Saturday, February 20, 2010

Pseudo Self-Esteem vs. the Real Thing

“Every act of man’s life has to be willed; the mere act of obtaining or eating his food implies that the person he preserves is worthy of being preserved; every pleasure he seeks to enjoy implies that the person who seeks it is worthy of finding enjoyment. He has no choice about his need of self-esteem, his only choice is the standard by which to gauge it.”The Ayn Rand Lexicon

The standard by which to gauge one’s self-worth in today’s culture is a perversion, and the cause of so much self-destructive behavior. Consider this letter-to-the-editor published in an October, 2009, edition of the New Jersey Star-Ledger (Self-esteem overrated, 4th letter down). Bill Noren writes, in part:

“And what is it about self-esteem that so fascinates those in academia? How much more self-esteem, moxie, chutzpah do these kids need? They all get trophies in sports just for showing up; their MySpace and Facebook pages are monuments to self-overindulgence, and to top it off they can barely navigate though life’s trials because we keep telling them how great they are. Self-esteem is over-rated. Fact: Studies show criminals enjoy a high opinion of themselves.”

Mr. Noren attacks self-esteem on three fronts … or does he? Let’s analyze each point.

 “[The kids] all get trophies in sports just for showing up.”

This egalitarian notion is a self-esteem destroyer. Divorcing rewards from personal achievement is specifically designed to stifle the talented, the motivated, and the intelligent. It sends a signal – we’re all robotically equal, regardless of ability, character, or effort. Since the building of self-esteem is an arduous process of personal goal-setting followed by achieving and linked to pride, the child who receives the accolades of others “just for showing up” is a victim of injustice. His budding sense of self is undercut, as he is encouraged to look to others as the source of a pseudo-self esteem.

The thinking child, to the extent that he can grasp the proper concepts, even subconsciously, will recognize the phoniness of this whole charade of granting recognition for non-achievement. Undoubtedly, many well-intentioned adults buy into this preposterous notion of self-esteem. But the academic purveyors of this nonsense are not innocent. Their goal is not some twisted method of building self-esteem, but is much more insidious:

“Kill man’s sense of values”, rails Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead. “Kill his capacity to recognize greatness or to achieve it. … Set up standards of achievement open to all, to the least, to the most inept – and you stop the impetus to effort in all men, great or small. You stop all incentive to improvement, to excellence, to perfection. … Enshrine mediocrity – and the shrines are razed.” (Page 665)

Such are the real motives behind what “so fascinates those in academia” – to knock down, not to build up. The end result is to discredit actual self-esteem in the minds of the Bill Noren’s of the world.

No child’s self esteem will be crippled by isolated incidents of the above example, in a household that understands proper educational and child-rearing methods. But, while Mr. Noren is rightfully appalled by this practice, his focus on self-esteem is badly misplaced.

 “[Kids] MySpace and Facebook pages are monuments to self-overindulgence…”

This is vague, but we’ll assume for argument’s sake that Mr. Noren’s “overindulgence” refers to kids trying to outdo each other in impressing others. But the show-off is not an egoist. Self-esteem is not about impressing others, which means the evaluations of other people is the yardstick by which one measures one’s own sense of self-worth. Again we see an example of the judgement’s of others taking precedence in the person’s mind over objective reality and his own assessment of it.

 “Fact:” writes Mr. Noren, “Studies show criminals enjoy a high opinion of themselves.”

Really? By what standard? Are power-lust or greed for the unearned evidence of “a high opinion of themselves” … i.e., self-esteem? Or are they symptomatic of the opposite – a profound self-loathing bred by a helpless inability to cope with reality.

In fact, the criminal is the ultimate example of the utterly selfless human being. He is the most completely dependent type of person. He exists solely by the efforts of others. His “high opinion” of himself derives through the focus on others, whom he must defraud, rob, and murder in order to survive. He is a parasite, both materially and spiritually. He does not think for himself. He thinks through others, in the form of determining what values they have produced so he can take them by force. He does not live by his own effort, but by the efforts of others. He does not live by his own thinking, but by the thinking of others (unless planning a robbery can be considered thinking for oneself). He produces nothing. He lives through and by others. This is true whether he is a petty thief burglarizing houses or the most brutal type of dictator who murders and enslaves the rest of his countrymen. The dictator doesn’t crave unearned material wealth, so much as unearned spiritual wealth – the “prestige” of being the “champion” of some utopian vision.

