It’s no surprise that the question periods at Davos turned out to be unproductive and dedicated mostly to preening, as Lucy Marcus reported in a blog post from the World Economic Forum last weekend. Where no practical decisions are going to be reached, and where real power is not up for grabs, we get jockeying for status.
The behavior is familiar to anyone who has spent much time at conferences, especially academic conferences, but it happens in meetings and at dinner parties, too. It’s a common social experience: conversations often function “as a kind of vocal lek,” as Robin Dunbar explains in Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language; they are like “the display areas where males gather to advertise their qualities as potential mates to the females.”
In the natural world, this self-advertising serves a crucial function, helping birds and beasts pair off; in our world, lekking might make someone more attractive or raise his stature in the crowd, but ultimately it undermines serious conversation.
Someone might make the case that we should indulge it anyway. After all, self-advertising and chest-puffing are ultimately harmless, and might amount to nothing more than a collective throat clearing: a way of establishing the space of conversation and identifying or qualifying its participants. But even if we concede that it accomplishes that much, lekking will always be of limited value for a couple of reasons: first, because it’s an exercise in establishing social rank, and in a group it’s always very easy to confuse social rank (or title or position) with authority; and, second, that kind of authority — who we are, what we know, what our role is — is the wrong kind of authority for a conversation.
(The exception might be a case where the conversation was a matter of getting expert advice on a topic; but even there, we would not want an expert simply to wear her laurels or point to rankings, but to address our particular situation.)
The authority we need for serious conversation is, instead, a great equalizer: every person already has it, and we recognize it in each other the moment we enter into a conversational stance, or commit in earnest to the joint activity of conversation. It is the moral authority we have to address each other, as mutually accountable persons, and to make demands of each other: or to ask, as I’ve been putting it.
If lekking or some other social performance served the purpose of brandishing and bolstering that asking authority, then it would be of great value. Sharing stories and other empathy-building rituals might help in this regard, as long as they themselves don’t become exercises in self-advertisement or the promotion of a person as a brand.
This isn’t just about sincerity or authenticity of address, though that’s part of the issue here. Lekking relegates the mutual authority of persons to the background, distracts us from it, or diminishes human stature. It says that recognizing each other as equal partners in the project of the conversation won’t suffice; it narrows and excites our attention. It’s a social impairment.