Self-Esteem

Danah Boyd, the social researcher famous for her work on MySpace, has a new post up at apophenia about the book Generation Me, written by Jean Twenge. It’s along the lines of a follow-up to an earlier essay on narcissism and MySpace. Boyd seems to be going through some kind of crisis of conscience about her objects of study, including MySpace; that is, she is eager to separate the healthy, two-way interactions that take place through these sites, from the ravenous egotism (or “narcissism”) they sometimes reflect.

Her writing suggests that the media themselves are neutral. At the same time, she has taken a moral stance against pedagogical and parenting practices that try to improve self-esteem, on the grounds that these practices make adolescents (and young adults) pathologically incapable of dealing with frustration, accepting criticism, and coming to terms with the basic obligations — unfreedoms — of everyday life. Boyd also implies that young people who internalize “self-esteem” become numb to the needs of other people. She writes in her first post:

I am most certainly worried about the level of narcissism that exists today. I am worried by how we feed our children meritocratic myths and dreams of being anyone just so that current powers can maintain their supremacy at a direct cost to those who are supplying the dreams. I am worried that our “solutions” to the burst bubble are physically, psychologically, and culturally devastating, filled with hate and toxic waste. I am worried that Paris Hilton is a more meaningful role model to most American girls than Mother Theresa ever was. But I am not inherently worried about social network technology or video cameras or magazines. I’m worried by how society leverages different media to perpetuate disturbing ideals and pray on people’s desire for freedom and attention. Eliminating MySpace will not stop the narcissistic crisis that we’re facing; it will simply allow us to play ostrich as we continue to damage our children with unrealistic views of the world.

Then, in her second post, she turns to the (perhaps inevitable) subject of the shootings at Virginia Tech. She quotes Twenge:

Several studies have found that narcissists lash out aggressively when they are insulted or rejected. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the teenage gunmen at Columbine High School, made statements remarkably similar to items on the most popular narcissism questionnaire. On a videotape made before the shootings, Harris picked up a gun, made a shooting noise, and said “Isn’t it fun to get the respect we’re going to deserve?” (Chillingly similar to the narcissism item “I insist upon getting the respect that is due me.”) (Twenge 2006, 70-71)

To be honest, something inside of me goes cold at the thought of analyzing narcissism, particularly the narcissism of children, in this fashion. In order to understand how people, including young people, think of themselves, it is essential to separate self-approbation from power.

Self-approbation is a source of alienation, and eventually of misery. Esteem-based education teaches children to regard themselves from an outside perspective, and to do so with a frozen smile of approval. In fact, on top of this initial moment of self-justifying alienation, we have overlaid another imperative: if you don’t approve of who you are and what you choose, you will never succeed, because you won’t project confidence. So you have an obligation to yourself to approve of yourself, and thus to make others believe.

Power, by which I mean capacity, agency, and influence, is a different story. It is essential. The absence of it is suffocating. If I am teaching a student to write, I do so under the guiding assumptions that they have the capacity to improve their writing, and that their writing will matter at some point in the future. It may not matter in the same way for each student, and I don’t expect that any student will become famous. But I expect that what they have to say will eventually matter to someone.

When we think of the difference between Paris Hilton and Mother Teresa, compared in the first quote above, it is easy to turn them into symbols of selfish and selfless behavior, respectively. For me, the difference between them is a matter of principle, because both are powerful. Mother Teresa believed in something, and devoted herself to it; whatever Paris may believe, she (obviously) has yet to do the same. But it is important to remember that even if a teenager, living in some dreary suburb, wanted to become the next Mother Teresa, he or she might not be able to pull it off. It would certainly require tearing oneself away from family and community on the grounds of an unshakable conviction. Otherwise, one’s hero is Mother Teresa, but one’s job is working at the Tastee Freeze.

The traditional models of selflessness in America, which are derived from the Christian tradition, locate power in God; access to power comes through doing God’s will. In other words, they are anything but models of powerlessness. The inability to accept criticism, and the inability to come to terms with one’s obligations, are actually two different things. The ability to freely assume obligations to people and principles is tremendous. It gives us a reason to value criticism, because it becomes worthwhile to improve.

On the other hand, we may find ourselves wanting to help young people adjust to the obligations imposed upon them. Certainly, it worries me to think of self-advertisement or, what is worse, of violence usurping sustained action as the American model of agency. I’ll take adjustment over pathology every time. But, especially for disenfranchised Americans, self-esteem doesn’t spoil them for reality. It spoils them for an absence of choices, an absence of power. We risk telling them to come to terms with jail.

Then Mary, she got pregnant
And man, that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat…

Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie, that don’t come true
Or is it something worse

-Bruce Springsteen, “The River”

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