easier said than done, because we’re prone to thinking the better of ourselves. Cue declarations like: “I’m volunteering in Zambia this summer because I really want to help the less privileged,” or, “I’m studying to become a doctor/lawyer because I want to save lives,” etc. No doubt, there is some measure of sincerity and truth in these statements, but one does wonder if people do things solely for these reasons. After all there exists more self-serving motives – whether to boost that CV, get that pat on the back, or to earn the awe and admiration of parents, teachers, friends…
How does one distinguish between doing something for its own sake, and doing something simply for recognition?
I think in most cases it’s rarely one or the other. Our motivations rest on a nuanced continuum, somewhere between doing something for its own sake and doing something for recognition. It’s difficult to identify where exactly we operate on that continuum. This is an issue we face in everything we do – it’s important for us to be aware of the nature of our motivations, because they are the driving forces that shape our actions.
In the 5.05%
One of the things that bothered me the most back in high school was the extent to which academic grades influenced people’s perception of their peers. As a high-achieving student, I was lucky to be on the receiving end of the positive praise and recognition, but saw the demoralizing and debilitating effect this constant comparison had on some of my friends. I remember having a hard time coming to terms with what my school called the “high-flyer club” – every few months they would hold an assembly, displaying the names and grade point averages of everyone in my cohort that had an average above 6.0 (The maximum was 7.0). My young, idealistic self thought this practice was inconsistent with my school’s belief in emphasizing a holistic education above sole academic measures of success. Disillusioned, I had sought out my teachers, and they explained to me that the idea behind the practice was to give well-deserved recognition to hardworking students.
This made sense to me, but it didn’t feel quite right. What I failed to realize at the time was how much this attested to key problem of the struggle for recognition. The issue with the struggle for recognition, as Professor Francis Fukuyama points out, is that the conflict is zero sum rather than positive sum. In other words, one person’s recognition only comes at the expense of someone else’s dignity: status is relative.
And yet, recognition of achievement is something we generally regard as positive. Students shouldn’t have to hide their achievements for fear of demoralizing their peers – in fact, shouldn’t their friends feel happy for them and be motivated to do better? Isn’t it possible for us to have a win-win situation when it comes to awarding recognition? I would like to hope so, but unfortunately this just isn’t the case most of the time.
The problem gets worse when it comes to college admissions, where the conflict is inevitably (near) zero sum – each competitive college has a limited number of spaces, so for every person who is admitted to a particular university, another (or dozens of others, depending on the acceptance rate) is denied a place. “Acceptance,” a short film trending on Facebook right now, brings across the harshness of the college admissions rat race. It’s a story about a student who lies about getting into Harvard to gain the admiration and awe of his friends and teachers, as well as social recognition and acceptance. Having gotten past this stage of college admissions and having been fortunate enough to get into one of the “holy-grail” universities, I inevitably feel detached from the emotions and tribulations depicted in the movie. It simply isn’t my struggle anymore – no more worrying about SATs, Common App essays, or ridiculously low college acceptance rates. In fact, my cohortmates are fiercely proud of our admission statistics: “Lowest acceptance rate in the U.S at 5.05%! BEAT THAT HARVARD!” (Many variations of this have been featured on our cohort’s Facebook group & beyond.) Is it so wrong to derive satisfaction and pride from that?
The thing is, we’re the lucky ones – for every 100 people that applied, there were 95 that were declined a place. Universities go on a intense recruiting campaign every year, sending out flyers and other advertising material to try to get as many people to apply as possible, only to turn away the vast majority of applicants. Yet we take pride in that statistic. What we don’t intuitively realize is that our fulfillment is built on someone else’s disappointment. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of getting into a great university; boasting about a singular statistic is where the struggle for recognition rears its ugly head.
Status, in this case, is indeed relative.
My Ferrari is Better Than Your Lamborghini
Wealth has been a perennial indicator of status, and a means to attain social recognition. During the Tang Dynasty in China, female beauty was embodied by voluptuousness – a symbol of wealth. In a flagrant display of her wealth, Cleopatra once had a pearl dissolved in vinegar so that she could drink it. Although social norms regarding appropriate ways to display and recognize wealth may have morphed over time, this desire to attain recognition is still very much prevalent in contemporary society.
Ostentatious displays of wealth for the purpose of acquiring social status is what drives the unique behavior of “conspicuous consumption,” a term coined by 19th Century economist Thorstein Veblen. This behavior manifests itself in many different forms today, whether in the frenzied sales of branded bags, watches, cars, or even pigeons (yes, it’s true – a rich Chinese buyer bought a $200,000 racing pigeon at a Belgium auction in 2011). It’s a sad occurrence, but one that is increasingly common in Singapore as we experience economic growth and become more affluent as a nation. In the words of philosopher John Stuart Mill, goods are not bought solely for their use, but “as an appendage of station.” Think of Singapore’s notorious 5Cs (Car, Cash, Credit Card, Condominium, and Country club membership) – these things have become key determinants of human value. Materialistic consumption of economic goods is no longer an end in itself, but rather a means to an end – that is, social recognition.
