Part I: That Luciferian Thang
A few years back I ran into a friend of a friend at a social event. I asked how things were going. “Great,” he responded. “I’ve only got seven left.” An awkward silence followed. “Uh, seven what?” I asked. He slowly brought his hands up to chest level, flipping me the bird in stereo. “Excuse me?” I replied. With a thin smile, he repeated the gesture. I burst out laughing. “Very diplomatic!” I said, slapping him on the back and then walking away.
Later I learned this fellow was referring to seven more episodes of a television series he was producing for a cable sports network. As far as I could tell, he wasn’t drunk. He was simply offended by my lack of awareness of his monumental multimedia work, and had no reluctance in communicating this. A little man with a Napoleon complex, and a show that everyone should know, he was sending me a message of social expendability. Simply put, our respective professions didn’t intersect, and there was no purpose – no utility – in his treating someone outside his sphere with respect. I could be safely written out of his script.
I discovered later from others who knew him that this encounter was consistent with his character. This guy certainly didn’t have any problem with self-esteem. In fact, he could have used rather less of it, and a more realistic assessment of his talent. I’d like to think of him as a bit of an anomaly, but the sad truth is he’s just another example of a personality structure that has gained some authority in the past few decades. After years of valourizing the individual, telling him or her to “look out for number one,” to “go for it” and to “just do it,” we’re now seeing the result: the ascendance of the just-short-of-sociopathic personality. The mental state at issue here is overweening pride. Arrogance.
“Superbia, ira, invidia, avaritia, acedia, gula, luxuria.”
Pride, or superbia, tops Pope Gregory’s Latinate list of the deadly sins. In the hit parade of crimes against body and spirit, pride beats out envy, anger, greed, sloth, gluttony, and lust. The last of two, gluttony and lust, are mere carnal sins. They are sins of the flesh – the body or lower self. Superbia, or pride, is the top sin of the higher self, or soul. Pride’s transgression is to make your own ego a personal god.
It’s obvious that a certain measure of self-interest and self-regard is necessary to function in the world. What’s not quite as obvious is that too much pride or “vainglory” can kickstart a fair bit of bad behaviour. Pride can lead to envy if you find you are not acknowledged or rewarded in the same manner as others. Envy can in turn lead to anger and melancholy, which may feed greed as you try to fill a hole in the soul with money and material goods. And should any of these gambits fail to caulk the opening, there’s always the other vices that may act as a temporary stopgap.
“Pride goeth before a fall.” The line refers to the worst career move in religious literature, described in the Book of Isaiah. Lucifer, first-born of the angels, was powerful and beautiful, but also proud and presumptuous. He aimed too high and defied God, who banished the original rebel angel from heaven. Lucifer’s crime in challenging God was the defining sin of the Judeo-Christian universe. The sin of pride, of ego.
The word “sin” itself is of Indo-European origin, going back 5,000 years, which is as far back as etymologists can trace any word with assurance. In a 1989 interview on the CBC Ideas series, Cambridge university theologian Don Cupit explained the beginnings of “sin.”
“People are told not to cross over lines. So many of the oldest words for sin in the Old Testament, for example, imply trespassing, transgression, overstepping the mark, crossing a boundary that you shouldn’t have crossed in some way. When you violate a line or boundary in that way, it creates a condition of ritual impurity that you’ve got to purge by some kind of sacrifice or compensation, and it’s from that primitive origin that the doctrine of sin develops…”
Cupit holds that the Judean concept of sin was elaborated further by Christianity into the idea “of the universe as a hierarchy, a divine order, rank above rank, and sin becomes a matter of not keeping to your proper place in the scheme of things.”
Over the past 500 years, the western world’s attitude toward pride, and our place in the universe, became less damning and much more dynamic. This transformation is central to the construction of the modern secular psyche. During the Renaissance, humanist scholars rediscovered the ancient Greek conception of the autonomous individual as the measure of all things. A hugely liberating social transformation swept across a continent still reeling from the plague and feudalism’s collapse. The rise of mercantilism, freeing believers to pursue personal wealth without guilt, allowed the rise of a secular money-economy in which the individual was central.
The Catholic church, which historian Lewis Mumford once described as the “tomb built on the body of Christ,” no longer functioned as the sole arbiter of everyday lives. Protestantism transformed the individual’s relationship with God to a more personal dynamic, in which a deity could be gloried through Good Works and the acquisition of personal wealth, further pushing the individual to the center of all things.
