Tuesday, July 31, 2007

'Cheer up: You're not a total loser!'

I've been meaning to comment on one particular public-service announcement in NBC's deathless series of syrupy "The More You Know" PSAs, this one targeted to self-esteem and delivered by resident Law & Order star Mariska Hargitay.

"Everyone is born with their one true love: yourself," intones Hargitay, thereby demonstrating that NBC's one true love is not grammar.* She pauses for a beat to let that sink in, then amplifies, "If you like you, everyone else will, too."

Excuse me for overthinking something that everyone are supposed to just smile at and feel enriched by, but...huh? Again here we have the empty-headed, cloying platitude—a line that "sounds right" but is ridiculous on the most cursory analysis. If you like you, everyone else will, too? Where's the evidence for this? Even without evidence, does it make sense? Self-love by definition = narcissism, a topic we've covered in this blog. Many of the narcissists we know are distinctly unlovable people, not so much because of their self-love per se (which can even be a turn-on, at first), but because that self-love drives them to do so many uncaring, if not downright antisocial, things. But without going too far afield, let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Bill O'Reilly likes Bill O'Reilly. (One gets that impression.) Does everyone like him for it? How 'bout our pal Trump? A lovable guy? I dare say, I suspect that George W. Bush kinda likes George W. Bush, too.... Need I ask?

Oh, and while we're talking politics, let's not leave out one of the more famous self-lovers in history, as adjudged by practitioners of the mental-health arts: Adolph Hitler.

Maybe Hargitay means that you're supposed to love yourself, but not to the point of being egotistical about it. Sorry, that's still a no-go, because it's parsed language—another of those delicate distinctions that's impracticable in real life. (Self-help is chock full of these, beginning with codependency, an intriguing but totally useless concept: It simply cannot be applied to real-world situations, involving real people in real relationships.) How would you teach someone to know when he or she has crossed the line from "the good kind of self-love" into "an annoying level of egotism that makes people want to hit me in the face with a shovel"? Let's face it, what Hargitay and the writers of the PSA really want to say is along the lines of the title I slapped on this post. Something like, "Try not to hate yourself, OK? You probably don't suck as badly at life as you think you do." Of course, that doesn't make for a very uplifting slogan on national TV.

(Incidentally... Am I wrong in postulating that many of us have a soft spot for those who don't love themselves? For underdogs and the downtrodden? Just askin'.)

Bottom line, especially when the segments are bracketed collectively as "The More You Know," it'd be nice if some actual knowledge were imparted along with the feel-good sloganeering.


On the other hand, I think the makers of the new weight-loss drug Alli have come up with something that eventually may be ranked among the better slogans in advertising history, right up there with such legendary catch-phrases as "Think Small" (VW), "Just Do It" (Nike) and "You Deserve a Break Today" (the McDonald's jingle, famously sung by a young Barry Manilow**). It goes like so:

"If you have the will, we have the power."

Experts seem divided about the drug's ability to live up to the brilliance of its ad copy...and Alli can have some truly, truly gross side effects (follow the link, take a deep breath and scroll down. Be prepared). But the copy itself? Classic.

* everyone is singular and should take his or her, not their. In truth, of course, I'm sure the writers purposely avoided the singular pronoun. They didn't want to be off-putting to females (who are perceived as generally more lacking in self-esteem and thus are the primary intended audience of such spots) by using him, yet didn't want to make the spot sound stilted, unnatural and guy-unfriendly by using her, either.
though not actually written by Manilow, as often reported. Barry did, however, write (and sing) the well-known State Farm Insurance refrain, "Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there...."


Anonymous said...

I'm curious, don't you worry about getting sued saying these kinds of things about powerful people?

Steve Salerno said...

Ahhh, anon, you raise a timeless question, and one that's especially pertinent in a wild-and-woolly medium like the blogosphere. But without trying to give you a short course in libel law, most of what we do here is covered under free-speech precedents that allow for fair comment and criticism. Other things we say are permissible as "obvious satire," the phrase that became famous--or in some more conservative quarters, infamous--after the late Rev. Falwell lost his suit against Hustler magnate Larry Flynt, who had published some extremely unflattering characterizations of the Rev.

As a VERY general rule, you are allowed to publish your personal opinion of someone, as long as that personal opinion doesn't make specific, damaging allegations that can be proved untrue. So, for example, I can say that I think Donald Trump is an egotistical ass, and there probably isn't much he can do about it. But I cannot call him a thief--which, let me be clear, I am not doing--without having specific, documentable evidence to that effect. And look, in our increasingly litigious society, powerful people will sue anyway, even when they have no case, hoping to put people with far less deep pockets (like, say, me) in a position where they have to cave. But a good judge will simply throw the case out of court.

Steve Salerno said...

Plus, I should note that there are additional protections, both statutory and "common practice," when it comes to discussing and depicting celebrities.

Laura Young said...

Steve, I've been reading you for a while now and haven't been one to comment but I just have to say, your writing is brilliant and I so appreciate your intelligence. As someone who makes their living as a life coach and cringes every time I have to say that out loud, I have great respect for what you say. It's a challenge being in the self-help arena with so much crap flying around. Thanks for all you do to help raise everyone's powers of discernment!

Steve Salerno said...

Thank you, Laura. Oh, and speaking of powers of discernment: For the benefit of the two or three people who contacted me off-blog to inform me that I, too, conjugated improperly (isn't that illegal in Tennessee?) in the first line of my third graph... Folks, it was intentional. I was being tongue-in-cheek, playing off NBC's own misuse of "everyone" as a plural. But thank you for keeping me on my toes, anyway. And I must say, it's nice to think that people read the blog that closely.