High opinion of themselves? Apparently no one – neither Mr. Noren nor the creators of the alleged studies – bothered to define just what “high” means. It certainly doesn’t pertain to self-esteem, which obviously isn’t possible to someone without any sense of self. The mindset of a person of self-esteem is, in fact, the opposite of a criminal:

“Self-esteem is reliance on one’s power to think. It cannot be replaced by one’s power to deceive. The self-confidence of a scientist and the self-confidence of a con man are not interchangeable states, and do not come from the same psychological universe. The success of a man who deals with reality augments his self-confidence. The success of a con man augments his panic.” (Lexicon)

Egoism (properly understood) and self-esteem are corollaries. The egoist has no need or desire to achieve his goals except by his own mind and effort, which he is confident of. Others are not objects of exploitation but equals. They are potential trading partners, whether in the material or spiritual realms. A person of self-esteem and self-respect is naturally inclined to grant to others his own esteem and respect until and unless they prove themselves unworthy in his own judgement. Can you see the criminal fitting that description?

All three examples cited by Mr. Noren do not refer to “problems” of self-esteem but rather an attempt to fill a void that real self-esteem should have filled, but didn’t. He is attacking a straw man, psuedo self-esteem. A person whose “instinct” is to live through the minds and achievements of others, as described by these three examples of Mr. Noren’s, has lost or never attained self esteem in the first place.

The person who thinks before pronouncing the words “I know because it’s the truth” is a person of self-esteem (regardless of any errors in his thinking). The person who looks over his shoulder at what others are thinking (whether consciously or not) before pronouncing those words, does not.

Of course, self-esteem does not mean the opinions of others are meaningless or unimportant. It does mean that their opinions do not supercede one’s own judgement.

Self-esteem also does not mean others’ recognition of your achievements or character strengths is unimportant. The rational esteem of people whom one respects is a human need. Loneliness need not be a corollary of self-esteem. What it does mean is that others’ praise is not treated as an automatic fact. One judges one’s own worth – or the value of one’s achievements – according to one’s own estimation relative to objective criteria. One knows one is good, regardless of others’ opinions.

But the thoughts of others can contribute to one’s understanding of reality as they pertain to one’s strengths, thus contributing to one’s own self-esteem. One can certainly argue that praise for another is a way of helping him build self-esteem, particularly where a small child is concerned. In the case of a child, who is just beginning to grasp a healthy sense of self, one can look at praise as a kind of “priming the pump” – instilling in him the sense of his own value and that he is capable of accomplishment. But one has to be very careful here. The praise must be conditional and firmly linked to the other person’s self-generated accomplishments, including and especially where a small child is concerned. At any age, praise can become a substitute for true self-esteem – a kind of drug that hooks a person on others’ approval as the source of satisfaction over his accomplishments, such as they are. Bill Noren’s three examples are not self-esteem builders or indicative of self-esteem, but in fact makes self-esteem impossible by linking the person’s sense of self-worth not to any actual accomplishment of his own but to the approval (or exploitation) of others.

Mr. Noren wonders “what is it about self-esteem that so fascinates those in academia?” Unwittingly, he centers on a key. Who is it that dominates the educational establishment? – the Leftist-Progressive-John Dewey axis.

To make events, especially unexpected events, intelligible, one needs to be able to zero in on the essentials of the concrete issues involved. People who are perplexed by the recent financial turmoil, for example, are so because of a basic lack of understanding of political, economic, and philosophical/moral principles. Such understanding derives from proper conceptual mind training – the ability to think abstractly, which is in fact the uniquely human mode of cognition – such as that provided by The Montessori Method of early childhood education. This power of abstraction is key to acquiring the self-confidence in one’s ability to cope with reality, and the sense that oneself is worth the effort. This is the essence of self-esteem. It is this self-confidence that the Progressive Educators seek to destroy (See Ayn Rand’s The Comprachicos). The person who has surrendered his own judgement to that of others and is thus mystified by the world around him, seeking self-worth through others, is perfect fodder for turning to the slogans of government know-it-alls to make things “intelligible”. How is he to know otherwise? He is ripe for any statist demagogue who rises to tell him that his self-worth is tied to the approval of the community or society or the nation by virtue of his service to it – which means, of course, the state. The person of true self-esteem – the person who thinks for and values himself – will never willingly submit to domination by others.

Mr. Noren declares that today’s kids “can barely navigate though life’s trials because we keep telling them how great they are”. There is certainly a lot of truth in that statement, and it should be the tip-off. Such a soul is the goal of today’s “academia”, which seeks to destroy self-esteem in the young. Tell them how great they are, then tell them what they must do to be great. Just listen to Barack Obama or John McCain preach some form of servitude as the path to that greatness. Once they have served others and found that it does not serve their own needs, what do they do then? Depend on the servitude of others? Who might those others be – politicians and government bureaucrats?

Self-esteem is the vital quality needed to “navigate though life’s trials” … i.e., achieve an independent state of existence. That so many can’t, is my proof of the falsehood of Bill Noren’s argument – that self-esteem is “overrated”.

In fact, the problem is that self-esteem is too poorly understood – and underrated.

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