I’ve never been one for awards and medals – I sussed out the scam while a mere lad at school. After penning a superlative account of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s return from exile in France, I was awarded a coveted gold star. Emerging triumphant and euphoric from the headmaster’s office, I encountered the class dunderhead – crayoned swirly mayhem in hand and brow stained by anticipatory perspiration – en route to be gold-starred for ‘effort’.
That pile of turd wasn’t even going on her Mum’s fridge.
It crushed me momentarily. A bag of sweeties for trying, no problem. Give them some sort of alternative recognition. But not the gold star. Never conflate excellence with having ‘a good go’. And my slitty eyes were opened henceforth.
And in whatever context in the adult world, the backslapping continues. Awards, medals, you name it.
They are very often bestowed in anticipation of reciprocity; you scratch my back and we’ll all make each other look good.
Others pay for prestige either for themselves or for others who will reward them in turn. Companies prioritise the attainment of the ‘Best Work’ glass shield, or whatever mass-produced plaque is proffered, over and above their customers and services. That’s the value of empty approbation for some.
There are however many more reasons though why some receive honours and awards. Other than the gratuitous confidence boost, elevation of the favoured is a primary driver. Look at our last General Election. MPs being voted out by the electorate, shit at their jobs, car-crash interviews, and they’re in line for a seat in the Lords, a retained cabinet position and a £305 a day attendance allowance plus travel expenses and subsidised meals for life.
Have a gold star.
It’s not just in the UK though. Germans love a doctorate, they really do. They also like inserting a ‘von’ before their surname and in an instant are transformed from the son of a Stuttgart sausage factory worker to a member of the Prussian aristocracy.
There are also lower-level ways that people give themselves a little upward momentum. People called ‘Smith’ change the spelling to Smyth, or Smythe, or hyphenate their middle name with the Smith. So, you get John Peter-Smith, instead of plain old Mr John Smith. Every little helps for a subtle boost to one’s stature or self-esteem.
Some years ago, a few German MPs had their PhDs revoked after wily academics sussed that they’d cut-and-pasted huge parts from other works posted online. One of them was a chap carrying the surname, von und zu Guttenberg (descending from and resident at Guttenberg) who was accordingly nicknamed ‘Von Googleburg’ by the press. And who can forget the 10th-degree Red belt who got an MBE for services to karate? Even more highly qualified than Bruce Lee and nobody in the Karate fraternity had ever heard of him. As far as I know, he’s still wearing it – presumably to stop his Gi – and everything else – from unravelling. They should validate it by arranging a tear-up between him and Chuck Norris and see how he fares.
The press doesn’t help either, clamouring for awards for athletes returning with medals from sports events. Whether they are truly advocating the awards, filling column inches, or have been sucked into seeking some sort of equilibrium between actual recipients and their peers, who knows. My money’s on a combination of the final two because any sane person knows that the process is largely a ‘preposterous charade’, the author J G Ballard once noted.
For many wannabe recipients, it will simply be about entitlement. If an honour signals status, they’ll feel it’s theirs by right. They won’t even make the connection between the medal and any form of achievement. And make no mistake, receiving an honour is rarely a pleasant surprise. Hordes of so-called stars lobby extensively for medals, then throw almighty strops when they have to make do with one that is ranked lower than their preferred order of chivalry. There are even consultancy firms who specialise in the nomination process. I mean why would anyone expect a medal from the Queen after winning Olympic Gold? The gold medal was your medal, wasn’t it?
It comes to something when even an Olympic gold is not enough. For these people, the world is not enough.
Some potential recipients do turn them down though, and for a variety of reasons. The imperialistic connotations of specific awards like the British Empire Medal or MBEs/OBEs is a big turn-off and I am in accordance with that perspective. Others presumably turn up their noses because they just think they’re bullshit and don’t need or want the acknowledgment of those they do not respect. The film director Michael Winner turned down an MBE as something they give to ‘people who clean toilets’. Well, he would have known all about shite. Who remembers the ‘intimidating’ punk rockers in Death Wish 3?
One critique of gong-fests is that many recipients have just been doing their job, but there is a very clear rationale for why these kinds of rewards are doled out. Jobs in government and elevated positions in industry involve access to sensitive information. For an unblemished service record, the promise of a medal can keep people on the straight-and-narrow for the largest part of their career. And once they’ve got one, they then have to continue to toe the line or risk losing it. After all, the bigger you are the harder you fall. Sir Peter X, doesn’t want to have to revert to being plain old Mr X. Some just find it much better to not have to be in hock to the establishment for the rest of their lives
Over and above those who chase, accept or refuse, you have another rather weird group who take them albeit self-consciously. Like those in receipt of a knighthood who try for practical reasons to play it down by making it known that he doesn’t like to use the title ‘Sir’. You’d have to conclude that it’s false modesty because none of them seem to be asking for the honour to be revoked or replaced with one not carrying the honorific. Alternatively, the ‘refusal to use’ strategy may be more closely associated with the rather quaint convention of hospital consultant surgeons being termed ‘Mr’ rather than ‘Dr’.
What could be more hilariously self-consciously pretentious than having the title, deliberately not using it but still keeping it? It’s having the honorific cake and eating it, with a big old von Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte Jerry cherry on top.
Isn’t the whole honours and awards chasing caper all rather tragic? Is it not as demeaning as the medal-chasers believe it to be a source distinction? To spend all that time, energy, and angst in chasing approbation and then to peacock it, without realising that it reflects something other than what it purports to reflect. Like the patronage of others, a bargain between parties, or the meeting of criteria for a 2-page recommendation?
Perhaps they do realise it but think that we don’t. If true, then that’s off-the-scale tragic irony.
They say that 10,000 hours applied to an endeavour makes a master of anybody at anything. If you want to be truly respected and appreciated, that’s time well spent in the quest for excellence. Real approbation should then follow. And if it didn’t, so what?
You’d still be an expert.unsplash-logoМарьян Блан | @marjanblan