Monday, March 28, 2011

Joel Best's "Everyone's a Winner"

Joel Best is Professor of Sociology at the University of Delaware and the author of Damned Lies and Statistics, More Damned Lies and Statistics, Flavor of the Month, and Stat-Spotting.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Everyone's a Winner: Life in Our Congratulatory Culture, and reported the following:
I like to tell people my book is about kindergarten soccer trophies. At the end of the season, each player on the team receives a trophy, so that by the time they reach third grade, lots of kids can cover the top of their dressers with awards for participating in sports. Of course, this is just the foot in the trophy-case door. We live in a an era of status affluence, in a congratulatory culture that must distribute tens–probably hundreds–of millions of awards, prizes, and honors each year.

My book seeks to explore the process of prize proliferation. It turns out that everyone favors more prizes, not just those liberals who insist that giving recognition to the disadvantaged can help build self esteem, but also those conservatives who argue that honoring excellence will foster better character. The result is a status cycle: giving more prizes to the hoi polloi justifies new honors to distinguish the elite; while honoring the elite leads to calls for more awards for ordinary folk.

Page 99 finds us in the middle of the chapter on heroes. Just as we’re distributing more trophies and naming more valedictorians, we are labeling more people as heroes. Page 99 offers some examples: Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address characterized Americans--“the citizens of this blessed land”–as heroes; Stephen Colbert uses the term to refer to his audience; and so on. If everyone is a hero, what should we call people who display extraordinary bravery? The word superhero is already taken.

We seem to have a marvelous ability to ignore status inflation. It is nice to be singled out for honors, but much of the satisfaction depends upon viewing the honor as special, and this requires ignoring the larger reality that more and more of us are receiving those honors.
Read an excerpt from Everyone's a Winner, and learn more about the book at the University of California Press website. Visit Joel Best's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue