Monday, July 23, 2012

You're so vain, you probably think this blog post's about you


You're special.

Odds are that you don't need me to tell you, because we are living through the great narcissism epidemic of the new millennium.

The culprit most often blamed for this epidemic: the Internet. At this point, it's probably a cliche everywhere but on the Newsroom to call out the Web for bringing Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame to life "in a way that probably even Warhol couldn't imagine."

Mr. DeVille, I'm ready for my close-up  

It's a running gag that a new reporter with a camera crew is a dangerous thing. In media classes, you can simply flick on the TV cameras and watch perfectly normal and well-adjusted students become transfixed by the most wonderful image they've ever seen on a monitor: themselves.

I call this the "RadioShack Effect." Years before the Internet, the electronics retailer figured out that if people saw themselves in the TV monitor in the window, they'd stop and look into it. "Look: I'm on TV!"

I once saw a guy (who happened to look just like William H. Macy) fall out of his chair at a Vancouver Canucks game in the excitement of seeing himself on the JumboTron. That makes one of him. 

The Internet is a TV and a telephone, of course, which means it takes the ability to see yourself on a monitor and puts "you" in charge of the button that makes it go live. The vamping-in-the-mirror photos on Facebook and Instagram are just the tip of the iceberg.

As is with all media, the thing that makes it great is also the thing that makes it terrible. No more gatekeepers? Great! Everybody talking and no one listening? Bad, Internet, Bad!

Advertisers were on the forefront of this trend. In advertising, it's a given that "you" is the most important person in any ad. "They" doesn't sell, but "you" does (an approximation of George Carlin's "your stuff" versus "other people's shit").

Which explains Time's cynically calculated Person of the Year in 2006, around the same time the entire magazine business collapsed at once: You. "Me!? I'd better buy that thing!" The cover came complete with a mirror. A little less journalistically challenging, we can agree, than Time's Man of the Year in 1939.


Narcissist? Moi?

If you're a narcissist, congratulations! According to these articles, you may be either:

1. A leader.

2. A killer.

As Dr. Learner writes the National Review (link #2, above):
"A narcissist is a person who never progressed beyond the self-love of infancy, one who learned superficial social skills - narcissists are often charming - but never learned to love another and, through love, to view others as separate persons with an equal value. To the narcissist, other people have no intrinsic worth; their value is purely instrumental. They are useful when they satisfy his desires and enhance his self-esteem, disposable as bottle caps when they don't."
I'd written most of this blog post before the gunman shot up the movie theatre in Aurora. Perhaps the best articles on the topic so far are this one by film critic Roger Ebert on his blog, and this one he wrote for the New York Times. He concurs with Learner:
"Like many whose misery is reflected in violence, he may simply have been drawn to a highly publicized event with a big crowd. In cynical terms, he was seeking a publicity tie-in. He was like one of those goofballs waving in the background when a TV reporter does a stand-up at a big story."
It's an open reality among teachers that the easiest way to motivate students is by blowing smoke...their way by saying things like, "The cream always rises to the top." Of course, everyone in the room thinks, "That's me!"

The opposite - giving corrective advice - has become harder in the echo chamber of "you." A low mark or negative feedback is an ego threat that "you" simply can't handle, being the most important person in the room and all.

When everyone is rewarded for being special, the ones who end up being punished are those who have actually worked harder and/or achieved more than anyone else, but hey: the great thing about overachievers is that they rarely complain. 

I wonder what would be of the creative-writing teacher today who once wrote on my classmate's term paper, "I won't give you a mark, because you might think that I consider this to be writing."

In stand-up comedy, it's well known that the more negative feedback you get early on - "you're not funny" - is inversely related to how funny you will be in the future. 

If the Time Magazine article was the start of this trend, maybe the high school commencement address that went viral (top of this post) is the beginning of the market correction.

As Dr. Lerner concludes in her article:
"Many...experts...focus only on self-esteem, not on esteem for others, and they obsess about the methods parents use to teach their kids, ignoring the content, the moral lessons they are trying to teach, insisting that any physical punishment, however infrequently and judiciously applied, is child abuse. These experts have no real solutions to offer, when the problem is overindulgence rather than abuse, as it now so often is. They are part of the problem. And the sooner we recognize that, the better."
Maybe we can start by posting seven vamping photos of our friends for every one we post of ourselves.

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