Personality vs. Character

I’m reading Christopher Lasch’s book The Minimal Self again in which he analyses with penetrating scrutiny the sickness that pervades today’s consumer society. It is a society, Lasch insists, that puts a premium on appearance over reality, resulting from the fact that advertisers have convinced us that it is only appearance that matters. We “upgrade” when what we are using is no longer in fashion, whether or not it still works. Indeed, he says, it’s not about how the thing works anyway. It’s about how our owning it will appear to others. We must have the latest because our friends will think less of us off we don’t. (Oh, and by the way, make sure to leave your trailer home standing prominently next to your house so folks will know you have one!)

Lasch knows better than anyone that the reduction of the “minimal self,” which  we are fixated on, does not translate into the need to build better character; rather it translates into molding our own appearance so we will be attractive to others. In today’s parlance, he might say, it’s all about how many “likes” we get on social media. Regarding the cult of personality, Lasch notes the following important difference:

“Since [a person] will be judged, both by his colleagues and superiors at work and by the strangers he encounters on the street, according to his possessions, his clothes, and his ‘personality’ –not, as in the nineteenth century, by his ‘character’ –he adopts a theatrical view of his own ‘performance’ on and off the job. . . .. the conditions of everyday social intercourse, in societies based on mass production and mass consumption, encourage an unprecedented attention to superficial impressions and images, to the point where the self becomes almost indistinguishable from its surface.’

Indeed, it was Martin Luther King, Jr. in my memory who was the last to speak not only about the “moral high ground” but also about judging men and women by the “content of their character.” We don’t talk much about character any more (or about the moral high ground for that matter). We don’t seem to care about what sort of person, say, an athlete happens to be. If Tiger Woods is a womanizer and behaves like a wild animal on the golf course we care not a whit as long as he can hit his drive over 300 yards and beat the opposition. Though, in saying this, it must also be noted that in our racist age it is interesting that a black man can be so popular in a world otherwise peopled by wealthy white men who play a game at posh golf courses. That, in itself, may be a good thing.

In any event, the switch from a concern with the kind of people we are to the concern with how we appear to others is based on our consumer culture, according to Lasch, and results in a superficial view of the world — indeed a view filtered through a lens that is focused primarily on the shallow self and how what we do will impress others. We want them to “like” us, whether they like us for the right reasons or not. The “minimal self” is still the focus of our attention, but it is not focused on the deeper self that is formed in the real world meeting both success and failure, growing by way of occasional suffering and struggle. This is a self that can only be found by looking elsewhere. Instead we find a shallow self that purchases goods on the basis of their popularity (“It’s a terrific shirt, sir. Everyone is wearing them today.”) and presents itself as something to be bought on the same basis, a self that cares only about how many friends it has on Facebook.

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8 thoughts on “Personality vs. Character

  1. Timely and excellent post. I watch pundits talk about one of the presidential candidates needing to pivot toward the general election as if to say we can erase all of his lies, demonization, insults and bombast as well as her other character flaws. This is a man whose character has been revealed for many years as an exploitive narcissist. Just make the sale and don’t worry about the promises you made. Just sell your name to give someone the illusion of quality to a development you have nothing to do with, to screw people out of their money. Just attack critics no matter how valid their criticisms.

    His opponent has a better base of doing many good things, but cannot stay out of her own way. She has been scrutinized fairly and largely unfairly, so she is less than forthcoming. Yet, she is not trusted by many. Given the fair part, it is hard to argue with some points, but given the unfair part and visible husband, I understand the retrenchment.

    Character matters. It is unfortunate we have a man with very little facing a woman with much more, but less than desired in the eyes of many. And, yet the polls say he is more trustworthy, which just shows how little attention we pay as an electorate. We are shortchanging ourselves with either, but one is far better than the man who cannot tell the truth in the significant majority of circumstances. But, even if she wins, I feel we are lacking in the character equation.

    Yet, based on your post, we seem to voting on personality. False bravado sells. It matters little that the promises he has made cannot be kept, are unconstitutional or are undoable.

  2. My husband and I were just having a similar conversation about the effect of advertising on our consumer driven society. But after reading your post, I can see a deeper implication to this materialistic lifestyle. This past year, in my upper level AP classes, my colleague and I came across more cheating and plagiarism than ever before. From day one assignments are put into a database to check for this; student know this from day 1, and they have been using it for years. While it was disconcerting the amount of cheating that went on continually throughout the year up to the very last assignment in May, the most surprising to us was the indigent behavior when a student or students in many cases received zeros on essays, analysis etc. due to plagiarism and or copying/cheating. No, it wasn’t that the students didn’t understand or realize they were choosing not to do their own work, they were just angry that they were caught and had to take the consequence. After much reflection and frustration, when looking at our society as a whole and what we “value”, well. it isn’t too difficult to see these values. or characteristics being reflected in our new generation. Granted, as an instructor, I do plan to make some changes on my end to try and assist students with realizing why their own ideas are so important. But this is a real challenge when the rest of what they are bombarded with everyday only emphasizes the opposite.

    • I got to the point where I made my students do all their written work in class. And I supplied the paper. I would often give them the topic beforehand, but they had to write in class with me watching. It gets to be a game, and their rationale is that “everyone does it.” Not so and also a weak response!

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