It is Our Right and We Are Right
The issue of recognition has become more complex and stretches far beyond the self-centric pursuit of status (whether through academic merit, economic goods, or some other measure of social status), because humans seek recognition not only for individual gain, but also on behalf of collective communities. We see this in modern societies, as collective groups of people seek to highlight the various issues plaguing our society, such as the struggle for gay rights, gender and racial equality, or freedom of speech (think Singapore’s recent Amos Yee saga). There has been a recent surge in identity politics, large scale political movements “founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups.” Although these movements are fundamentally built upon worthwhile causes, like achieving equality or championing basic human rights, a short glance through comment sections on Facebook or news websites yields an alarming cacophony of sanctimonious voices. Increasingly, the discussion has become less of a dialogue and more a war of words, with different parties exchanging harsh, inflexible judgments and unwilling to accept the others’ views.
In some sense, this polarization and stratification of opinion is a product of the primal struggle for recognition. Moderation and acceptance has never been part of the recipe for attaining recognition – the struggle for recognition calls for loud, resounding statements to catch the attention of the majority. But that’s a problem. Take, for example, feminist rights – when taken to extremes (eg. slamming Disney for their portrayal of Disney princesses or showing 12-year-olds photos of men wearing lingerie in provocative poses just to prove a point), these actions only serve to alienate the majority of the population. As someone who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, it pains me to see the word “feminism” take on a pejorative meaning. Don’t get me wrong; females should achieve equal status as men. In my view, however, feminism should be centered on reaching a mutual understanding and appreciation of different opinions (whether male or female), celebrating our rights, rather than asserting them by closing our minds to other people.
Another contentious topic that has been trending of late is that of LGBT rights. The recent Supreme Court ruling (declaring that marriage equality should be legal in all 50 states under the 14th Amendment) triggered a frenzy of news columns and blog posts, dichotomous in their vitriolic denunciations and resounding approvals. With everyone weighing in on the issue, there’s hardly reason for me to throw my opinion into the mix (I’m sure there’s someone out there that has adequately expressed a view similar to mine). What I’d like to point out, however, is the frighteningly pervasive intolerance that characterizes these debates. In the past, it was the LGBT community that was unreasonably and harshly marginalized; now we see this phenomenon on both sides, whether amongst the traditionally “conservative” or “liberal.” As someone with a largely liberal group of friends, I’ve seen my more conservative friends be unfairly and harshly lambasted on Facebook for politely expressing their support for the traditional one man-one woman union. They’re often labelled “bigoted” and “stupid for believing in the Bible,” and told to “keep [their] opinions to [themselves].” Despite being personally supportive of gay marriage (I believe the Christian church and/or religion should have no role in deciding what constitutes marriage in a secular state), I think it’s just as unfair to lash out against Christians for expressing their opinions as it is to criticize LGBT supporters for having different views. We all need to understand that not everything entails a Manichean choice between right and wrong. And this is hard to achieve, especially in pluralistic societies where everyone is struggling to attain recognition for one belief or another. It’s easier to make a strong, inflexible stand than to attempt to reach a mutual understanding; and so, in our haste to propound what we think is indisputably right, we often fail to understand and appreciate the diverse opinions of others.
The desire for recognition is fundamentally ingrained in our social and biological roots: the need for social affirmation is integral to being human. I just hope that in this very human pursuit for recognition, we don’t forget another (perhaps more important) aspect of being human – the ability to empathize with people different to ourselves.
It is then, and only then, that the world can become a less callous and more harmonious place.
 Fukuyama, F. (2011). The Origins of Political Order. London: Profile Books Ltd.
 Zou, M.-X. (2008). On Taking Plump as Beautiful in Traditional Chinese Painting of Beautiful Women in Tang Dynasty. Shaanxi: Tangdu Journal 2.
 Ullman, B. L. (1957). Cleopatra’s Pearls. The Classical Journal. Volume 52 (5), pp. 193-201.
 Mill, J. S. (1909). Principles of Political Economy with some of their Applications to Social Philosophy (7th edition ed.). (e. W.J. Ashley, Ed.) London: Longmans, Green and Co.
 Heyes, Cressida. (2014). “Identity Politics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/identity-politics/>.
(The title for this post was inspired by the eponymous section in Stanford professor’s Francis Fukuyama’s book, “The Origins of Political Order.” Although my thoughts on the topic stray from Prof. Fukuyama’s political focus, his words still very much resonate with me. The more I thought about it, the more it became apparent that the struggle for recognition underlies many of today’s issues.)