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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The search for certainty

We all want it and the reality is we can’t always get it. The absolute conviction that forecast events will occur, that something is the case or that predicted outcomes will be reached.

Certainty is a component of our everyday lives.  We encounter certainty with contracts, wedding rings, solving crimes beyond reasonable doubt, cause analysis, financial speculation, “googling” and much more. Remember the days of getting public transport and ‘winging it’. Now I check the real time ETA every few minutes! Or those days when we said we would meet a friend at midday – and we met them then and there, no multiple text influx at 30 second intervals.

Society has become obsessed with rationalisation and the ability to predict and control outcomes. What happens when we face uncertainty? Society is in disarray… confusion and frustration prevail.

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Why don’t we know the answer?

In the case of flight MH370, uncertainty threw even the most powerful and resourced nations into a tail spin with over 26 countries committing to the biggest search and rescue operation over the past century.  The conversations I  read and heard appeared to centre around uncertainty and the frustration of ‘not knowing’.  WHERE is the plane? WHY can’t we find out? WHY can’t technology give us the answer? I think we need to look at the statistics in perspective.  There are approximately 18 million flights p.a and this is the only flight that has vanished in modern aviation history (~1903) – we are all familiar with a margin of error.

When a new disease is discovered and treatment is uncertain, again we have citizens begging medical practitioners for answers.  WHY don’t you know what caused this? WHY don’t you know how to cure it?

Recently scientists discovered a new galaxy.  A whole new planetary system that we had no clue about before….WHY did we not know about this earlier?

Uncertainty is deemed unacceptable

Uncertainty is the opposite and equally valid notion of certainty and society ought to embrace it if its actors stand any chance of progress. A few examples of events that have had major impacts on society that weren’t able to be ‘controlled’.

  • Global Financial Crisis and other economic disasters
  • Natural disasters
  • Disease
  • Unforeseen tragedies
  • Unsolved crimes

Adapt and embrace

I believe the only exception to the rule (and there is always one!) is the determination by police to solve a crime beyond reasonable doubt for years after the crime has occurred to ensure justice is served.  For example, the case of Daniel Morcombe, a ten year old boy who disappeared over a decade ago whose killer has finally been prosecuted.

It’s no secret that certainty about income, for example, can be necessary to one’s lifestyle.  When you drill down is it really? There is always welfare if you needed to maintain material subsistence, provided you had exhausted all avenues in your quest ‘to earn a quid’.  What if you adapted to a less expensive lifestyle and resorted to a job that perhaps paid less?

I’m personally making a special effort to ‘go with the flow’ and avoid predicting and controlling outcomes on a daily basis.  Something many of you may be familiar with – life ain’t black and white as they say! We need to embrace the grey area.

After all, are we really locked in to anything? We can say with certainty we will execute the deliverables of a contract, be with someone forever or believe it unlikely to contract a particular disease.  But the truth is – we don’t know, and nor should we.

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The voice of the media

Media. Mass communication.  A powerful vehicle to deliver messages to the masses quickly. Arguably one of the most powerful influences on society, vital in developing societal norms. Second only to the Government, which has the power to dictate media activity, or at least we are led to believe it does.

In the Australian media recently we have seen a few examples of the power of our media outlets. At what point does their quest for quality coverage cross the line? Below are a few productive and not so productive outputs of the media from a social perspective.

Solving crime

Distributing information and images / footage that may lead to a rapid arrest of a criminal or person of interest, enhanced recently through the use of social media by the police.  This is in our favour as we want to ensure a functional society, eradicating anti social behaviour as quickly as possible.

Driving community sanctioned rules which in turn shape Government laws

The media heavily influences public perception of the effectiveness of Government. The new 1:30am lock out and 3am last drinks laws were primarily fuelled by community outcry over the continued hospitalisation and in some cases death of young children, the victims of callous drunken attacks.  Government acted swiftly to pacify the community that ‘something would be done’ – a campaign which the community would never have known about without extensive media coverage.

Education

Media coverage enables us to understand and read about challenges and achievements experienced by members of society beyond our own location.  Its great to hear what may be happening in the world of our domestic and International counterparts and where we can obtain learnings.

At the end of various articles I find it quite useful to see relevant contact points e.g. an article on Cancer call Cancer Council Helpline.  An article relating to mental illness try Lifeline etc.

Driving forward a progressive society focused on marriage equality is another role of the media.

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Wasted resources

There has been that much media coverage on the Corby case the past decade I think we could have educated every Australian on human rights atrocities the world over by now.  Is this of value to us as society? Perhaps as a deterrent, which wouldn’t require a decade of media coverage.  The implications of ‘excessive Corby coverage’ has been far reaching with the Indonesian Government threatening to revoke Corby’s parole and The Australian Federal Police raiding the offices for information on a potential interview deal.

Publicity

Marketers are familiar with the value unpaid media exposure gives their product due to its vast reach and timeliness of message distribution. This in turn has the counter effect of negative publicity which can be damaging to a brand and business.  For example, the recent Qantas redundancy coverage.  Yes Alan Joyce could have made different business decisions earlier and Qantas may be in good shape today but life is full of could have, should have, would have but didn’t.  While some industries experience challenges based on the evolution of society e.g. car manufacturers others experience dramatic growth e.g. technology firms.

Negativity

The vast majority of media articles are negative e.g. about crime, misfortune etc.  How does this impact society? What are the implications of all this negativity? Is it possible to become tunnel visioned? thinking we are living in a crime filled society when in fact the stories we read represent only a small percentage of the activities of Australians.

We recently saw the exposure of the suicide of Charlotte Dawson.  A media personality renowned for a very public battle with depression.  Up until very recently media outlets did not publicise suicides for fear of suicide contagion. I assume this change the past year or so is in aid of mental illness to drive greater awareness and to publish the support services available.

Bias / Credibility

Can journalists disclose ‘the truth’ about anyone who is a major shareholder / owner / sponsor / regulatory authority (e.g. Government) or do they adopt a second set of principles to remain loyal and to keep financial incentives in tact? Are all messages from qualified sources?

Communist societies control messages so as not to distort desired public opinion for example, North Korea.  Is this beneficial to society? Should we be grateful for the freedom of speech we see from our writers today?

What next?

Mass media has a powerful voice – the key is how you use that voice and who determines what messages are most productive for society. Perhaps the answer is better ethics training for all journalists as it appears they are the key determinants for the mass communication received by society which in turn shapes our decisions.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-03-24/mcdonell-media-frenzy-descends-on-mh370-mystery/5340242

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/latest-news/new-laws-may-allow-filming-in-nsw-courts/story-fn3dxiwe-1226864315601

Festival of Dangerous Ideas

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Sydney Opera House are delivering a unique opportunity for Australians to listen to thoughts on issues that confront society.
http://www.fodi.sydneyoperahouse.com

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas challenges our assumptions, forces us to confront what society usually ignores, and will make you think, react…. and maybe even change your mind.

I was very excited to hear that Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Arlie Hochschild, was delivering a speech titled ‘We have outsourced ourselves‘ .

Remote assistants respond to calls and emails. Life coaches assist with personal decisions. Smartphone apps tell us where to eat dinner. Nameologists help choose names for babies that will be raised by live-in au pairs.

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild looks at the long-term consequences of a frictionless existence and the implications of replacing the community with a marketplace in favour of faster, lonelier lives.

Delivered in conjunction with St James Ethics Centre

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