Sadists Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Written by Lionel Tiger on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

It’s good it’s
gone. People will no longer visit to watch people being hurt or to take a hit
themselves. It was a completely unsavory commercial enterprise we are well without.
Here comes the neighborhood.

But what’s a socially
responsible sadist to do now for New York fun? The perfect solution: don’t
tell people your job at parties.

Since New York is a company
town and the company is the world, it drives the locals mad if they do
not know exactly where you fit into the dynamic scheme of comparative status.
This is especially cruel at sit-down dinners, where there may be no opportunity
for conversation except with the dieter to your right or your left (you are
very unlikely to be invited to a dinner party if you are not a dieter). If they
don’t know who you are because you twirl in different circles, the question
"What do you do?" is far more likely to be their opening line than
"Pass the sourdough/salt/Tabasco."

Not knowing your fellow-diner’s
job generates a taut operational panic. How can he be placed in the broad system
of power, money and access to restaurants for famous dieters if his job description
is unavailable? Is it necessary to treat the chap on the left as if he were
a dimwit second cousin requiring only a set of courteously condescending comments?
Or could the gal on the right actually be Richard Gere’s publicist and
thus a potential source of access to gatherings of startlingly famous people?

However egalitarian a community
may be, it appears to be vital that its members have some quick and ready way
of evaluating status. Among other animals there are a variety of postures and
gestures that translate rapidly into "I am dominant to you" or "I
acknowledge your wondrousness." In one species of Brazilian monkey, only
the dominant male of a group has a florid red face, whereas his subordinates
come in plain brown wrappers. Since reproductive competition among chimpanzee
males has a great deal to do with how plentifully they produce spermatozoa and
therefore how ample are their testicles, when male chimps first meet, in order
to assess their respective status (don’t try this at home) a common greeting
is to cradle the other lad’s testicles to evaluate his equipment.

Among humans at parties,
"What do you do?" may have to suffice. Of course, there are countless
clues to general status on the hoof: shininess and clip of hair, size of body
and its shape, quality of wool in the suit, silky discretion of the tie, adventurousness
of the decolletage, down-home earnestness of the L.L. Bean plaid, Timberland
or Manolos. Nevertheless, even good clues can only provide an approximate status
fix. It is really necessary to know exactly where the fellow-partygoer stands,
or sits. In groups where individuals reflect large forces–for example,
in diplomacy or government–people become Your Excellency or Madame Minister
or Mister Ambassador. The representatives of large and small or weak or potent
countries are able to coexist in the same setting because their links are greased
with honorifics that appear to have stood the test of often-turbulent time.
The fiction of common status works.

In societies with exquisite
passion about status, Japan especially, the uncertainty of "What do you
do?" is addressed directly with business cards that are presented instantly,
at first meeting. They provide detailed information about where the individual
works–the first marker–and then the second, the status of the job.
It is vital. When I was in Japan years ago, the only cards I had were about
twice as large as usual and had just my name on them–they were useful for
very brief messages, before the days of e-mail. But I realized rapidly that
it was merely sadism to provide them in Japan, since they produced a fury of

One of the most durable
of new social forms is the meeting or convention. I have been to hundreds and,
with only a meager overlap in style or form, each one provides a name tag so
the tense question "What do you do?" is answered by a glance just
below the left collarbone. Even if you don’t know the human name on the
tag, usually the institutional information is sufficient to permit the tacit
negotiation to begin about status. And if you also know the person who is named,
then there is a broad alleyway of conversation that is immediately opened if
you’re interested. Or silence: When I used to write unpopular books, or
at least books many anthropologists for foolish or just politically correct
reasons disagreed with, when I’d go into an elevator during professional
meetings often people would stop talking. But the name tag is a vital contemporary
answer to The Question, because there are too many strangers in the world whose
identities must be uncovered. And just that small amount of information on the
tag lets the world go round.

In the rather glorious new
Beatles Anthology, the Four provide some quizzical self-analysis about
their fame, what it meant to them and how it coerced their lives. When they
did city concerts in America, they had to travel in armored trucks from Wells
Fargo. They were the prey of hunting packs. People attending their concerts
screamed so loudly and chronically that no one could hear any music at all.
And they describe their mounting astonishment at being celebrities, their irritation
with endless attention, and a curious sense of philosophical malaise that so
many of their fellow human beings would succumb so flagrantly to the notion
that they were beings separate from and unequal to everyone else. Anonymity
became a privilege they couldn’t enjoy–but at least no one had to
ask them "What do you do?"

Once I got a droll joke
from answering the question. I had the good luck to be seated next to Saul Steinberg,
the cartoonist/artist, at a chatty dinner. I had recently acquired his remarkable
book The Passport, which was a fierce and brilliant evocation in line
drawings of bureaucrats, fascists, paper-pushing pettiness-masters. I told him
how much I admired it and went on about it a few moments. At that point, he
suddenly became interested in me, clearly an advanced connoisseur.

"And what do you do?"
he asked.

"I’m an anthropologist."

"That’s a good