Science delivered the coup de grace. The stiff Aristotelian universe inherited by Christian clerics, where change was equated with corruption, was shattered into pieces by a succession of thinkers, from Galileo to Einstein. There have been obvious gains from this intellectual freedom (and especially freedom from the guilt and fear pitched by the church), but at a price. The individual has been reduced to a free agent adrift in a dynamic, but fundamentally meaningless, universe. A cosmos where morality is as relative as the observer’s point of view offers freedom, but it is largely the nightmare freedom of the void.
The irony is that over time one set of chains – dogmatic, anti-intellectual – was exchanged for another set – individualistic, technocratic, and materialistic. Science and spin entered into a Luciferian relationship, pitching a new kind of fear and limitation to the citizen-consumer, with a mass market responding to newly-created desires. From the early twentieth century on, psychology, organizational management, and the dark arts of public relations combined to valourize the individual, even while making him or her greater prey to the hypnotic forces of mass persuasion. There was – and is – much to enjoy from the triumphs of hypercapitalism, but the deal has a dark side. From the Aztec collapse to the Belgian Congo’s slave trade to the resource wars of the present day, the West has bought its pleasures largely on the back of others, in places where market forces have meant more stick than carrot.
Today the citizen/consumer of the West has become the deciding unit of social measurement, and pride is no longer considered a sin. Quite the opposite; it’s just another word for high self-esteem – the more the better, in theory. As I noted earlier, a certain healthy amount of pride, the defining trait of the ego, is necessary to mediate the world. But it’s all the negatives attached to the ego – fear, envy, and greed – that fuels the money culture of mass desire. Community gets reduced to isolated atoms of consumption, resonating to advertising’s ceaseless signal: “me.”
Yet in most cultures throughout history, “looking out for number one” would land the true believer into a hut on the outskirts of the village, or even outright ostracism from the rest of the tribe. Too much pride is toxic to the social mix of indigenous people, but here is the irony: it is the very foundation for consumer culture. This is the psychopath writ large, the idiot monster that is ravaging the biosphere and threatening our future survival.
Ironically, the finger-waving acquaintance mentioned at the beginning had no shortage of self-esteem. In fact, you’d be more likely to call him boastful and arrogant – qualities that aren’t necessarily a hindrance to success. Society often rewards those who convincingly carve out a false idol with the aid of a mirror.
(The self-aggrandizing hip-hop scene is one of the more obvious manifestations of this. The narcissism is hammered home so often it’s become a kind of pop-culture white noise. In a scene from the MTV music video awards two years ago, white rapper Kid Rock took the podium, declaiming his triumphs as a “badass pimp” with the “bitches.” A succession of posturing superstars stepped up to the podium, all with equally colourful descriptions of their awesome selves. “It’s all about me,” each star declaimed in so many words. The crowd, living vicariously through these swollen egos, roared assent.)
What do you tell someone who believes “me” to be the whole show? Do you tell them that if everyone else is thinking the same thing, it can’t be anyone’s show? In spite of what they may think, those who have built a temple to themselves aren’t unique, autonomous beings – they’re link sausages. The system cranks out personality after personality just like theirs. As they flip the bird to the world, you can only shake your head at these agents of ego, and how powerful the illusion of separation that they have bought into.
Part II: THE CULT OF SELF-ESTEEM
What human quality could be better than high self-esteem – or worse than the opposite, low self-esteem? As a society, we’re obsessed with building ourselves up so we can love ourselves more. We’re continually told high self-esteem is the royal road to success or happiness, through a winning, salable personality.
In our schools, no child ever fails, no child is ever “average.” Building self-esteem is a huge industry, and its axioms have penetrated academic institutions, management seminars, and popular culture. As the Whitney Houston song goes, “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”
Conversely, we’re told low-self esteem is the source of most social evils, from violence and drug addiction to prostitution, rape, and spousal abuse. “This all makes so much sense that we have not thought to question it,” wrote psychologist Lauren Slater in a 2002 issue of The New York Times Magazine. “The less confidence you have, the worse you do; the more confidence you have, the better you do; and so the luminous loop goes round.”
High self-esteem is just another term for pride – a word we don’t hear all that much these days, owing to its negative variants. “False pride,” and “prideful,” along with “vanity,” “vainglory,” have devalued its verbal currency. High self-esteem has no such associations. Of recent vintage, the term has been polished to a market-friendly shine in the hands of professionals.