Anonymous said...

What you're getting at is for people to be more humble about themselves.

I think it's okay to generally like yourself -- may be live "uncomfortable in the skin your in" -- to play off of a popular cliche.

Steve Salerno said...

Is that what I'm saying, or appear to be? I don't think that's what I'm saying, necessarily. I'm saying (at least here) that the arguments for self-love and self-esteem, as typically presented in our culture, (a) don't make sense, and (b) may not produce the results one would expect to see. That's all.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I understand your focus, but what are alternatives to self-help's obvious shortcomings. There may be a better word for that.

Help me understand something. Since self-help possess a clear and present danger to us, and creates collateral damage as you've illustrated, then alternatives must exist, right?

If narcissim is bad, then humility is good? In other words, one thinking to highly of him/herself is bad, but one thinking less of him/herself is better, right?

I'm just thinking out loud...here. Work with me.

If my example is, in fact, an alternative, then another question arises. How does one make humility more attractive than narcissism?

The thing is, self-help gurus have exploited some very basic psychological research -- Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs, for example. Some have twisted the definition of self-actualization and turned it on its ear. So we believe that by just beleiving it, [whatever it is] we'll achieve it [agan, whatever it is we want].

But self-help gurus gloss over other layers of Maslow's theory that emphasizes all subsequent levels of actualization MUST be met before self-actualization is achieved, if, in fact one can achieve SA.

In fact, Maslow's theory even comes with a caveat -- "not all will reach SA."

Which brings me back to the question I started with. What are, if any exist, alternatives to self-help's recommendations for life, love, money, health, and the pursuit of happiness?

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, I can't argue with your question here. I hate to sound like a bad imitation of Chevy Chase doing Gerald Ford in those old SNL skits ("Um, I was told there would be no math..."), but I didn't write SHAM to provide answers; that may be the Clear Next Step. The first step was to show that there IS another side to a movement that has quite simply hijacked American culture without ever being challenged for its motives, credibility, or ultimate impact. Like, say, the self-esteem movement in schools: Now widely recognized as a failure (at best) or a disaster (at worst), its premise and "logic" were never contested until quite recently. In fact, the very idea of attacking self-esteem-based education was considered un-American or--in urban settings--"racist."

Anyone else want in here? It's an ambitious undertaking...

Anonymous said...

I think there are alternatives, but making them appealing to mainstream, soccer-mom, pop-culture America is the problem.

Who really wants to think less of him/herself? What benefit does that have?

Again, thinking out loud!

These are rhetorical questions by the way. Something to think about.

Answers may be more difficult to come by.

Steve Salerno said...

Here's the thing, though: I'm not at all sure that "we" are the ones who should be seeking answers, or that we're even qualified to do so. In fact, I don't know where Americans-at-large got this notion that each of us is individually qualified to weigh in on (and even, God help us, solve!) any and all of the pressing matters of the day. That happens to be my biggest gripe against many of the top figures in self-help: You have a bunch of people who appointed themselves experts in human behavior or what-have-you, got some sort of public forum (often these days courtesy of Oprah), and found a wide following. Now they're "gurus," and all future consumers of SHAM accept their "credentials" without question.


If you had heart trouble, would you accept that rationale from the person who proposed to cure you: "Hey, I've been thinking about heart trouble, and I've got all sorts of good ideas about cardiology! Nah, I never went to med school, or even college...but what the hell, let's give it a shot! Um, you got a knife?"

(Yes, I agree that we're all entitled to our respective opinions, and that it makes no sense to blog if you're not offering and soliciting opinions. But unless we've done a ton of research, we should offer those opinions with some degree of humility, recognizing that the final "answers" to many of these thorny issues probably will come from a group of people with a lot more background in this stuff than we have.)

This also happens to be the topic (or one of them) of an opinion piece I just did for the LA Daily News about the folly of American weight loss: that the mainstream diet movement is basically run by writers and agents and editors (and individual doctors who think they have a hot concept to sell), when it SHOULD be run by major health organizations who have a consensus-based body of knowledge on such matters. Why in the world do we accept a flavor-of-the-month approach to our weight--one of THE most important factors in overall health--when most of us would never dream of taking such a faddish, frivolous approach to cancer or heart disease?

Here's the link to the News piece, btw. I'm not sure it will open for everyone, but give it a try, if you're interested:

RevRon's Rants said...

In my admittedly twisted opinion, the "either/or" needn't be narcissism vs. "thinking less of one's self, but rather, thinking less *about* one's self.

The more we focus upon anything, the more likely we are to perceive flaws; when those "flaws" are part and parcel of our own being, they become magnified as a result of our self-obsession.

I wrote a book several years ago, titled "You Can't Get There From Here, But That's Okay... You Never Really Left," that pretty well sums up the idea. One of Lao Tzu's great awakenings came when he realized that "The sage is a fool." Once we accept our innate fool-ness, along with all those idiosyncrasies that differentiate us from other people, we aren't burdened with the need to change anything.

IMHO, much of self-help is as useful to a reasonably healthy person as is a magnifying mirror to an acne-riddled teenager. In every emotional "pore," the diligent self-help aficionado sees an emotional zit, and feels compelled to remove it by whatever means seem effective. The ultimate result is that the "seeker" leaves him/herself emotionally pocked and scarred. If we'd just toss the "mirror" and accept that each and every one of us is messed up in our own glorious way, we'd be a lot happier, and the charlatans who peddle their snake-oil "cures" would have to go back to selling Amway products.

But I could be wrong... :-)