Thursday, July 7, 2011

Insidious Evil

What do you think of when you think of “insidious evil?” Evil we understand well. It refers to actions that have no redeeming virtues, acts of mass murder, extreme forms of abuse, or enslaving human beings. Add "insidious" to the mix and you get evil that creeps up on you, that works gradually to destroy, and that works slowly to destroy.

Neil Strauss doesn't see things in quite this way.

Until last weekend I had not heard of Neil Strauss. But then he wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal in which he revealed that his idea of “insidious evil” was the “Like” button you find on newspaper and magazine sites, on Facebook, and on other forms of social media.

At first, I thought that Strauss was not serious. How could any sentient human being pretend that the “Like” button is an “insidious evil?” How could he call on everyone to: “rise up against the tyranny of the ‘like’ button?”

To call it rhetorical overreach is too easy. One begins to suspect that the author is trying to be ironic or that he is pretending to have a sense of humor.

If none of those are true, then we are getting to witness someone showing off his mental deficiencies and acting the fool.

Sad to say, Strauss means exactly what he is saying. He wants to convince us that the “Like” button represents a new low in human behavior because it promotes conformity.

As we all know, when it comes to therapy culture values, conformity is Public Enemy No. 1.

You know about conformity. It’s occurs when people follow the same rules, respect the same customs, and even dress to fit into the group. Soldiers in uniform conform. Artists do not.

Strauss is at war with conformity because he thinks that it undermines self-esteem. And we all know that we are supposed to be bowing down to the gods of self-esteem.

The self-esteem culture has helped produce the most self-centered, egotistical, and narcissistic group of young people in our history, and yet, if you dare suggest that there is anything wrong with it, you are going to be accused of promoting conformity, stifling creativity, and colluding with “insidious evils.”

One wonders how anyone could advance such a theory with a straight face.

By now we should have realized that the self-esteem culture, the one that teaches young people to let it all hang out, to express themselves openly and honestly, to remain in close touch with their deepest personal feelings is major impediment to normal psychological development and socialization.

Let’s examine Strauss’s argument. He begins with a hypothetical. It isn’t really accurate, but let’s ignore that for a minute. He writes: “When the Internet first came into public use, it was hailed as a liberation from conformity, a floating world ruled by passion, creativity, innovation and freedom of information.”

True enough, some people thought that the Internet was a force for human liberation. Those who thought so were the people who believed in a form of liberation theology and who wanted to see their beliefs confirmed in everyday life.

The rest of the wold understood that the Internet would have an extraordinary influence on the way people do business, on the way people work, and on the way information is distributed.  

While the blogosphere and different forms of social media were touted as a way for everyone to express him or her self, that is hardly what the Internet is really about.

Why does Strauss denounce the “Like” button as the root of some insidious evil? It’s good to read his words, because otherwise you might believe that I am exaggerating.

In his words: “Just as stand-up comedians are trained to be funny by observing which of their lines and expressions are greeted with laughter, so too are our thoughts online molded to conform to popular opinion by these buttons. A status update that is met with no likes (or a clever tweet that isn't retweeted) becomes the equivalent of a joke met with silence. It must be rethought and rewritten. And so we don't show our true selves online, but a mask designed to conform to the opinions of those around us.”

He continues:: “‘Like’ culture is antithetical to the concept of self-esteem, which a healthy individual should be developing from the inside out rather than from the outside in.”

And this: “Form your own opinions of something you're reading, rather than looking at the feedback for cues about what to think.”

Think about the hapless stand-up comedian who ignores audience response, who continues to tell the jokes he wants to tell regardless of whether anyone is or is not laughing. Would you consider him to have high self-esteem or would you advise him to go back to his day job?
Let’s note in passing that when you are arguing for free and creative self-expression, you should not regale your readers with platitudes and banalities about the need to esteem our true selves. Otherwise someone might think that you are merely echoing what everyone thinks in order to be liked yourself.

And you would do even better to show a minimal understanding of the way human beings connect with other human beings.

In his article Strauss is merely promoting the kind of self-esteemist nonsense that encourages people to be egomaniacs and narcissists. He might believe that self-esteem is an inside/out development, but if he does, that just means that the theory is designed to produce social dysfunction.

If you follow this principle, and express yourself freely and openly, without regard for the opinions of others, without regard for how you look to others, and without regard for whether or not you are connecting with others, you are going to become socially dysfunctional. I guarantee it.

Strauss is not even right to say that the “like” culture promotes conformity and makes everyone think the same thing. It allows us all to moderate the expression of our views in order to connect with other human beings.

If you follow the self-esteem culture to its bitter end you will end up without friends and without human connection. If you think that this is healthy, then clearly you need help.

Everyone knows, or ought to know, that if you want to connect with another human being, you must consider that  person’s thoughts and feelings. When we are engaged in the most personal communication, face-to-face conversation we are constantly modulating our expression, the better to maintain contact with our interlocutor.

It doesn’t make you a conformist; it makes you respectful and sociable.

If you ignore the response to your remarks, if you are so obtuse that you continue discussing a topic that your friend finds obnoxious or offensive, you have not expressed your true self, you have imposed yourself on your friend.

If you follow this bad advice often enough and you will find yourself friendless.


Anonymous said...

As a former Soldier who has consorted w/artists, my experience is the latter conform most.
Uniformed military look similar, but have a wide range of personalities, interests, and characters.
Artists have a limited repertoire of their own "uniforms", and enforce ferocious GroupThink.
65 years of life have convinced me the only people with solid "self esteem" are sociopaths. The rest of us wrestle w/our many flaws.
"At the end of his career, every politician thinks himself a failure". - WS Churchill -- (Rich)

Stuart Schneiderman said...

That's been my experience also. In New York City there is an extremely high level of GroupThink among artists, and a distinct ferocity toward those who do not think as they do.

I agree with you that people who lack the kind of outward uniform and insignia that make them part of a group tend to require conformity of thought and feeling. There is probably far more diversity of opinion in Manhattan Kansas than there is on Manhattan Island.

stg58 said...

I was in the USMC for nine years. If you were to look at any platoon formation that I was a part of, all you would see is a sea of green, with some slight differentiations (light green and dark green) owing to racial makeup.

Peel that layer back, and you will find an incredible group of individuals who can function seamlessly in a group.