In fact, all that has really happened is that pride has been spun into a Deadly Spin, marketed through a bulletproof buzzword. Yet dissenting voices have come forth, questioning the orthodoxy of self-esteem. Along with Slater, academic researchers like Nicholas Emler of the London School of Economics and Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University have come to a counterintuitive conclusion: self-esteem is overrated in today’s culture, and it may even be a culprit for some social problems, rather than a cure.
There is absolutely no evidence that low self-esteem is particularly harmful, these researchers have found. People with low self-esteem seem to do just as well in life as people with high self-esteem. In fact, they may do better, because they often try harder. In an article in Scientific American called Violent Pride, Baumeister takes this observation further: he demonstrates that low self-esteem’s opposite – high self-esteem – can compel one to acts of violence.
The PhD social psychologist says he began his career “on the self-esteem bandwagon,” accepting it is an unquestionably positive state of mind. Yet he failed to find any primary studies in the psychological literature to back this up. It seemed to be an idea built on thin air. So he decided to conduct research of his own to prove it. To his surprise, he discovered just the opposite. In a 2003 interview with CBC’s Michael Enright, Baumeister explained. “Pure self esteem is such a seductive idea that all our problems would disappear if we simply loved ourselves more. It seems like such a nice solution.” The idea of self-esteem as being an unqualified good he now rejects as “completely false.”
“People who do the worst things in the world generally have a very high opinion of themselves. Think of the most modest person you know. Now think of the most self-aggrandizing, most obnoxious, with the biggest sense of superiority.” He asks who would you rather associate with, and who would be the most problematic to deal with.
In his experiments, Baumeister discovered that subjects with favourable views of themselves were more likely to administer blasts of ear-splitting noise to a subject than more timorous subjects who refused to press the horn. An earlier experiment found that men with high self-esteem were more willing to insult subjects to whom they had given electric shocks than their low-level counterparts.
Not everyone with high self-esteem is an unmitigated monster, obviously. Baumeister sees the issue as multidimensional. “Some with high self-esteem are perfectly content and nice, and at peace with the world; others are out to prove (themselves) all the time and lord it over others, and expect favourable treatment.” In the high-self esteem population, it’s the latter that are the source of trouble for others in society.
“It’s not a sense of superiority alone,” Baumeister told Enright, in a world-weary tone. “It’s a sense that your superior position isn’t being recognized.” In the language of the street, this means being “dissed,” and it can lead to violent outbursts. It’s the people who think well of themselves – and want others to think well of them too – who are highly sensitive as to whether or not other people are confirming this view of themselves.
Did leaders like Hitler and Stalin suffer from low self-esteem? Quite the opposite, says Baumeister. People responsible for the worst things in the world generally have a very high opinion of themselves. He suggests that entire nations can manifest a sense of high self-esteem, and lose touch with reality. With enough nationalists conflating self-esteem with national pride, the results can be sabre-rattling or worse. Baumeister gives as an example the imperial pretensions of Japan and Germany in World War II. Other more recent examples may come to the reader’s mind.
In their studies, Baumeister and Emler found no shortage of individuals incarcerated for acts of violence who had high self-esteem. Emler put antisocial men through every self-esteem test at their disposal, and discovered no evidence for the old psychodynamic concept that they secretly feel bad about themselves. “These men are racist or violent because they don’t feel bad enough about themselves,” he notes. Given this finding, it hardly seems the right approach to counsel a head-busting Hell’s Angel or an inner city gang-banger to repeat daily, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”
Writes psychologist Lauren Slater: “I have seen therapists tell their sociopathic patients to say ‘I adore myself’ every day or to post reminder notes on their kitchen cabinets and above their toilet-paper dispensers, self-affirmations set side by side with waste.” Unless the necessary work of self-reflection is done – along with confronting the Shadow, that dark repository of unacknowledged pain and suffering – how does anyone learn to love themselves in any true, deep sense?
Writes Slater: “Self-esteem, as a construct, as a quasi-religion, is woven into a tradition that both defines and confines us as Americans. If we were to deconstruct self-esteem, to question its value, we would be, in a sense, questioning who we are, nationally and individually. We would be threatening our self-esteem.”
