Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Missed opportunity

There is a good discussion developing in the comments here at Ken and Emily's joint regarding the slow death of adult civility in the face of the cult of self-esteem at any price.

Nobody is saying that esteem is a bad thing, but of course it is traditionally defined as giving someone else their due respect, in admiration for their accomplishments or character. It was in every sense something that was earned, and not simply stumbled into. The concept of self-esteem, therefore, seems to me to be intrinsically flawed: even at its best it sets one up as the ultimate judge of one's own worth, and encourages ego about one's own accomplishments. It would take a saint to be able to make such a judgment justly, without pride, and without inflating those accomplishments. At its worst, it sets one up as the only judge - and not just of oneself, but of anyone who would beg to differ with those judgments.

As a result we have bullies who feel entitled to think themselves superior, and are perfectly willing to act on those feelings, with force. We have boors who think they're artists simply because they offend people; often they don't bother with the actual effort of being clever when they do it. We have drivers who act as if theirs are the only cars that matter, and slack-jawed insolence in customer service, and a chorus of jabbering, jeering nitwits whose feel that their every scrawling or mal mot should be tacked up for adulation, as if they were still in kindergarten and the world was their parents' refrigerator.

Not only does this make the world very unpleasant, it also fails to do what it intends. The price paid for self-esteem at any cost is esteem itself.

The mature, healthy alternative is dignity. My church talks a lot about the dignity of the human person, but not because every human person is a fantastic fellow who anyone should be proud to have even glimpsed in passing... Quite the reverse. The dignity of the human person consists in being a human person, fallen like all others, with flaws and struggles and annoying habits that nonetheless do not diminish that dignity. As a result, we are to treat each other with respect, rather than emphasising that others start treating us that way.

Since we are not innately wonderful (and may well turn out to be dreadful), we are meant to keep guard over ourselves, and to work on managing and improving our behavior, not to simply give it free rein as a good in itself. We are strongly exhorted - do nothing that would diminish our own dignity. (It is not what goes into a man that makes him unclean, but what comes out.) This is all the opposite of the "esteem yourself" theory, and it leads to a lot more genuine esteem.

As Emily points out (I think it's comment #12), the alternative is that slackers are never encouraged to be anything else, and achievers are actually encouraged to be slackers, since it would make the slackers feel bad if the achievers were praised in their hearing. (I've read stories of kids in t-ball told to stop at second after hitting a home run, because it makes the opposing team feel bad. Uhm - HOW? It's not like the kid hit a hanging slider, the ball's just on a tee. How exactly is it preferable to raise an entire generation of kids who can't deal with setbacks or mistakes, or celebrate their accomplishments in a healthy manner?)

This is a huge missed opportunity for society at large to become more self-controlled, better-behaved, and more understanding of other people. Simply demanding the understanding first is like putting a cherry in an empty bowl and calling it a sundae.

This brings me all the way round to a recent experience in a local mega-mart.

Ladybug and I were picking up some small sundries for the upcoming big trip, and we were stuck behind some unpleasant tweeners - I'd say they were 18-21, three girls and a guy. The guy was an obnoxious stooge, no questions asked. He was loud, treated his "friends" like guttersnipes, and seemed to enjoy every instant of the attention. So, sitting there with my arms full of sundries, I had to witness this overgrown gradeschooler, a man in appearance only, perform for the check-out area - biting insults passed off as jokes, crudity for its own sake... he knocked small items off the shelves and kicked them aside, crumpled magazines into balls and stuffed them back into the racks, and vandalized a display rack, while the three giggly ladies enabled him by pretending to be shocked, shocked at his behavior while offering no actual consequence or resistance.

"Somebody call security, this man is disruptive!" he shouted. Security was already there, of course - but it was two women, a retiree, and one 5-foot-5 guy eyeing him with contempt. There was little else to be done unless actual police arrived, unless it was someone on line - perhaps someone with a armful of sundries and a mortified fiancee.

Well, I wimped the hell out, my friends. And no doubt there were excellent reasons to wimp out, not least of which was the ability to stand at the altar this Sunday with all my ribs intact. But that's just the thing - it wasn't a matter of hauling off and slobberknocking this pathetic creature, even if I were willing and capable. It was a matter of doing what those girls were unable to, and disapproving of his conduct. He would have taken it poorly: in fact, he was spoiling for the chance. But it was all the service he would accept at the time, and it should have been offered, out of kindness if nothing else.

It may not have helped him, at least not right away. But as we went to the car with our sundries and watched them peel out in a hideous ghetto-orange Scion (one of the girls was driving), I wasn't really thinking of that jackass.

I was thinking of the four mid-teens who were behind us in line. They had been laughing the whole time. It may have meant nothing to the jackass, but it could have mean everything for them to see an adult stand up to an idiot, to see dignity defend itself.

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