When I was a kid I liked to rank things. I got a lot of pleasure arbitrarily passing judgment on the things that entertained me, such as pop stars, cars and sports teams. My rankings, which I gave absolute authority in a special notebook, were not based on anything other than a subjective preference for one thing over another, that could and would change on a whim. Psychologists would probably say it was a way to exert power over an environment shared with parents where I had little power. All I know is I was an expert in anything I desired to rank.
I played a game with my toy cars. I would rank them, and then I would race them, using dice to determine how many moves each car would make on a track I created for the race. You would think the random numbered results I’d get from the dice would be reflected in a random movement of the cars along the track, but I discovered, because of small arbitrary choices I would make for the cars I liked, that those cars would eventually win the race. My favorite, and the inevitable winner, was a 1966 white Lincoln Continental convertible with a red interior. Amazing! Some cars are just better than others! I wanted them to win, so they did.
I assumed, because I was a kid, that was the way one judged the world and that was how things would inevitably turn out. The things or people you liked were generally going to do better in the world than the things or people you didn’t like. I was a powerful child.
I had known the term “pecking order,” and understood it to be a description of hierarchical behavior, but it wasn’t until I Googled it that I came across Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe. He was a psychologist and zoologist, appropriately enough, who observed that chickens have a pecking order when they eat that determines each chicken’s place in a dominance hierarchy. We watch animals and see they display dominant and submissive behavior and we conclude that’s a natural state of affairs for humans, because, after all, we’re animals, aren’t we? Aren’t we?
Now, keep in mind there’s a fundamental difference between actually displaying these tendencies, such as pushing someone out of the way so you can be first, which is common behavior in many humans, as opposed to observing who is likely to be the alpha, and then pointing out the alpha to all who will listen and hopefully approve, and which person is the beta, and so on. The person perceived to be the omega is, understandably, quite put out. The omega chicken, on the other hand, could raise a ruckus and even attack the gamma to make a point. In the head to head competition the omega could become the new gamma, pushing all the hens down a notch. Now that’s what I call climbing the ladder! Yes! There is social mobility in America! However, what if the other hens begrudged the social climber and concluded, despite the head to head contest, the original gamma should remain the gamma, thereby preserving everyone’s place in the pecking order? Politics.
Although we Americans have a long cultural tradition, Judeo-Christian I presume, of promoting sharing and unselfishness, particularly in our children, the irony is that we frequently reward those who demand or beg our attention by giving them attention. Who can forget one of the most famous fools of all time, Paris?
In Greek mythology the Trojan War was the result of an idiot ranking the beauty of goddesses. At a wedding, at which Eris, the goddess of discord, had not been invited, because, you know, she’s always stirring the pot, all the other gods are having a great time partying with their ambrosia and manna. So Eris shows up and throws a golden apple, or should we say chickenfeed, in the midst of the festivities, to be given “to the fairest.” Let the pecking begin!
Do you see shades of “Sleeping Beauty” in this? Mirror, mirror on the wall… Hera, Athena and Aphrodite all want the apple so Zeus declares the Prince of Troy, Paris, must choose which goddess should be first in beauty. The three goddesses appear before Paris, give him the lowdown, and each offer him bribes. Hera promises to make him a king. Athena says she'll give him victory in war. Aphrodite says she’ll give him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, who unfortunately for Paris, happens to married at the time to a Greek king. Thus begins the Trojan War, culminating in a Trojan Horse, and serving as a moral warning about adultery, and choosing something as fleeting as beauty. Paris could easily have been wise and declared all were equally fair, and no doubt would have received nothing, but the Greeks wouldn’t have attacked his home. Translated into Judeo-Christian terms, “thou shalt not covet,” especially your neighbor’s wife. However, an 11th Commandment might have helped generations of class-conscious casualties of the bourgeoisie, “thou shalt not rank things.”
In my weekly rankings I actually had Grand Funk Railroad higher than Led Zeppelin but only for a week. I must give myself credit, though, for not trying to convince myself that my rankings were based on anything but my own selfish desire. I had no delusions that my notebook of rankings, no doubt similar to Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women,” mattered to anyone but myself, that my judgments would be shared by anyone else. I did argue with my friends who thought Kiss was better than Black Sabbath. And of course it felt good when the cool kids agreed with me. We revel in the idea that something we appreciate is also “liked” by others, especially others higher in the pecking order. We love to win! Yay, winning! But no matter how much we gussy it up with awards and red carpets and bowl games, underneath it all is the stench of the barnyard and the fretting of hens. Peck. Peck. Peck.
