Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Me vs Society

New York Times columnist David Brooks reports that in the 1950 the Gallup organization asked high school seniors, "Are you a very important person?". 12% said yes

They asked the same question of the same group in 2005 and 80% said they were very important. 

TIME Magazine asked Americans, "Are you in the top 1% of earners?" 19% of Americans thought they were! 

This brings me to the question, "Is self-esteem important?". I answer, "Yes of course!  However, an inflated sense of self-worth, making you think you are better than other people, absolutely not!"

In a related issue, Mr. Brooks also points out that economic consumption in the 20th Century is flat until the 1970's when it suddenly takes off.  Over most of the 20th century, that was consistently at 43% of GDP, when 1970 arrived it suddenly jumped to 133% of GDP.  Note that we are approaching the era of Reagan. Similarly, corporate executives did not make vast amounts of money,although course they were wealthy, until the late 70's and early 80's when they suddenly began demanding tens of millions of dollars a year and golden parachutes which would save them from economic loss – even if they destroyed the company.

Mr. Brooks contends that this is due to a conviction of being absolutely correct which possesses these individuals. They have a high self-esteem, indeed an overinflated self-esteem. They have an absolute certainty about the correctness of their beliefs and if you disagree with them, you must be regarded as an object that is in the way.  I recall a philosopher who once said something along the line of: the more certain you are that you are absolutely correct, the more likely you are to be wrong.

Mr. Brooks also points out that, given a test psychologists utilize to identify narcissism, which is an excess of belief in and even adoration of oneself, in the last 20 years, the median number of people who are identified as narcissistic has gone up 30%! My own view of the self-esteem movement is that it is very important to build self-esteem of youngsters, but it should not be based on the sense of the individual is significant and important as opposed to other individuals. In other words, the lesson should be; yes, I am an important, special, unique individual, and so is everyone else! What we have lost, in my opinion, is the sense that everyone is important, that we all matter, and that we are a part of a society, a family -- a group; and that that group is important and we are simply one important part of it, not the most important part.

I no longer have the article, but I recall in long-term study which extended over decades. The study listed 100 attributes of  children, and asked parents, utilizing a forced choice methodology, to rank those characteristics as to which were most important for their offspring.

In the 1950s, parents ranked traits such as "is a good citizen" and "gets along with others" at the top of the list and ranked "stands up for his rights" in the middle. By the 1980s, this had been reversed.  I think this is profoundly significant. Being a good citizen, doing one's duty, having a sense that one is a part of things greater than oneself, were once considered essential to a child's well-being by American parents. Today, this is no longer so. It is considered much more important for a child to stand up for his rights, as opposed to the rights of others, or the welfare and benefit of his society. It seems to me that this is not an exemple of our social decay, but rather a root cause of the problems our nation is facing today.

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