I often think about the nature of self-esteem. This topic came up again when I read Michael Vassar’s recent essay on Edge.org in response to the question: “What *should* we be worried about?” I like Vassar, he is always ready to make outrageous statements and then back them up with a rigorous line of reasoning. In the case of this Edge essay, I (and a few others) have had a hard time fully understanding his position. Nonetheless, Vassar makes many points that are worth noting. He highlights the correlation between self-esteem and initiative and then decries the fact that our society lacks enough people with initiative. He also asserts that education is a system to ensure submission so he agrees with Chomsky and others in that criticism.
The self-esteem/initiative connection is one that I don’t consider often enough, and I fully agree with the education/submission problem. But self-esteem is a complex issue. Vassar points to the correlation between socioeconomic status and self-esteem and evidence that the upper classes are anti-social and unethical. Also, some studies report that bullies actually have high explicit self-esteem but that bullying behavior may be caused by simultaneous low implicit self-esteem. (Though there is some controversy over this view of narcissism.) I am skeptical of implicit measures of self-esteem as a matter of principle. Oh, you are going to tell me how I really feel about myself, without an fMRI, using a cleverly design name-letter association test? Really? That’s nice.
However it becomes disentangled, it’s clear that this gnarly, variable thing called “self-esteem” is not an unalloyed good. Of course, without it, no one will stand up to repression (unless they are hungry enough.) I can also understand how you would need high self-esteem to think you can change the world the way Steve Jobs did. But it seems that Jobs was emotionally fragile, breaking down in tears, hurting others, etc. His self-esteem must have had a high value at times, but it seemed to have a broad dynamic range. Jobs may even have met the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. (if you take any of that DSM crap seriously)
Vassar seems to be hinting that that our society is setup such that it takes a narcissist or sociopath to truly succeed. Everyone else is too submissive and their self-esteem is too low. He goes on to make the claim that these leaders lack the skills to innovate but I don’t fully understand this part of the argument. There is also some stuff about social provisioning of love and belonging which is unclear to me. Setting those fuzzy bits aside, I wonder how this wide-spread degradation of self-esteem comes into existence. Are there mechanisms in place to systematically lower self-esteem?
I would argue that Hollywood and Madison Avenue provide two examples of popular media complexes who are negatively impacting self-esteem. We are probably hard-wired as social animals to pay attention to high-status individuals around us. Hollywood cashes in on this by dangling their stars before us. It may be that by focusing on these unrealistically high-status individuals, it lowers our own sense of status and perhaps our self-esteem. Madison Avenue has a more direct reason to lower your self-esteem: people who feel bad about themselves are more likely to buy stuff.
So it’s clear that Hollywood and Madison Avenue are destroying democracy… Right? Come on, we need for people to stand up for themselves to have a proper democracy. How can we stand up for ourselves if our self-esteem has been decimated by popular media? Clearly we all need to unplug from popular media. So lay off the celebrity blogs and crappy Hollywood nonsense, ok? And for goodness sake, throw out your television and get an ad-blocker or something.