The nation, recently marked the tenth anniversary of the disaster known as Hurricane Katrina. For several days we remembered the devastation of New Orleans and surrounding region. What struck me in some of the news coverage, was the impact that calamity still has on the people who experienced it. Roads are restored, buildings are rebuilt, the economy is coming back, but the deep emotional and psychic wounds of the people are there, causing untold emotional suffering.
As the coverage went on, I found myself comparing our current cultural crisis to that of Hurricane Katrina. On the outside, we see signs of prosperity and the good life. Drill down to the personal level, however, we can see that the impact on our cultural psychic is huge. We look strong, but we are probably weaker than we have ever been as a nation.
Today we create movies, build websites, invent new forms of depravity, and we work hard at doing nothing. We have become a nation of spectators instead of doers. We are a people who now hand out participation trophies just for showing up. We had rather be fair that free. We enjoy what others have built. We actually punish success. We regulate greatness down to mediocrity in the name of leveling the playing field. We complain instead of contribute, we debate instead of do, we whine instead of win.
I like the way Patrick Goble articulated this sad truth in an article entitled, Choosing Misery: The Culture of Victimhood and Ingratitude.
"We are fast becoming a nation of lazy, spoiled weaklings, incapable of introspection, a place where every legitimate accomplishment must be minimized and every failure must be excused, lest the egos of the Cheetos-munching e-masses be turned black and blue from the trauma of the truth."
How did this happen? I believe there are three factors.
1. I think we all recognize that the population in general, is spending a great deal of time (maybe too much time) in front of electronic screens just watching. Oh, we might be using our thumbs to manipulate what we are viewing on the screen, but it’s still passive watching. And all that watching is turning, our children in particular, into a generation of spectators and voyeurs. They would rather watch life go by than jump in and get involved.
We must understand that to some degree, it is natural. It’s natural, in that it is human nature. Watching instead of doing has certain rewards: less messy, less risk, and less pressure. Real life is mess. It doesn’t always turn out well in the end. Few people live happily ever after. You can’t push the reset button if it does go the way you want it. Real life is risky. There is loss. There is death. Real life is full of pressure. Watching, observing, has none of those unpleasantness.
2. Our culture now values self-esteem above self-respect. Self-respect can not be given it must be earned. It requires actual accomplishment. Self-esteem on the other hand, is about making sure people feel good about themselves, even if it isn’t attached to any actual achievement. It’s part of our nature to want the approval of others. And I believe, that if we weren't so busy entertaining ourselves to death, we would realize that we also want to deserve the approval of others. What we really long for is to be respected and to have self-respect. Unfortunately, we settle for the cheaper, and less productive, self-esteem.
The problem with self-esteem is that it requires feeling special and above average. Of course, it’s impossible for everyone to actually be special and above average. So we develop what is known as “self-enhancement bias’”. Self-enhancement bias refers to the tendency to think of ourselves as superior to others on a variety of dimensions. Studies have shown that our youth think of themselves as better than others on a number of aspects: They think they are smarter, funnier, kinder, friendly, and more trustworthy than others, for example. Their opinions of themselves are not based on actual deeds.
Recently the first longitudinal study on the origins of intense feelings of superiority (or what is known at narcissism) in children was released and the findings were published in the March issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Over the course of 18 months, 565 kids aged 7 - 11, took multiple surveys designed to measure self-esteem and narcissism. They answered questions about how much they identified with statements such as, “kids like me deserve something extra.” The parents also did similar surveys about their child rearing approach.
Surprisingly, the researchers found that children of excessively praising parents were more likely to score high on narcissistic qualities but not self-esteem. In other words, the parents missed what they were aiming for and hit something that is actually a harmful mental disorder.
They concluded that, positive feedback to children should be tied to real behavior, rather than piled on indiscriminately, or exaggerations of the facts. Other studies are showing that narcissism is on the rise in young adults and it stems, in large part, to our cultural tendency to focus on boosting high self-esteem. It may be well intentioned, but falsely praising children, and rewarding them for nothing, is backfiring. Instead pursuing self-esteem, like it is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, we should be encouraging parents to do things that enforce self-respect in their children. It is better than gold.
3. We have removed all incentive for "doing" or even trying. There is a saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention”. In other words, it’s pain, not prosperity that finds solutions to problems. In short, we have become a pampered people. Watching life is easy. Doing life is hard.
All of this passive watching, instead of actively doing, has turned a nation of heroes into a nation of celebrities. We have become a society that rather worship celebrities than honor heroes. As a result, our children would rather be a celebrity than be a hero, they had rather be a star than be a servant, they had rather be popular than be right.
This is happening in large part because, in our media mad mentality, personality trumps character. We have become a culture that esteems popularity over truth, where everyone has followers but has no morals, nor provides any leadership. Our young people today, measure the worth of themselves and others by the number of likes, hits, and shares they have on social media. I’m fearful of what another decade of this will do to our country.
I believe this emphasis on celebrity worship is having a negative effect in two ways.
A. Our youth have become so bored with the virtual realities we have created, and they have become so desperate to feel alive and with purpose, that they seek adversaries where none naturally exists. They have have become such attention whores that they feign outrage at the slightest offense. They have become so egocentric they think everything's about them, when it is rarely about them. Because they aspire to be celebrities, they had rather create drama where none exists than to solve a real problem.
Being a victim plays easily into all of this. It's easy to get attention if you are a victim. In fact, some have chosen to make a career of playing the victim. Their victim status makes them a celebrity. They aren’t interested in real justice, or practical solutions, as they are in gaining a platform for their make-believe injury. To actually solve the problem would take away their position and attention. I don’t think I have to explain how this is harmful to the individual and to the rest of us.
On the other end of the spectrum are the armchair crusaders, the web warriors sitting in their pajamas and delivering Twitter manifestos about some latest and greatest injustice. All their e-rantings about creeping sexism, microaggressions, and their lists of endless social inequities and personal offenses.
That is not to say there is not real suffering or actual victims of injustice. There most certainly is, but it is now so hard to cut through the fog of self-righteous hurt feelings and keyboard mollycoddled, that the true injuries are drowned out by all the Twitter tantrums and Facebook foolishness. I think it causes, or at least encourages, too many to be falsely indignant,. They are attracted to this type of media advocacy because it gives meaning and purpose to their otherwise meaningless existence, and at the same time it justifies, in their minds, their lack of any real action.
B. Scientists have only recently defined the psychological phenomenon of “celebrity worship” as a type of parasocial relationship that can have unhealthy and even addictive elements.
One study of 372 participants, in the British Journal of Psychology, examined celebrity worship, personality, coping style, general health, stress, positive and negative affect, and life satisfaction. The researchers concluded that celebrity worship is associated with poorer mental health, illustrated by characteristics of neuroticism and disengagement.
Other studies have pointed out that people with poor mental health are more prone to extreme celebrity worship, while others conclude that depression, anxiety, and decreased self-esteem (there’s that word again) develop from unhealthy celebrity worship. Several studies have also demonstrated a connection between celebrity worship and drug and alcohol use, smoking, and eating disorders.
We need to stop taking selfies in the mirror for others to admire and become persons that inspires others that they mirror our behavior.