IN THE EARLY NINETEEN SIXTIES , an enterprising young scientist named Jane Goodall ventured into the jungled hills flanking Lake Tanganyika to spearhead a primatological study of Chimpanzees. Living within a troop, Goodall eschewed the formal traditions of scientific study and opted for names instead of numbers, donating close attention to the personalities and quirks of the individual chimpanzees. Within the scope of this more personal observation of our closest relatives, she discovered that Chimpanzee’s had enormously complex and vast social customs and relationships, that they would often employ tools to aid their survival (until then thought unique only to humans) and that like us, they are capable of “rational thought and emotions like joy and sorrow”. Through her study, the Chimpanzee was elevated to a level of understanding that helped us understand the roots of our own social behaviour and identity. Beyond the complexities of being human, the chimpanzee was the face that stared back in the mirror.
But not all of her findings were as comforting.
Alongside their elations of joy and love, Chimpanzees were prone to acts of murder and sadism, often for the cause of dominance, either over their peers or another troop. Goodall observed that female matriarchs would frequently murder and, disturbingly, cannibalise young females for no other reason other than to maintain their social dominance. The males, with a far more linear ladder of social dominance, played a game of cunning and oppression, where members used their wits and strength to climb to the seat of alpha male, or viciously maim and kill those who tried. Violence, it appeared, was as common to the chimpanzees as love, and that there was little that Chimps wouldn’t do to their own troop when it came to the pursuit of status.
Writing in her autobiography, Goodall noted “during the first ten years of the study I had believed […] that the Gombe chimpanzees were, for the most part, rather nicer than human beings. […] Then suddenly we found that chimpanzees could be brutal—that they, like us, had a darker side to their nature.”
Like our Chimpanzee relatives, status plays an enormous role in our lives. No doubt that in your own life you have found yourself sat within some level of social ordering, and perhaps uncomfortably, found a lack of respect directed towards you that you feel is unjust. However, within the structure of ordered society, this problem of respect and status cannot be solved through violence and the uncomfortable animal anger you feel towards your position is left with nowhere to go. Vented through a passive aggressive comment, and withheld through pathetic submission, your savage urges are wished away.
Human respect poses a conundrum that cannot be solved through a fist alone. Whilst socially deprived neighbourhoods may find the barrel of a gun a fine instrument of status, your life will doubtful welcome the same solution – but trapped in the game of human social ordering and disrespect, what are you to do? Without the freedom of your more vicious impulses, how can this problem be solved?
The answer lies in the complexity of human respect itself.
Violence, nature’s malformed tool for power does not govern the status of those within the bounds of a developed society. Whilst it can impose itself in times of social unrest or crime, it sits within the periphery, reserved for the psychopathic and antisocial. In your own life, respect and social elevation exist within the embrace of the sheer variety of human activity. And this complexity offers a straightforward, albeit challenging climb.
Respect, you’ll find, is reserved for those who do the things you can’t. Those who shy from confrontation respect the bold and aggressive. Those who stumble with the opposite sex respect those with confidence and sexual charisma. The anatomy of human respect is divided between skill and the ability to tackle our own fears. The former is impressive, the latter, masterful.
Within a collective activity, like for instance, a sport – the most skilled is the most impressive. This is, within that micro-culture, a demonstration of status and worthy respect. Skills, therefore, of any kind lend themselves to status and respect, which are both needs you and I are going to want to pursue. However, skills are secondary tools to meet these needs and falter before the looming presence of fears and anxieties.
Imagine someone who was talented at football, but also rather worthless at confrontation, socially supplicating and anxious, and crippled by the opposite sex. Despite this individual’s talent in a certain field, they would often find themselves inserted into social groups at a certain level, and in turn offered respect only in the context of football. Given human beings nature as a social animal, it is only natural that those who can master those elements can glide through the rungs of status. A shallow truth, but a truth none the less.
This is why anxious people find it so hard to get respect. All the books on boundary setting and self-confidence are empty prayers if you cannot do anything that people struggle to do. This is an uncomfortable reality, but a necessary one – a reality of our social hierarchy that actively, by its nature, motivates us to push the boundaries of what we think we’re capable of and expand what we achieve. As Joseph Campbell said, the cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek. If you want more respect for yourself and from others, then you have to start doing the things you don’t believe you can, and that other people shy away and hide from.
Now, you’ll probably feel a pang of fright at the thought that the thing you don’t want to do is in fact, the exact thing you have to do. But the spectrum of social respect and status is actually, once skill has been stripped away, a narrow and linear climb. When you’re taking the first step towards confrontation, towards the object of social or sexual anxiety, and others are peeling off or slow to act, you’ll find that the conundrum of respect is less microprocessor complex and more on-off switch.