China’s Reflection of America’s Growing Social Norm
When meritocracy meets shame.
“Ahh, a 4.7 ☆ rating,” the barista exclaims. “That keeps you in our gold standard for another year. Here’s a complimentary latte.”
I begin to walk to my table when I hear the sound no one enjoys hearing inside a cafe: splat.
Someone’s half-caff, steamed, mocha espresso is dripping down his pant suit.
“What the heck do you think you’re doing!” the angry customer yells.
The barista apologizes refusely, yet the man continues: “You’re pathetic. Can’t handle a si-mple coffee cup? You shouldn’t work here.”
Listening ears of customers leave behind their conversations, their textbooks and their early-morning tabloids to pull out their phones and point.
I can’t help but glance over with my phone to see what the damage is.
Geesh. Looks like that customer just dipped below 3.5.
This imagined scene is the every day for those living in the world of the season-three opening episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror. For those unaware, this series asks the question of what happens when the latest in technology interacts with human tendencies.
In the world above, social media and reality blur. Your rating influences perks like rentals and airline seats, and your real-life interactions alongside your curated digital life can enhance or detract from the rating.
As one who studies, follows and interacts daily with culture and media, I find the creators’ interpretation of the effects of social media ratings to be profound commentary. The characters of their world aren’t far removed from ours of taking pictures of coffee before its ever sipped — and maybe never enjoyed (unicorn frappuccino from Starbucks anyone?) — following celebrities with mentions hoping for a “hi” back (and getting poor advice from them to attend a certain festival in the Bahamas), and capturing moments with our phones but not with our minds so that those who don’t know us can take in what we aren’t taking in alongside those who actually know us.
So, it’s no wonder I took notice when my eyes caught the story of this not-too-far-removed-from-the-future reality meeting the present day.
For anyone in the US who has a credit card, you know the complicated nature of debts and actions related to loans that leads to the amalgamation of a credit score. There’s a system set-up with institutions to oversee. We never even bat an eye at the structures that dictate an ability to receive credit cards, loans and mortgages.
Well, China created their own system, known as a social credit score. It seeks to know who is trustworthy through a system where everyone starts at a rating of 1,000.
But, unlike the US system that scores based on interactions with loans and debts and soft/hard inquiries, the Chinese system incorporates not only buying patterns but interactions with others online or among neighbors (with apps and information collectors submitting reports to the government).
Seem to be lazy based on buying history, deduct some points. Yell at your neighbor, deduct some more points.
Now, before we say, “How could they?” let’s take a look at our own log-sized social norm hitting mainstream.
Between 2014 and 2017, Disney-owned Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, both directed by James Gunn, amassed a combined global box office gross of $1.6 billion in revenue. Not too shabby.
For American culture, that’s the mark of mastery. To do what you do well and gain global success and fame.
It’s what sociologists would call a meritocracy, first coined in 1956. Merriam-Webster defines this as a “a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.”¹
What doesn’t fit that system is what transpired in July 2018 when Disney fired him from directing the next film in the franchise, due to tweets uncovered by groups who disliked his outspoken critique of President Donald Trump. The tweets made offensive remarks to topics around pedophilia and rape.
Tweets from 2008. Actions that preceded his rise of talent.
An antithesis to the meritocracy.
It speaks to a growing trend of scapegoating, a behavior more reticent to honor-based cultures. In so doing, a group of people, when a wrong has been uncovered, place the shame on one individual and properly punish the person to restore honor.
In this case, the wrong of tweets from 2008 led to shame done by someone in contract with Disney. In order for Disney to remove the wrong, an apology was not enough. Gunn had to be fired to appease the social dissent from his former activities.
The proliferation of social media has enabled a reality any American high schooler knows of (peer pressure) to take on new forms. It is one where community opinion attributes value, on a mass scale.
This can be seen in the hype that preceded the fraudulent Fyre Festival where social media “influencers” added value to an event because of their backing. There was no “talent” or past record of those putting together the event that would lead one to consider it likely to succeed, but the community opinion did.
For many in Generation Z, it is not what they do in real life that shapes their value but how public opinion ascribes value to their curated, digitized form. It is the badges I earn on my Nike+ running app or Fitbit that I share in contrast with my social network, stemming less from what I have accomplished and more in the badges’ ability to receive honor by peers in my network.
FOMO (fear of missing out) is not originating so much from a value system of “doing” — in a historic, individualized sense of the word — but from what “doing” the community can be found participating.
On a sadder, more tragic angle, the shaming proliferated on social media of individual teenagers that lead to their suicide is self-inflicted scapegoating. In so doing, the peers say the shame of the group stems from the person’s dress, speech, weight, religion, et cetera.
So, American society sees suicides rather than honor killings. American society sees shame stemming from groups singling out an individual rather than an individual bringing an overabundance of negative (or positive in a socially unacceptable way) awareness to the group.
This is the power of a fluid, globalized world where nothing is so black-and-white. Case in point being that Gunn was reinstated in March 2019 to the next Guardians of the Galaxy film. His talent held some weight to continue his advance with the films.
But, it could also be said that his social rating was bolstered by peers positive “rating” of him with open letters and interviews. How far removed is that from China and its seeking after a system to quantify trustworthiness?
The answer we come up with depends on whether or not we have the lenses to better understand what drives these human interactions so that we can cultivate healthier environments that learn from one another.
Where much of the discussion on China’s social credit system has revolved around the systems being different from American credit systems, or the success of the program on social behavior, or the backlash from Americans at its implementation and coercion by the Chinese government in collecting persons data (Snowden anyone?), there hasn’t been as much discussion around culture.
In 2010, far before China officials began to seek its full implementation of the social credit system, I was introduced to a college student who imagined a world himself that was built around a score. He was passionate about volunteering, but he hated when people participated in volunteering and constantly used their phones or failed to interact with people they were serving alongside or, worse, signed-up and then decided to shop during the event.
So, he devised a scoring system. The more you did good, the higher your score. But swear. Go shopping. Serve for one hour instead of an entire day, and your score would look radically different from another person.
It helped him make sense of the world and behaviors of fellow students on campus. It was a lens by which he interpreted their actions, drawing from values he possessed.
Oh, yeah, he happens to be Chinese. Someone from a culture who sees value and structure in the very relationships they form.
He, like every human being, is trying to make sense of the world. China, America and Disney included.
It doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be concerns about data collection. It doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be discussion around politics or economics.
It doesn’t mean honor killings are right. It doesn’t mean that community opinion doesn’t hold merit.
But, we would do well to stop and ask, “What cultural lens am I using to view this situation?” and, “How does this lens blind me from my own cultural tendencies?”
If you are American, yes, these societies might do well to implement individual rights to do whatever one pleases (a value we champion through and through), but, in what ways are we doing the same thing and are unaware? And, in what ways do some of these norms need to stay?
The mirror we are looking at isn’t one shade; it’s complex with an array of colors that need a collaborative effort at rethinking systems, societies and the norms we champion in our day-to-day relationships. For the better.
- “Meritocracy.” Merriam-Webster.com. 2019. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/meritocracy (1 April 2019).