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Self-Esteem, Hollywood, and the End of Democracy

Posted: Wed, January 23, 2013 | By: Scott Jackisch

I often think about the nature of self-esteem.  This topic came up again when I read Michael Vassar’s recent essay on in response to the question: ”What *should* we be worried about?”  I like Vassar, he is always ready to make outrageous statements and then back them up with a rigorous line of reasoning.  In the case of this Edge essay, I (and a few others) have had a hard time fully understanding his position.  Nonetheless, Vassar makes many points that are worth noting.  He highlights the correlation between self-esteem and initiative and then decries the fact that our society lacks enough people with initiative.  He also asserts that education is a system to ensure submission so he agrees with Chomsky and others in that criticism.

Michael Vassar
Michael Vassar

The self-esteem/initiative connection is one that I don’t consider often enough, and I fully agree with the education/submission problem.  But self-esteem is a complex issue.  Vassar points to the correlation between socioeconomic status and self-esteem and evidence that the upper classes are anti-social and unethical.  Also, some studies report that bullies actually have high explicit self-esteem but that bullying behavior may be caused by simultaneous low implicit self-esteem.  (Though there is some controversy over this view of narcissism.)  I am skeptical of implicit measures of self-esteem as a matter of principle.  Oh, you are going to tell me how I really feel about myself, without an fMRI, using a cleverly design name-letter association test?  Really?  That’s nice.

However it becomes disentangled, it’s clear that this gnarly, variable thing called “self-esteem” is not an unalloyed good.  Of course, without it, no one will stand up to repression (unless they are hungry enough.)   I can also understand how you would need high self-esteem to think you can change the world the way Steve Jobs did.  But it seems that Jobs was emotionally fragile, breaking down in tears, hurting others, etc.  His self-esteem must have had a high value at times, but it seemed to have a broad dynamic range.  Jobs may even have met the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  (if you take any of that DSM crap seriously)

Vassar seems to be hinting that that our society is setup such that it takes a narcissist or sociopath to truly succeed.  Everyone else is too submissive and their self-esteem is too low.  He goes on to make the claim that these leaders lack the skills to innovate but I don’t fully understand this part of the argument.  There is also some stuff about social provisioning of love and belonging which is unclear to me.  Setting those fuzzy bits aside, I  wonder how this wide-spread degradation of self-esteem comes into existence.  Are there mechanisms in place to systematically lower self-esteem?

I would argue that Hollywood and Madison Avenue provide two examples of popular media complexes who are negatively impacting self-esteem.  We are probably hard-wired as social animals to pay attention to high-status individuals around us.  Hollywood cashes in on this by dangling their stars before us.  It may be that by focusing on these unrealistically high-status individuals, it lowers our own sense of status and perhaps our  self-esteem.  Madison Avenue has a more direct reason to lower your self-esteem: people who feel bad about themselves are more likely to buy stuff.

So it’s clear that Hollywood and Madison Avenue are destroying democracy…   Right?  Come on, we need for people to stand up for themselves to have a proper democracy. How can we stand up for ourselves if our self-esteem has been decimated by popular media?  Clearly we all need to unplug from popular media.  So lay off the celebrity blogs and crappy Hollywood nonsense, ok?   And for goodness sake, throw out your television and get an ad-blocker or something.


This essay first appeared in Scott’s blog, The Oakland Futurist, HERE


Ive been thinking about this in context of the devils advocate and then over time Ive been thinking about various things that might fit in a list with it. It seems to me that we might find a major culprit of lowering overall self-esteem of people to be the culture of devils advocacy. Of course, some devils advocacy can be good sometimes, and especially in certain situations, but too much of it drives things like constructive discussion, deliberation and dialectic into the minority. To counteract it, it seems that we need to find a way to champion the notion of working together more often.

By Eric Schulke on Jan 23, 2013 at 2:18pm

“Clearly we all need to unplug from popular media.  So lay off the celebrity blogs and crappy Hollywood nonsense, ok?”

Correct. Celebrity culture even contributes to mass murder. Difficult to believe, yes, however psychopathology is influenced by the “look at me!” mentality of celebrity culture. The genuine psychopath cannot delay gratification; in extreme cases the psychopath to gain attention will go out “in a blaze of glory”, casting aside all patience and restraint. This is admittedly referring to extreme cases, anomalies, though the following is a specific example: the film ‘Taxi Driver’, with its psychopathic but charismatic (performed by Robert De Niro) lead character, influenced John Hinckley to shoot a president.
It is a sentiment of: if I can’t become famous the conventional way, I’ll become infamous via violence. Manson, Son Of Sam, the recent Holmes Batman-theater mass slaying: all have in common the urge of someone to become a celebrity by hook or by crook—by killing many persons.

By Alan Brooks on Jan 25, 2013 at 10:27pm

Allow me to explain, he’s advocating educational reform, the “will to power” and the Übermensch. He talks about how our culture of submission has destroyed our mechanisms for supporting self-actualizing (self-mastery). An Übermensch (like me) has directed his “will to power” inward and gained self-mastery. However, our current culture is all submission or imposing your will, especially to the point of oppression or exploitation of others. With self-mastery you gain profound self-control and spiritual depth, representing a more refined form of power than the power gained by conquering barbarians (current leaders). The greatest power that we can have is power over ourselves, and we gain power over ourselves in the same way we gain power over external enemies: by attacking them and submitting them to our will. Strong-willed people, whom Nietzsche often refers to as free spirits, are always ready to attack their fundamental beliefs and assumptions, to question their very identity. There is great safety in resting assured that certain truths or beliefs are beyond question, and it takes great courage to question our fundamental “truths.” Nietzsche writes that what is important is not the courage of our convictions but the courage for an attack on our convictions. Such courage exhibits a strong will to power, the will to choose self-mastery over safety.

The will to power is a complex web of an individual’s motivation matrix can be broken down to just that, a will to power and control. All life seeks primarily to expand itself.  No matter what type of situation individuals find themselves in, their will to power comes through in some way or another. Nietzsche calls these different ways the disguised forms of the will to power, meaning that they appear to stem from something else, such as altruism or sympathy, when they really originate in one’s instinct to bring someone under one’s own power. The first of these disguised forms of the will to power is a desire for freedom, independence, and peace. What this is at bottom, according to Nietzsche, is simply the will toward self-preservation and existence in general. One wants peace and independence so that one is not at risk from the possibly violent actions of others. Also, one does not want to become enslaved or subjugated by others.

By shawn on Jan 27, 2013 at 10:16am

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