Me, myself & I

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Construction of the self is central to our existence and our identity is constantly evolving. The person you are now may not be the person you end up becoming. Sociologist Charles Cooley defines identity, or self, as learning to see ourselves as others do. The Oxford dictionary characterises the self as ‘the unique attributes and interests that distinguish us from one another’. How have the different versions of the self changed over time? What are the key influences on our identity? How do you view yourself?

A version of the self that is prevalent in the 21st century is narcissism, which has created a shift from collectivism to individualism. Social Philosopher Anne Manne recently drew parallels between narcissists, adulterers, cosmetic surgery fanatics and gym junkies. Manne discusses high self esteem as a mask for insecurity and pursuit of attention and argues narcissists lack a distinct sense of empathy. While some self confidence is definitely viewed as healthy, when a disregard for fellow citizens prevails it creates anti-social behaviour. Psychologists Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams define narcissists as vindictive, self-promoting, emotionally cold, deceitful and aggressive. Consider the impact on social cohesion of a society largely comprised of narcissists.

Givers or takers

Manne dictates the need for a shift from the pursuit of attention to giving attention, with the former evidenced by a recent Harvard study of youth with 80% primarily valuing achievement and 20% primarily valuing caring for others. Is a healthy focus on oneself vital before you can help others? If achievement were a central focus for all would less care be required as the majority of citizens would be financially and intellectually empowered? Examples of the inherently selfish culture visible today include the amount of nursing homes that occupy people who are never visited by their children and the proportion of citizens of wealthier postcodes that donate less to charity than those living in poorer ones. Dr Jeremy Moss reinforces that inequality of wealth provides an unfair advantage to many social actors which seemingly enables corporations to influence politicians. This in turn can lead to better health, educational and employment outcomes for the wealthy, thus impacting one’s discovery of a sense of self.

Me inc.

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The rise of digital media has contributed to an influx in personal blogs and cleverly crafted social media pages focusing on the ‘ideal’ self. Manne discusses social media as ‘a platform for selfish individualism, hyper competitive capitalism and a megaphone for narcissistic qualities’. The digital age has provided a platform to communicate, however it has also increased consumption of information which impacts our identity. New Philosopher editor Antonia Case recounts Neil Postman’s theory of ‘Technopoly – the surrender of culture to technology’ which highlights people’s needs of being continually on a quest to access information. The abundance of ubiquitous information has undoubtedly shaped the identities of citizens today; children in primary school are now educated about concepts thought to be irrelevant at that age not more than a decade ago. Digital media is perhaps inevitable and rather than trying to disarm the automaton it is, citizens should rely on it for constructive purposes such as education and communicating with loved ones across borders.

Philosopher Flora Michaels discusses the dominant cultural stories of different eras and their influence on selfhood and ones broader perception of who we are and who we want to be. For example, in the 16th Century the dominant cultural story was religious, however, now it is economic. Prior eras and some cultures today are of the collectivist notion that family, tradition, custom and caring for others reign supreme. The modern self is more individualistic focusing on the pursuit of happiness through self-indulgence. For example, working long hours to increase living standards and to also provide an abundance of pleasures such as eating out, holidays and shopping.

The self is also influenced by plans and goals. Case discusses the notion of seeking, ‘planning the next big thing, the latest business idea, money making scheme, dinner party, overseas trip or property purchase’. Interestingly, people are convinced that once they marry the one they love, buy a house and have a family it will be the end of seeking. Philosopher Patrick Stokes asks the question, ‘are we just a story? Are people getting married to live out a love story?’ However, this is not so and the search is replaced. Seeking via the internet is largely unproductive, people could harness this motivation to seek to ‘write operas, learn languages, paint and sing’. It is evident that those who self destruct are lacking the ability financial or otherwise to set goals and achieve them.

Globally acclaimed psychology professor Kenneth Gergen explains that we come to know who we are in different relationships in different ways and by undertaking different activities. He emphasises that “what we are doing right now is only a slice of what we are capable of.” The power of the mind is underestimated and so too is its ability to allow us to maximise our potential. Gergen discusses a need for people to break down ‘solidified realities’ so people bring about positive change for their society, families and people around them. Sharing good practices, peacemaking in communities, community building and flattening organisations creates collaboration. Gergen’s point reinforces Cooley’s earlier notion that the self is continually evolving, always growing and forever changing.


Healthy narcissism

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As abovementioned, self confidence and ‘healthy narcissism’ is surely beneficial in certain areas. Manne describes ‘healthy narcissism’ as occupying self-confidence, ability to get on stage, climb up again and feel just pride…’.The psychotherapist John Mitchell describes a stable self as ‘full of colour, vitality, cohesion, continuity and experience.’ Breakdown and falling apart refers to a lack of cohesion, fragile life experiences and a life seen as dull and pointless. Mental illness costs the economy billions each year; a healthy dose of narcissism can help.

Upon examining theorists and examples of life in the modern era a focus on individualistic pursuits is prevalent, and is centred on the dominant cultural theory of economics. This shift, along with a rise in digital media, has fuelled a larger breed of narcissists who seem to lack empathy for fellow citizens. The impact of narcissism is far reaching and includes a widening gap between social classes which results in less social cohesion and increased anti social behaviour.  As Gergen suggests, narcissists could engage in more collaborative activities creating positive change within their communities. It is acknowledged that healthy narcissism does exist and helps combat societal challenges such as depression, which limits ones ability to construct the view of a favoured self and achieve self actualisation. It could be argued that economics has influenced personal values of achievement and financial independence, enabling development of a productive, safe and sociable self.

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A prisoner for life?

