Monday, June 16, 2014

A Culture of Shamelessness

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any weirder….

Just when you thought that you had seriously underestimated today’s youth….

Just when you were trying to convince yourself that today’s young people are really no different from those of past years….

In his column yesterday Frank Bruni offered us a peek at some very strange college admission essays. We can call it oversharing, as Bruni did, but it is also symptom of a culture of shamelessness.

Many of us have railed against a culture that promotes complete openness and honesty. We have warned against the dangers of breaking down the barrier between public and private. And yet, we did not really believe that it would come to this.

How did young people learn these things? How did their parents and teachers and counselors allow them to do such things? Whatever made them think that such revelations would make them more attractive candidates for college?

Bruni described a college admissions essay:

THE Yale applicant had terrific test scores. She had fantastic grades. As one of Yale’s admissions officers, Michael Motto, leafed through her application, he found himself more and more impressed.

Then he got to her essay. As he remembers it, she mentioned a French teacher she greatly admired. She described their one-on-one conversation at the end of a school day. And then, this detail: During their talk, when an urge to go to the bathroom could no longer be denied, she decided not to interrupt the teacher or exit the room. She simply urinated on herself.

“Her point was that she was not going to pull herself away from an intellectually stimulating conversation just to meet a physical need,” said Motto….

And how about this one:

The essay is where our admissions frenzy and our gratuitously confessional ethos meet, producing autobiographical sketches like another that Motto remembers reading at Yale, this one from a male student.

“He wrote about his genitalia, and how he was under-endowed,” Motto told me. “He was going for something about masculinity and manhood, and how he had to get over certain things.”

If you dare judge these students, they and their adult enablers will tell you that they are just showing their vulnerability. Didn’t you know… it’s good to show your vulnerability, even at the cost of embarrassing yourself?

It’s supposed to make you more lovable.

In one sense it does: when you show yourself to be in that much trouble, to be that pathetic, they naturally want to help you.

Bruni explains that admissions officer Motto was rightly concerned about some of these essays:

In response to several essays about emotional trauma, Motto contacted the students’ secondary schools to make sure that the applicants were O.K. He said he called the guidance counselor at the school of the girl who had urinated on herself, expressing concern about the essay and about whether she might be sabotaging her own application. He said that the counselor was aware of the essay and as baffled by it as Motto was.

Are these two examples mere anecdotes or are they indicative of a trend.

In Bruni’s words:

Motto, who was an assistant director of admissions at Yale from 2001 to 2003 and evaluated applications part time from 2007 to 2008, said that essays as shocking as those two were a small minority. Other people who have screened college applications or coached applicants through the admissions process echoed that assessment.

But they also noted, as he did, an impulse in many essay writers to tug readers into the most intimate corners of their lives and to use unfiltered frankness as a way to grab attention. In some of the essays that students begin to draft and some of the essays that they actually wind up submitting, there are accounts of eating disorders, sexual abuse, self-mutilation, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug addiction. 

Fair enough, they were a small minority. The truth is, they should not exist at all.

Some adult authority should tell these students that self-demeaning vulgarity is not the royal road to Yale. Let’s note, with Bruni that the girl who urinated on herself and the boy with substandard genitals were not accepted.

And then, there was the student who wanted to write about his own special affliction: cyclical vomiting disorder.

Since his parents had hired a consultant to help him with his essay, he showed the essay to the consultant. The consultant did not run screaming from the room. He did not tell the boy that this was a very bad idea. No… he advised the student to fold it into a narrative of how his problem got him interested in medicine.

Yikes. This is what happens when students have adult supervision.

Obviously, there are many exceptions to this rule. Some counselors, Bruni notes:

… try to steer students away from excessively and awkwardly naked testimonials, which can raise red flags about students’ emotional stability and about their judgment.

You think?

Instead of steering them away, counselors might tell them that it is an extremely bad idea. They might even forbid it.

If the students do not know any better, they need to be told what to do.

Surely, children who believe that they need to expose their vulnerabilities to the world are likely to be emotionally unstable. If they are not in trouble yet, they are courting it. If they are not being medicated yet, they soon will be.

But still, wherever did anyone get the idea that shameless oversharing would show you at your best? Could it all be a sign that we live in a therapy culture?

Bruni is appalled by it. So am I. His analysis is on point:

It’s an illustration of something else, too: a tendency toward runaway candor and uncensored revelation, especially about tribulations endured and hardships overcome, among kids who’ve grown up in the era of the overshare. The essay is where our admissions frenzy and our gratuitously confessional ethos meet….

Let’s be clear. In many segments of our culture oversharing is considered to be healthy. It is not. Parents and educators and mental health professionals should take a stand against it. They should not be underwriting a culture that is in the business of producing emotional distress.


Anonymous said...

