Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Love me as much as I love myself...or I'll shoot you.

From time to time I like to watch the BBC's coverage of world events. When one does so, the smallest things—like the fact that they use our president's full name in identifying him (i.e. including the "George")—remind you that we're not alone in the world, and there are other ways of interpreting the developments that U.S. media cover in such myopic fashion. And of course, the Brits, having long since forgotten that little unpleasantness of 231 years ago, are generally sympathetic to America and its goals. You'll get an even more eye-opening look at the news if you sample the coverage on, say, Al Jazeera (which, for example, gives second-tier importance to the Virginia Tech shootings on its front page today. The headline story is, "Iran to 'cut off the hand' of foes"). Just be careful: Spend too much time on the Al Jazeera site nowadays and you'll end up on some watch list, with some goon in Langley opening your emails even before you do each morning.

Anyway, leaving aside Al Jazeera, yesterday and last night the Virginia shootings were the wall-to-wall topic everywhere else, including the BBC. I tuned in just in time to catch the tail end of an interview one of their reporters had with a psychologist, whose name I did not get. I apologize for that oversight, and for the fact that I haven't had time to chase this down today. I fall back only on the excuse that I've got a very busy schedule ahead of me, and on the promise that in the remarks that follow, I'm being faithful to what that psychologist said.

A few more caveats. (I sear to you, there's a point here, eventually.) Some of SHAM's critics accused me of trying to tie up self-help's impact on society in too neat a package. They said I was "overreaching" in blaming so many of our woes on pop psychology, and though I don't agree, I don't want readers to think I'm overreaching here. Nor do I want to be perceived as using the terrible events at VTech as a prop, a cheap excuse for dumping still more grief at the foot of self-help's shaky altar. Finally, let's remember that what I heard last night was nothing more than the opinion of a random psychologist—and when it comes to psychologists' opinions, there may be an extra dollop of truth to that crude old line about the body part that opinions most resemble. However, let's also remember that what was said, was said by a man who is credentialed in his field, unlike so many of self-help's resident gurus. So, though I claim no cosmic validity for what follows, I thought it was worth throwing into the dialogue.

This psychologist told his BBC interviewer that he attributed events like the explosion of rage on the VTech campus to the climate of narcissism and uber-self-interest that flourishes among the current generation: Young people have been conditioned to be so naturally and obsessively focused on their own lives and needs, and have such expectations of having those needs met, that they're basically unprepared for life's normal disappointments, once they begin to encounter them. To too many young people, he argued, there is no longer any such thing as a "slight"; that is, no grievance or affront is minor. Amid this climate, the psychologist continued, a person with other baseline maladjustments would be unable to shrug off day-to-day annoyances—to say, "Oh well, that's life." Such an individual might overreact, perceiving commonplace setbacks and interpersonal upsets as apocalyptic wounds that cry out for vengeance and, indeed, make life itself no longer worth living.

If you have a copy of SHAM handy, take another look at chapter 10, on the dangers of self-esteem-based education and the unexpected and counterintuitive dangers of self-esteem per se, as diagnosed by Roy Baumeister and others. See if this all fits together for you. As I said, just a thought.

7 comments:

Cosmic Connie said...

Of course, young people come by their narcissism honestly. They learned from the best: their parents (the baby boomers and immediate post-baby-boom generation). The problem is not just in the educational system, of course; it's everywhere.

The late Christopher Lasch made a stab at defining the malaise of American culture in his 1979 book, "The Culture Of Narcissism," of which I've read bits and pieces, but never had the attention span to read in its entirety. (SHAM is infinitely more readable. :-))

Anyway, to make a potentially long comment very short... We are definitely a nation of narcissists, and I think that is indeed a factor in the VTech tragedy.

RevRon's Rants said...

I'm sure the impeccably-coiffed talking heads will dissect and quantify this tragedy until pigs fly. Perhaps it might just have been a case of caca loco pasa, where nobody is to blame but the shooter. only the lawyers will know for certain.

Dr Swill McGraw said...

There's another factor at play. If you think you're a nobody, that you don't matter, clearly you can become "somebody" by becoming the centre of a media firestorm. The media is certainly at fault for giving so much exposure to spree killers. Every single time this sort of tragedy happens, they bring the world to a standstill.

By "world" I mean the media world of images and soundbites, the virtual reality that is many people's only concept of reality.

