Fetish can be defined as “a part standing for the whole” or “one thing being made bigger than it is by having become a psychological fixation.”
A good example of what I mean is pornography. Insofar as a mere image can stand for or replace instinctual sexual objectives, it is a fetish.
A sign (pornographic image) is as strong or stronger than the animal instinct. Or a sign can direct or redirect the animal instinct. That is a fetish.
Secondary sex characteristics do the same thing. You could call them nature’s fetishes but that would be stretching the concept. Human utilizations of makeup, clothing, and grooming could be said to stand “halfway” between the basic sexual instinct and the fetishized porno image.
Let’s apply that reasoning to status.
Two social psychologist I respect—Jordan Peterson and Kevin MacDonald—have both claimed many times that status is a fundamental human instinct and that it drives human behavior in many ways.
In posts on this site, I have disagreed with these ideas several times. I just don’t see it that way. Here are two of those posts: Status and hierarchy are as fundamental to human life as murder and Jordan Peterson on the gender pay gap, campus protests and the patriarchy.
In the second link just above, I said:
…I do not believe that social status is any more fundamental to human nature than murder is. Humans also possess reason and spiritual inclinations both of which can guide us away from status competition if we decide to do that and/or our conditions allow.
I still think that but over the past day or two a new understanding of the importance of status and human hierarchy has dawned on me. In essence, I think I have come to see that status really is a huge deal for many people; a much bigger deal than I had ever realized.
My explanation for that is people like me (and there are many of us) during childhood and adolescence see the “status game” as a choice. And we decide not to play it.
My SO made that choice. When we talked about this subject this morning, she said people like us are more open to art (in a broad sense) and less concerned with social hierarchies. I think that’s true. One good friend years ago used to call me a “now person,” meaning I am always living in the here and now and not doing a lot of planning for the future. I think she also meant or implied that I am not doing any thinking about my social status or the human hierarchies that surround me.
A Buddhist nun who is a close friend has often described mundane human behaviors as being motivated by jealousy. I have often disagreed with her, believing that her emphasis on jealousy was influenced too much by her culture (Chinese) or by the innocence of her monastic lifestyle.
Today, I think she was influenced by the status-conscious world she had grown up in and as a young adult renounced for Buddhism. But I also think she was able to see something I have been almost completely blind to. For me status has always been a very small cloud on the edge of the sky, not a major thunderstorm in human motivation. For her it is, or was, a storm in the human mind.
Status is a fetish. And fetishization does explain a lot about it. But if lots of people have that fetish or have that strong understanding of status, that’s how it is. As a social construct the status fetish can be even bigger and more imposing than the basic instinct it rests upon.
I hope this post helps people who see status as important understand people like me and my SO, and vice versa.
From a Buddhist point of view, I think it is important to fully understand the entire status spectrum—from instinct to fetishized sign—and to understand where you are on that spectrum and where the people you deal with are on that spectrum.
My guess is that most people reading this blog do not think of status as being very important. People like us need to appreciate that status is probably largely what motivates good people like Jordan Peterson as well as bad people like Bernie Madoff.
Might also be good if status-conscious people would understand that people like us are not all slackers or losers, nor are we seething with envy over your status. We simply do not even see the game you are playing. We do other stuff like become monastics or perform ordinary tasks cheerfully and without complaint.