"And then, this detail: During their talk, when an urge to go to the bathroom could no longer be denied, she decided not to interrupt the teacher or exit the room. She simply urinated on herself."

Coulda been worse than to pee or not to pee.
What if the urge had been for the OTHER need.

Anonymous said...

"Some adult authority should tell these students that self-demeaning vulgarity is not the royal road to Yale."

Maybe Yale of yesteryear.

Today, colleges(even elite ones) are into stuff like anti-heteronormative whatever and 'slut pride' marches. Some even invite porn people lecture to students about sex.
In a society where transvestites and homos get to redefine womanhood and marriage, this is to be expected.

Or maybe some their application under the influence of pot.

Also, with the rise of internet, kids confuse the private and the public. They sit in their bedrooms and share their personal feelings with the entire world. Bedroom radicals and subversives replaced the armchair ones.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Good points... I was trying to put the best possible face on all of it.

Ares Olympus said...

I can't explain any of it, and agree "shamelessness" is accurate, an ideal somehow that people more loveable if they are completely exposed to the world.

Or is it a passivity, a self-sabotage involved, an unconscious urge to repulse others by their oversharing, and thus be rejected from a direction in life they don't want to go anyway?

And the curious thing is how to respond? If politeness means you don't acknowledge when someone is oversharing, then this sort of behavior continues.

I guess there's a phrase "Too much information" that can be used in direct communication to stop someone, but in writing, its doubly blind from feedback and learning how it sounds from the outside.

OTOH, maybe shamelessness is an expression of power, or testing of power? But I don't know how conscious it is.

Ares Olympus said...

It's interesting to see shameful and shameless can be used interchangeably. I found this blog from 2009, helpful but not quite what I wanted.
"'s extremely difficult to respect anyone who, in the need to feel better about themselves, replaces feelings of shamefulness with words and deeds that are irrefutably shameless. But it can be useful to at least comprehend where such unenviable--and reprehensible--shamelessness comes from."

I can see, if there's some unalterable fact about one's self, that you are unable to hide, like being short, bald or having a big nose, or whatever, then you might feel self conscious about it, and experience shame, and then compensate buy putting on an act of shamelessness that basically dares anyone to point out the personal flaw that you're sure everyone else can see, and is judging, whether or not that's true.

But for facts about yourself that you can keep private, and there's no need for public exposure, that's still strange to me.

The article above also says "Where does a shame-based identity come from anyway? The short answer here is that if, when you were growing up, your caretakers regularly criticized your behavior as shameful, it would be almost impossible not to internalize this unfavorable view of yourself."

The aspect of shame I experience is when I see someone act in a shameful or shameless way, its almost like I feel shame FOR them, and so its like they are leaking out their feelings of shame in their shameless expression. But its difficult to know how much of what I feel is something in me, or something in the other.

Whatever else, I'm sure shamelessness is about power, while maybe it feels like its power over others, while really its power over your own self-censor who won't let you experiment for fear of rejection or ridicule.

Lastly, I imagine, if we all lived in a single small community our whole lives, and had a single reputation to defend, the risks of shameless behavior would be too high, but in a world of 7 billion people, you can make yourself a fool in front of a lot of people and then once you work out those demons, you can resubmit yourself to them with new people who don't know your secrets.

So the real danger, if someone acts shameless around you is that you know you're not that important to them, and they're willing to throw you away rather than look in the mirror, whether you dare question their behavior or not, they see that shame in your eyes, and will someday blame you for it.

Lastango said...

"...eating disorders, sexual abuse, self-mutilation, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug addiction."

Include also single motherhood-related poverty, That stuff FILLS the liteweight feminist-tinged wimzsites.

There, to show authenticity and solidarity, they compete with one another for various forms of victim status. To claim to have been raped is the au courant trump card. This sometimes requires a gymnastic imagination; for instance, associate status can be secured by claiming to have encountered attitudes or environments that can be described as "rapey". IMO, that's an important reason why the definition of "rape" is being subjected to heroic stretching.

At a wimzsite, to question the childish pretensions of a blogger or commenter is to be misogynist, creepy, patriarchal, judgmental, and a political enemy.

Lastango said...

Immediately after posting the above I came across the following, about the thirst for victim status among even the most priviliged and best-educated:

Anonymous said...

Philip Larkin. English Poet Laureate, was a teen during WW2. Paraphrase: "At an age when self-absorption and egocentricity are to be expected, events drove us ruthlessly down to size".

Could it be that ignorance of History and Literature, rife these days, encourage our Youth to indulge in those natural inclinations with greater intensity?

I blush to remember my puerile affectations of superiority at that age. I even smoked pipes and wore elbow-patch blazers! Grandpa gave me the pipes.

Anonymous said...

If it gets them into Yale, what do they care?