You might have done this before – get a mediocre score on an exam and think how far below the curve you've fallen, and then peek at the bottom half of the class, relieved that at least you didn't do that badly. I witness a similar concept with some of my classmates gearing up for recruiting season with hopes of landing higher, of situating themselves within some sort of hierarchy: "Sure, I'm only working at X company, but at least I'm not working at Y." In fact, I've seen this struggle ensue in multiple stages of my life, with college admissions and Greek life recruiting and job hunting. It's touched upon in Kevin Roose’s Young Money, an exploration into the lives of eight new investment banking new grads:
“Everyone’s always measuring their dicks,” one private equity analyst explained to me. “If I’m a Goldman banker, I go up to a McKinsey consultant and I’m like, ‘My dick’s bigger than yours.’ But then a Blackstone analyst goes to the Goldman banker and says, ‘My dick’s bigger than yours.’ And a portfolio manager at Greenlight Capital goes up to the Blackstone analyst and says, ‘Well, my dick is still bigger than yours.’ It never ends.”
It never ends. There's a Chinese term for this concept: 鄙视链 (bǐ shì liàn), direct translation to "chain of contempt." It originated from particular Chinese cultural norms regarding government stability and status, particularly with the Chinese 户口 (hù kǒu), an individual’s registration in society that operates similarly to a caste system. To some degree, we all engage in the chain of contempt. It’s a temporary method to relieve our status in whatever hierarchies we construe, a concept universal enough to find its way in the chains of Wall Street finance workers halfway across the world. The chain of contempt is rooted in a form of denial, to reckon where we might be positioned and to grapple with our identity and establish some source of superiority. And when we look at advice given on how to not compare yourself with others, we push against the strength of these chains, largely because we construct them from the influence of others, say the industry or school environment you’re situated in.
Let’s look to tech, as an industry that has historically struggled to organize. Ben Tarnoff notes this difficulty in his essay “The Making of the Tech Worker Movement,” in that the most outrageous realization full-time employees of tech need to face is that they too are workers. Tech’s white collar workers, its software and staff engineers, product managers and designers alike, identify more closely with creatives, geniuses, craftspeople. To labor is of negative connotation, of manual work foreign from the comforts of the office chair. The chain of contempt reinforces these ideas, that these positions and their respective benefits are efforts of hard work, of meritocracy, of going through rigorous and prestigious undergraduate programs and stressful coding interviews.
Acknowledging labor, however, induces guilt. Blue collar and contracted labor is what enables the privileged to get food delivery, have their spaces cleaned, to seamlessly live their lives. This often unacknowledged undercurrent labor and our associated guilt is the chain of contempt, but flipped in on itself; how can white collar tech workers recognize their labor, given their relative privilege compared to those who power their industry? Further consider those from marginalized communities, those with firsthand experience with the labor of maintenance; it’s impossible to shake the nagging feeling that they are deserving – or even that others somehow are undeserving – of the privileges opened up to them, even as they toil to ascend the ladder of prestige. Carmen Molinari explains guilt’s role in organizing elegantly here:
“Our guilt makes us feel complicit with our managers and CEOs, which is a way of identifying with them. It encourages us to think that all we need to do is make the bosses feel as guilty as we do and they’ll fix things. [...] The guilt framework leads us to think that all we need to do is appeal to decisionmakers’ hearts rather than putting pressure on them. And guilt is perversely seductive: having a conversation where we admit our “wealth and class privilege” and commit to trying to somehow “use it for good” is catharsis that makes us feel clean without changing anything. It gives us a feeling of power but divorces us from our true power as value-producers.”
This guilt and the chain of contempt are two sides of the same coin, devices acting to squash individuals within walls of inaction. If white collar tech workers possess this guilt, on our relative luxuries and benefits and status, and fall trap to its potential catharsis, we fundamentally lose sight that the guilt shouldn’t be directed upwards to appeal to the higher-ups. Rather, the guilt hints to where we should go next.
I began dealing with this guilt when I received my first software engineering internship offer my sophomore fall – while I, a computer science student, was inherently aware of the cushy wages of tech, I had never fathomed making so much money over the span of one summer. My salary and perks (a moving stipend, flight reimbursements, a monthly personal wellness stipend, and more) seemed ridiculous, especially when I talked to brilliant peers in other engineering fields that paid significantly less. But my bemusement turned into guilt when I began to think of my father and his hardwood floor business, his manual labor and dearth of secure benefits. I couldn't understand how I had been launched into a world where a six-figure salary and hefty benefits package were well within reach.
In addressing my confusion and grappling with the common narrative of “you worked hard for these opportunities”, I realized that this was complicated by my personal narrative, of my father laboring to provide me focused access to opportunity. I grew up with a stay-at-home mom and breadwinner father that allowed me the unparalleled focus on advancing in a white collar world. I always knew that my success was not just mine – rather, it was the intertwined efforts of my family and friends, mentors and peers. The idea of individual merit has never settled well with my lived experience, where my achievements, while to some degree mine, were also the celebrated work of the communities that supported me. My guilt existed for good reason, and it was that I felt that my father deserved better for his labor. I wished very deeply to transfer my generous benefits to him. But wishes and guilt only go so far, and it can too be snared back into the narrative of the chain of contempt, in organizing that only goes so far to make ourselves feel better, to have supposedly helped. I revisit the above quote from Molinari – “It [guilt] gives us a feeling of power but divorces us from our true power as value-producers.” Guilt fails when it stays static, as this mild pit of discomfort, and I can unconsciously but insidiously absolve myself by ignoring the problems present in the system, by living my life with no regard to others.
We can appreciate the moral impulse that gives way to this guilt, but rather than push it away, we should harness this guilt to guide us, to move away from the limitations of the chain of contempt. Consider another narrative entirely, of how we are interdependently connected, and how our success and wellbeing are ultimately intertwined with one another. The recognition and respect for our labor is not a zero sum game, and more thoughtful organizing in tech labor needs this narrative refresh to get to meaningfully advocating for others, after themselves. It’s no surprise that the chain of contempt thrives in elite universities, places that feed into industries like finance and tech, where we might continue to struggle, in finding our footing within this slippery chain. Study groups cramming together before the big exam, neighbors helping others book vaccine appointments, peers looking over and editing each other’s essay drafts – we are not independent samples of the bell curve distribution, the ways that systems might have pitted us against each other. Rather, we exist as the interdependent members of organic communities. We are not destined to be shackled by our chains of contempt; instead, we are continually made possible by the labor and love that others pour into us and that we pour into others.