Ah, class! We may not have the power to rise in the arbitrary hierarchical order, but we can certainly judge others who do so. We do it often. We rank sports teams and celebrities. We rank universities. If we work at “Rolling Stone” we rank everything, and that should tell you something about the magazine’s target demographic. We rank restaurants and our closest friends. Social media lets us play that game with all our friends, classifying them, putting them in an order. Is your “best” friend this year the same as your “best” friend last year? When we were kids, adults would ask us our favorite color and we were certain we knew the truth. Now, as adults, do we really not appreciate equally all the colors we experience? Seriously, I wish there were more. I want that great big Crayon box with shades of blue and red and yellow. If we choose a blue car over a red one, do we inherently love blue or hate red? Probably not, unless it’s political. So I post a photo of my new blue car on Facebook and I get a lot of “likes” from Democrats and none from Republicans! WTF?
We all discriminate. It’s important to do so. I’m talking about making the choices, the judgments, that give us the lives we’ve created. We judge not to be friends with a certain person because that person is self-destructive. We judge the Pad Thai at that restaurant to be the best we’ve had. We judge our brother is probably lying when blaming our sister for the broken window. It takes years to develop a successful discriminatory attitude based on many factors. If we don’t learn well, if we’re isolated or uneducated, we choose to discriminate racially, sexually, or economically. Whatever virtue was initially intended for the Hindu caste system has resulted in oppression for those on the bottom. Plato’s Utopia also envisions classes of people all doing their part, but clearly, being a philosopher king would be the way to go. Is it any wonder part of the appeal of Christianity was the idea the earthly hierarchy does not rule in Heaven? Then, of course, the church created all sorts of hierarchies.
I question the idea that ranking things is fun, harmless and natural. Of course, many people actually make a living at it. Many people make a living at crime. Critics make a living ranking things. This one’s better than that one. That one’s better than the one over there. Who gave them the authority to do so? They just took it, apparently, like the feudal nobility all those centuries ago, feudal critics, and now they’re propped up by those who are insecure about their “refined” tastes who want them to say something nice about them or their work. Please, don't criticize me! Who’s more badass? Jason Statham or John Cena? Have you seen Keanu Reeves in those Wick films? Huh, hello, The Matrix! Who’s funnier, Amy Poehler, Kristin Wiig or Amy Schumer? Duh, Melissa McCarthy! Who should win the Oscar? Whom we like most. Sally Field accepts her Oscar, "I can't deny the fact you like me. Right now. You like me."
The most obnoxious ranking system is college sports. Ranking college sports teams apparently makes those ranking them feel as if they actually know what they’re talking about. If you’re in the bar arguing statistics over a few beers, or asking those speculative questions like, “Would Muhammad Ali beat Leon Spinks,” that’s all good fun, but if you’re one of the AP voters trying to determine if Notre Dame is better than USC that year, you’re probably getting paid to talk out of your ass.
The most beautiful thing about sports is the competition between teams, not the competition between prognosticators. One team wins, the other loses, ideally. That’s the point. The team that wins is better than the one that loses, at least on that day. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Just like when I had my favorite cars I tended to see them winning most of the time because I cut them breaks. Omega might have beaten gamma but now all the other Greek hens are shunning her. So long as biased voters rank college teams we will never truly know which team is better unless they actually play each other. I love how they think a computer changes the argument. We have data! One of the most beautiful spectacles is March Madness. Granted, teams must be ranked to get into that competition, but once in, it’s win or die. Pure competition is wonderful. Ranking is too prone to corruption, especially when those who do the predicting have made a full-blown industry out of it.
Have you figured out the Ivy League will never not be at the top of the University Rankings? How long has that been going on? Since we stopped fawning over Oxford and Cambridge? Watch out! Those California schools might one day topple the Ivies! It’s East Coast vs. West Coast! We have data! We have a formula! We have a system! There’s reputation, after all! You’re going to tell me Princeton is better than Harvard which is better than Yale? Is Penn really better than Penn State? I guarantee you the connections are probably better at the private schools. Does that figure into the formula?
I got into an argument once with an English Marxist who said we are all born into a political system and we are oppressed from the moment we emerge from the womb. I was thinking we were probably oppressed before that. I mean, talk about dependence! I gave him the American argument that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. I said because he was English he wouldn't understand. He asked what I meant by creator and I said God, of course. And he said I was insane. Give Marx credit for pointing out the fact the upper classes have been screwing over the working classes once some caveman got enough sense to put others to work for him. Historically, though, all that ideology did was justify another class of oppressive authoritarians. It would be easy to dismiss the Declaration Of Independence as a quaint historical relic rather than a living idea. The idea that all men, and women, are created equal is an idea worth fighting for.
We may have fun ranking our celebrities and fawning over the English royal family and basking in the glow of our University's Top 25 ranking and feel smart when we are proven right about that particular college team's chances to win the Rose Bowl, considering they were overrated in the first place by anybody who went to school there. In the end our judgments about each other's value in our order only perpetuates the fowl hierarchy.