There are economic factors to consider here. Hypercapitalism thrives on the be-all-you-can-be, looking-out-for-number-one ethos. A message contrary to the scripture of self-esteem in North American society is not good for business. The psychotherapy industry, for instance, would take a huge hit were self-esteem to be re-examined, as Slater notes. She calls psychoanalysts the “cultural retailers” of the self-esteem concept. If the concept were to falter, “so would our pocketbooks.“
So much for high self-esteem. But does it necessarily follow that low self-esteem is a desirable state of mind? Low self-esteem may not feel very good on an ongoing basis, but research indicates there is a positive social dimension to the resulting self-examination. For example, a feeling of guilt could mean acknowledging your own limitations or responsibility. Guilt does seem to make people behave better, according to Baumeister.
In his studies, he found that the population of best performing students in US schools, young white girls, demonstrated the lowest self-esteem. Conversely, the worst performing students, African American boys, demonstrated the highest self-esteem. One can argue that the problem here is less about self-esteem than a human response to regimented, rote learning, but the observation is still noteworthy.
Children have been exposed to three decades of assurances that all their thoughts and feelings are precious and precocious. In an April 2004 article in The Globe and Mail, Leah McLaren addressed the social and psychological fallout of this pattern of reflexive praise, with an attendant refusal to exercise parental or social authority. One interview subject, a high-ranking Toronto executive, described the rich and good-looking Ivy League graduates he encountered professionally. “They would shoot their mouths off in meetings and demand way more than they should. They felt they didn’t need to work as hard as anyone else in order to get what they wanted.”
The executive found the behaviour “pretty astonishing.” His observations were mirrored by young professionals in their twenties, who spoke openly about their superhuman self-regard. They attributed their lofty self confidence to their upbringing, from parents who acted more like siblings, or friends, than authority figures. One 22-year-old Canadian describes the freedom her parents allowed her. From the age of 15, she was going to bars every night until about 2 am. “I had my reasons, and I would explain them to my parents. As long as I could prove it was just, then it was fine.”
All this is anecdotal stuff, of course, but the observations jibe with the research of Baumeister and his colleagues. One amusing pop-cultural expression of such unbounded self-esteem is the Idol television phenomenon. Zak Werner, a host on the Canadian Idol show, regularly witnesses auditions by young people who seem incapable of objectively assessing their limitations. Zak finds the attitude outright delusional, according to The Globe and Mail article.
“The kids come up to me and they tell me how incredibly focused and hard-working they are, so driven, and they know its going to happen to them. And you know what? It’s the most boring story in the world. I hear it every day. It’s like they think, if they try hard enough, they’ll become the fairy princess.”
It’s “not going to happen,” Werner says, noting that little children are much more realistic about their life opportunities. “You’ll ask them what they want to be when they grow up, and they’ll say a swimming teacher because they think that would be a really cool thing to do. Then something happens to them when they’re teenagers and they get sucked up into the pandemic of celebrity culture.”
What happens to a generation that speaks of the future in terms of expectations rather than hope? What does the future hold for young dreamers who believe they deserve it all, and have it coming, when all indications are the boomer glory days are long dead? If job opportunities dry up and day-to-day life becomes more of a struggle, how will the high-selfesteem generation deal with diminished expectations, and living at home with aging parents into their late twenties or early thirties?
No one can fault parents for dreaming big for their kids. But if children’s egos are inflated to the point of disconnection from reality, that’s another matter. The sharpest response to the parental endorsement of infantile self-promotion isn’t from a psychologist or television show host, but rather from a computer animated character, the young Dash in the Pixar film The Incredibles. When Elastigirl tells her son that “everybody is special,” Dash morosely replies,” “That’s just another way of saying no one is.”
Humility, once held to be the inverse of the deadly sin of pride, can act as a check on excesses of selfish, ego-driven behaviour. Humility is still regarded as a virtue, albeit in a highly qualified way. It’s associated with timidity, which is anathema to our manic age of acquisitiveness and ceaseless self-promotion. How does anyone get to the head of the line if they don’t believe they deserve a piece of the pie, if not the whole bakery? And why put a dimmer switch on that Byronic inner glow that is your core self in the first place?
Although the pharmaceutical industry is busy at work on drugs for shyness and other social “mood disorders,” it’s not too likely we will ever see a drug remedying the worst behavioural aspects of high self-esteem. “Pills take you up or level you out,” writes Lauren Slater, “but I have yet to see an advertisement for a drug of deflation.”