I had the privilege of attending one of the most explosive debates on recidivism and the reintegration of convicted criminals back into society at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas last weekend. When I first read that a double convicted murderer, Erwin James, was coming to Australia to speak I wondered what it would be like to hear his experience of 20 years behind bars for taking the lives of two men.

When he walked on stage and began speaking, I could see remorse ingrained in his face which was permanently furrowed, he never smiled and spoke softly and slowly. I didn’t know how I was going to feel about his views and whether I would agree…whether he deserved the treatment he got in prison and again on release…by the end of the discussion I had some respect (for a murderer?) for his struggle and for his views on recidivism.

Erwin James’ life became troubled at age 10 when his mother was killed in a car accident. His father, unable to cope, became an alcoholic and was abusive toward Erwin, at one stage pushing his head into the fire for smiling.  Erwin was convicted of burglary at age 10 after stealing from a sweet shop…he then left home to sleep on the streets, unable to handle his father’s rage.  He was moved into a boys home where he fast learned the tricks of the trade leading him on a downward spiral and a life on the streets filled with crime.  He by no means was justifying his crimes but painted the picture of a troubled childhood which played a role in his perception of right and wrong.

He didn’t talk much about his crimes, understandably, but wanted to focus on ‘life on the inside’ and whether society wanted criminals to be able to effectively reintegrate into society upon release.

Erwin suggested that if prisoners are in there forever we don’t need to pay as much attention to recidivism but the fact is many prisoners are released and the chances of reoffending are high, at least 60% in the UK,  50% in Australia.

He described prison as a place where you ‘live inside your head’, initially he was in a cell for 23hrs a day.  It was here he would try and work out why he did what he did. The prison psychologist helped him understand that all people are born loveable and aren’t inherently bad people…and so he began to untangle his dysfunctions.  He recalls seeing a photo of himself as a young boy with a cowboy hat on and wondered where it all went wrong.

It was a long and difficult 20 years with many prisoners taking their own life (1247 he recalls in great detail) ‘a place of fear where people were struggling’.  He was moved to a longer term maximum security prison and was able to then use workshops, the chapel, a gym and saw more possibilities.  He joined an English class which was important to be able to exercise his mind again.

Prison was a land of hierarchy and unwritten rules with someone being stabbed every other week.  He experienced a major riot and a siege but he hung on to hope and books.  The prison psychologist told him that he owes it to his victims to ‘do the best you can in here’.

He became known as ‘the guy who could write a good letter’ and started writing letters for other inmates to lawyers, family, complaints for people.  He started to feel good that he was able to contribute to a community and knew that if he ever got out he would want to make a positive contribution to society.  He saw writing as an enabler, allowing him to find a way to live again and walk the middle line between his past and future. He was chronically inhibited in prison and needed to feel secure again.

He was asked to write for the Guardian Newspaper a column on ‘life inside’.  This was an opportunity for Erwin to apply himself and have a second chance at life and is where he has been employed since.

Prison as a deterrent

Naturally, the question was raised that conditions in prison should be tough so its a deterrent to those choosing to commit crimes.  Erwin explained that he absolutely agrees that prison shouldn’t be a playground but that ultimately these people are going to be released and if we don’t want them continuing to harm members of society upon release they need to live in a way that is not going to impact their actions upon release.  ‘Prison crushes you, undermines, erodes and corrodes you and dismantles your humanity’.  You may get released but the debt you owe the victims and their families even after 20 years inside will never be repaid, and having that on your conscience is a true life sentence.

Early intervention

The question was raised around Erwin’s troubled childhood and it was agreed that early intervention from social services and the right education and support is key to ensuring criminality doesn’t result.

Victims and their families

Erwin at no point felt that his crimes should be excused, he raised some interesting views on what next after serving your time… A criminal record will always stay with him and even minimised his chances of getting a visa to come to Australia to speak.  However he just tries to ‘do the best he can’ with what time he has left on the outside.  Inside he hoped that he would live to see just one more sunny day…

Can people change? Can we forgive?

In Norway there is a prison called Bastoy that sees only 16% of its inmates reoffending upon release.  However, it is argued that Norway with its relatively small population, egalitarian nature and high quality of life within the community play a role.  Its here prisoners are given responsibility, for example through farming on site.
http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/sep/04/bastoy-norwegian-prison-works

Hearing first hand from a convicted criminal was enlightening.  It changed my perspective on our prison system.  Ultimately there are some criminals that will continue to reoffend and cause major harm in the community and shouldn’t be released and Erwin acknowledges this.  Conversely, there are many people imprisoned that commit fraud and other smaller crimes that probably don’t deserve to live in such circumstances and can be rehabilitated and deterred in different ways. However, there are others that will be released and upon spending sometimes decades in a hardened prison won’t be able to function in society as we know it.

People are people ultimately and its up to society as to whether they want to keep prisoners in there for life, or even capital punishment like in the US, but the fact remains many prisoners are currently released so its up to us to decide how they are treated in prison to reduce recidivism.

http://books.google.com.au/books/about/A_life_inside.html?id=SZIbAQAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y

http://news.com.au/national/thomas-kelly-killer-kieran-loveridge-gets-four-years-jail/story-fncynjr2-1226755733724n

http://news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/my-conversations-with-a-coldblooded-killer/story-fnixwvgh-1226758834186

http://news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/derrick-deacon-explains-what-freedom-feels-like-after-25-years/story-fnixwvgh-1226766427689

http://news.com.au/lifestyle/relationships/simon-gittanys-new-life-in-jail-and-what-his-girlfriend-will-see-of-him/story-fnet09p2-1226770560480