The “Debates”

I often think of the Lincoln/Douglas debates in 1858. These were debates to win the seat of Senator from Illinois — not president of the United States. Nevertheless, the two men debated several times, the first in Ottawa, Illinois, a town of about 9,000. As the debates began 10,000 people showed up to watch and listen for three hours in the hot, summer sun. One participant spoke (without interruption) for an hour. The second participant spoke for an hour and a half, and the first spoke for a half hour in “rebuttal.” For the most part, the debates involved prepared notes, but there was considerable spontaneity and a few barbs — but no personal insults designed to make the other blanch. Always, the debates focused on major events of the day, chiefly abolition and the slavery question, the preservation of the Union, and the role of the government in these major events. Newspaper reporters were on hand to take notes in shorthand which were later reproduced at length in their papers then to be taken up by papers around the country to be widely read and discussed.

Today, in contrast, — and especially in 2016 — the debates ate relatively brief (90 minutes) on television which allows the voters to sit in air-conditioned comfort sipping their favorite drinks and turning the whole thing off if they become disenchanted or disgusted. Most recently the initial debate involved one unprepared participant sniffling and interrupting the other innumerable times, being as boorish and rude as possible and making sure that his comments were directed at the person of his opponent or bragging about his own accomplishments which, he repeatedly insisted, put him (and only him) in the position of savior of this country, making it “great again.” His opponent sought to address the questions and remain calm in the storm and make sure she didn’t lower herself to the level of her opponent. Her advisors, predicting further attacks in future debates not against her but against her philandering husband 20 years ago, have urged her to go on the attack, i.e., lower herself to the level of her opponent. One would hope she will not do this, but one also knows that this is what the people viewing want to see. After all, they have cut their teeth on “The National Enquirer” and “Reality TV” and one of these participants is convinced that the debates are exactly that with “uge” audiences.

The fact that this approach to what was once a very serious business is so very popular, as is the Reality TV star who is center stage regardless of what the other person is doing or saying, puts me in mind of the movie “Idiocracy.” In that movie, you will recall, the minions have indeed become mindless. Because of devolution of the human species resulting from too much TV, among other things, the  IQ of the average American has lowered itself, roughly speaking, to that of a toadstool. TV is not the only culprit, of course, as genetics has been a large factor, since the bright people over the years decided to have no children, or only one or two, while the masses of humanity are reproducing like rabbits. This is what we might call a “leveling down in spades.”

The problem is that life is not reality TV and we have not become quite like the America envisioned by that movie. There are serious problems facing this country and there are qualified people who are able and willing to address them. But the media love a circus — it sells the peanuts after all — and they love the clown who brings in the audience to buy the peanuts. And, as we know, the media rule. Well, their sponsors rule, since they are the ones who eventually make the call.

So while we know that those in the media should be holding the candidates’ feet to the fire and asking them tough questions to see what they are made of, they will continue to allow the participants to have their way. A free-for-all sells better than at least one bright person struggling with tough questions. This is the age of “The Enquirer” and Reality TV after all. We get what we are wiling to pay for, even if we are getting ripped off.

The Kid As King

I have taken a break from reading history and turned to a popular book by two behavioral psychologists, Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell. Their book is The Narcissism Epidemic and, allowing for hyperbole, the title says it all. Apparently I understated the problem in my blogs about self-esteem and the movement in the schools that is making it difficult for teachers to teach and students to learn. According to our authors this movement has moved out of the schools and has blossomed into narcissism which is a cultural phenomenon of epidemic proportions. To quote the authors at some length, we are told that:

The cultural focus on self-admiration began with the shift toward focusing on the individual in the 1970s, documented in Tom Wolfe’s article on “The Me Decade” in 1976 and Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. In the three decades since, narcissism has grown in ways these authors never could have imagined. The fight for the greater good of the 1960s became looking out for number one by the 1980s. Parenting became more indulgent, celebrity worship grew, and reality TV became a showcase of narcissistic people. The Internet brought useful technology but also the possibility of instant fame and a “look at me!” mentality. Using botulinum toxin to smooth facial wrinkles to perpetuate a youthful face birthed a huge industry. The easy accessibility of credit allowed people to look better off financially than they actually were.

As the authors are at pains to point out, this has all resulted from our preoccupation with ourselves and our mania to promote “self-esteem” not only in our schools, where it may have its roots, but also in our culture at large. And as I have mentioned in previous blogs, the problem is not that people are told that they are great; the problem is that people that are not great are told that they are. In other words, narcissism, as defined by Twenge and Campbell, is built on a lie. Praise when deserved helps build genuine self-esteem and self-confidence. Undeserved praise builds a false sense of self-esteem which quickly translates into preoccupation with self, conceit, over-confidence, and the inability to establish emotional connections with others. It also results in a sense of entitlement and grade inflation in our high schools and colleges. It even leads to violence, according to the authors. As they say, “The long-term consequences are destructive to society.”

The narcissistic personality, which is becoming commonplace, lives in a make-believe world where he or she is the only thing that matters: narcissism is a flight from reality that can become violent when the person is forced to see things as they really are. As the authors point out: “In fact, narcissism causes almost all of the things that Americans hoped self-esteem would prevent, including aggression, materialism, lack of caring for others, and shallow values.” Again, the problem is undeserved praise and adulation. It is essentially false, and that’s the core of the problem — for a culture that prides itself on its honesty.

We want our kids to be confident and self-assured. But heaping undeserved praise on them is obviously not the answer. In fact, studies have shown that it is actually counter-productive. As our authors tell us, “Self-esteem boosting [in a number of tests cited] led to failure, not success.”  And if our two authors are correct, the narcissism that stems from unwarranted self-esteem has serious consequences indeed as the kids grow into adulthood. The solution to the problem is better parenting coupled with the elimination of the self-esteem nonsense at home and in the schools. We need to be honest with kids, praise them when they deserve praise and never hesitate to engage in constructive criticism when it is called for. It really isn’t rocket science: it’s just plain common sense. Our grandparents knew all about it long ago.

My take on it is that this movement started in this country in the late 1960s with the “I’m OK, You’re OK” movement and the attendant cultural strictures against being “judgmental.” The notion that we shouldn’t judge one another, that everyone is fine just as they are, rests on the assumption that there is no room for improvement — which is absurd on its face. Studies have shown that self-esteem comes after genuine accomplishments; when it is based on empty lies it is easily deflated, leading to disappointment, frustration, and even (as noted) violence.

There are important differences between negative and positive, constructive criticism. The idea that we should not judge one another rules out the critical observations about our own and others’ behavior that is in need of correction. None of us is perfect and we all have room for improvement. But not for the narcissist: in his or her world things are hunky-dory and everyone is perfect just as they are. Even the Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.