THE DEADLY SPINS
I: THAT LUCIFERIAN THANG
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.
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.
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.
ira, invidia, avaritia, acedia, gula, luxuria.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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…”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
II: THE CULT OF SELF-ESTEEM
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.”
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?
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.”
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.“
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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
“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.”
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-self-esteem generation
deal with diminished expectations, and living at home with aging
parents into their late twenties or early thirties?
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.” ?
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?
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.”
PRAISE OF ENVY
- THE SICKNESS OF BEING
is a Vancouver-based writer and political cartoonist. You can
now visit his Seven Deadly Spins website HERE.