It's a perverse form of stardom, and in a world where inane celebs like Paris Hilton don't care how idiotic and even repulsive they come across, as long as people are buzzing about them - where even Charles Manson clearly relished the spotlight, got off on his own notoriety - there's a huge incentive for people on the edge to claim center stage by whatever means necessary. If the coverage was sober and not sensationalistic, there'd be no pay-off for doing this.

The killer murdered his girlfriend first. Horrible as his crime was, he appears to have had a moment of reflection, before deciding to take out as many people as possible. If he'd killed his girlfriend only, his story wouldn't have made a blip. But look at how it played out: "The all-time worst campus murder in U.S. history.... set a new record for highest number killed in a single spree shooting...." He could be an Olympic athlete or pop singer topping the charts.

I found it ironic that Larry King had Dr. Phil on as the voice of sanity explaining for the public what this all meant. Why Dr. Phil? He had nothing of importance to say, it was all empty platitudes and vacuous catchphrases. But of course it had to be Dr. Phil, not anyone who really knew what he was talking about, because Dr. Phil is "somebody". He's famous, therefore he matters.

And this spree killer is famous (for a few days or weeks, till the next big spectacle takes his place), therefore he, evidently, according to media logic, also matters now in death as he never did in life.

Steve Salerno said...

"The killer murdered his girlfriend first"? I don't think we know this, Dr. Swill. In fact, one of his grave problems, apparently, was his lack of a girlfriend, and/or his chronic inability to "attract" (in both Secret and real-world terms) one.

However, to add to the salient point of your observation: And once people attain celebrity, almost anything they do will perpetuate that celebrity (and further, indeed, others will try to tape into, or live parasitically off, that celebrity by hiring them to write books, appear in plays, release CDs, etc., all of it regardless of whether the celebrity in question has any discernible talents at same).

Matt Dick said...

"To too many young people, he argued, there is no longer any such thing as a "slight"; that is, no grievance or affront is minor."

Steve, this is a subject that has come incresingly to my mind (thanks to a friend of mine who is much smarter than I): that no inslut is to be shrugged off.

Disclaimer: I'm no fan of Don Imus, I'm perfectly okay with the market of advertisers giving him the boot.

I think the basketball players at Rutgers were treated bady, and I think they were the victims of two sins, one much graver than the other.

The first slight, of course, was that a nationally-syndicated guy called them names. This is the lesser of the injuries visited on them, but it was mean and they had every right to be offended.

The second was visited on them by their own coach, university as well as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. This was that they were taught that a verbal, uninformed insult deserved a week of national media coverage, including multiple press conferences, firings, media-covered apologies, and finally a statement by their own coach that we can now "let the healing process begin."

I'm sorry, does a 20 year-old woman who gets unsluted by a 60 year-old man need to heal? She needs to shrug and get on with her much more important life. Each of these young women will endure much worse things in her life, and now the lesson she's been taught is not to let it go, but to halt the world until Jesse Jackson, Mr. Hymietown himself, comes to her rescue, fires the offender and gets her a personal apology and some air time on CNN. Well in the real world (and these women are going to mostly go on to anonymous (but no doubt productive and positive) lives) no one's going to do that anymore. They'll have to take those insults and move on.

It's not their fault, it's their coach's and university's fault for teaching the wrong message.

Steve Salerno said...

Matt, don't take this the wrong way, but I kept wondering if you were purposely misspelling the word--"insluted" instead of "insulted"--to make a point. In any case, I like it in this context.

The Rutgers situation is also very complex--or so I'm told--but yes, I agree with you in principle about today's thin-skinned climate, and the fact that no insult is, well, a mere slight anymore. Add that to the erosion of free expression that is sure to follow, now, on the heels of the Virginia shootings. I was just saying to someone last night that if we were to seek nationwide implementation of the "weed-out-the-crazies" policies that will flow from this tragedy, people like Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorcese, Stephen King and many others would be behind bars, in straitjackets. Indeed--remember what S. King's breakout book was? "Carrie"--a story about a disaffected, alienated misfit of a student who uses her powers of telekinesis to take her extremely bloody revenge on her classmates.

Wow. Now there's a case of a young author crying out for help...

Steve Salerno said...

Not that I want to pile on here, but it occurs to me that almost all rap stars, and certainly the hard-edged alternative innovator Trent Reznor (among many alternative/metal groups and artists) also would have to be "evaluated" and probably separated from the rest of society.