When I was a kid, I was much more deeply affected by what other people thought of me than I am, now. At the time, I knew that a lot of people who at least claimed that they were pretty independent in this regard, but my own ‘forest for the trees’ worldview made me genuinely question whether anybody ever accomplished such a thing. It took many, many years of attempting to think my way out of this corner, and while I would not at all claim to be completely unaffected by what people tell me, now, it isn’t the end-all, be-all it once was.

Thing of it is, how we feel about ourselves is something we actually have a great deal of influence over — it’s just a question of how much influence you’re willing to allow anybody else to have. Some people are very adamant in insisting that how other people think about one is more important or even more valid than what one thinks themselves; this is true if there are a large number of people who think you’re a terrible person and there isn’t some quirky misunderstanding to explain away the perception, and bullshit if it’s just founded on the belief that Hobbes was right and without the possibility of being pilloried in the court of public opinion, one’s “self-interest” would run amok, trampling social contract and cotton candy uni-kittens in its wake.

This is true when we let anybody’s judgment stand as a proxy to our own, however — to even accept someone else’ judgement as preferable to what one might have arrived at on their own is itself a judgment call.

Nor is it sufficient to disregard negative criticism without simultaneously rejecting positive criticism. Of all the conclusions I’ve drawn about the nature of self-worth, the most rock-solid (and trite) is that one can only ever truly compete with one’s self — comparing yourself to someone else can certainly be done objectively in a lot of different cases, but ultimately if you find yourself wanting in some respect and lack the capacity to change it for similarly objective reasons, then it becomes something you must adapt to, not something you can improve on merely because you’re “superior” to someone else in the same regard.

Of course, the typical child growing up in America is going to come out so screwed up, philosophically, that this issue along with a huge list of others effectively constitute a collection of things that need to be fixed if they’re going to maximize any productivity out of their own reasoning process. And this is one a lot of people either deliberately skip over or never bother to ask any questions about, so for a large part of the world, it’s all about “better than you” even though it’s poison to confess to the literal belief. In some instances, the qualification for this distinction is as transparent as a slogan on a t-shirt; the color of one’s skin, their financial means, their religious affiliation, their popularity.

They also seem to be pretty desperate about maintaining and expanding on it.

This is because approval in a lot of these instances is a favor that is extended politically, in exchange for quid-pro-quo consideration, i.e. its actually pretty damned arbitrary and doesn’t have to do with whether one is objectively, say, a better golfer than someone else who plays golf.

But the emotional payoff between personal satisfaction and the admiration of one’s peers is very different. There are studies to show that the emotional validation we experience when the group therapy counselor gives us a banana sticker is a cognitive throwback to our socialization as tribal animals and increased our odds of reproducing by rewarding us for placating the tribal majority so they didn’t throw us to the dinosaurs as a snack. There are no such studies to suggest that anybody’s inner critic ever gave them a banana stickers, but if they weren’t such a whiny little jackwagons in the first place, they wouldn’t need a fucking banana sticker, would they?

Praise from others is a short-term high with a crash, like a heavy sugar buzz. Personal esteem is slow to develop, but essential to self-confidence and a whole slew of indispensable qualities, but the most pronounced characteristic between the two is not that the former is frequently in conflict with the latter (whereas the reverse is not quite so true), but often times, deliberately so. Those who hold that self-interest leads to the dessicated corpse of Hobbes trampling kittens tend to hold one personally liable for every excess that can be attributed to not accepting an identical view of human nature, whether one has actually ever seen a kitten in the court of public opinion or not.

As an example, some nights back, I had the misfortune of hearing Sarah Palin utter the phrase “all you really exceptional Americans” before I could change the channel. What makes this sort of thing fascinating is that you can’t tell if it’s a deliberate fabrication intended to distort public perception about a concept or of it’s just unexamined ignorance, an uninformed swipe at grasping the concepts meaning by means of the phrase alone. Regardless, “American Exceptionalism” is not a quality bestowed on all Americans because they happened to be born here, it is not a quality designated as owned by a current majority (or even a current minority) — it’s the character of our political system, not it’s constituents.

And here’s Sarah, insisting that not only is it a uniquely American quality, but that it’s the domain of the Average (or below average, depending on your criterion) American. That’s like saying something’s great because there’s absolutely nothing great about it — average is, to paraphrase an old chum, the middle of the fucking bell curve. It’s like believing that the difference between whether or not something is true depends solely on how many people believe it at the time, like such a thing wouldn’t have killed us all long ago were it true.

But people find all kinds of ways to rationalize magical thinking, especially if, once identifying what they agree with, no further effort is required to examine or expand on them further.

The fact that this country has been home to so many people who DID NOT get stuck in this trap is the true meaning of American Exceptionalism, however, and I say as much not to claim it as a distinction for myself, but to align myself with the principles of those greater individuals whose coat tails I so happily ride upon.

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  • Comments (10)
    • jane
    • May 31st, 2011

    oh -arrr
    well back here in England unless we are complete sell-satisfied twerps, anyone with an ounce of sennse can see that the British were exceptionally influential, and pretty criminal, in the past, and now are a feeble little country with some truly awful character traits especially that of thinking we are more important than we are.
    on personal self esteem – parenting is usually at fault, I know mine was!!!!!

    • Max Bell
    • June 1st, 2011

    Genuine humility is pretty rare, too, and there’s a very strong argument to be made that humility is a precondition to greatness.

    But the core difference is the people who strive to live up to the ideals that their nation was founded under versus exceptionalism as an entitlement bestowed by birth right. One is worthy of admiration; the other an error arising from ignorance.

    • Laroquod
    • June 1st, 2011

    It’s interesting to read about these issues, which I’ve always thought about, in the context of American exceptionalism, which I haven’t thought much about besides to dismiss it as obviiously unmoored from reality.

    Your third paragraph struck home the most for me, since it gets to the heart of why living by what others think is problematic. ‘Others’ don’t agree on what to think, and so it has to be decided which others to follow. So decides this? You? Or others? If you, then you’re self-driven but in denial. If others, then you’ve deferred the question into infinite recursion (who decides which others decide which others etc.), and so are also in denial. The only way to not be in denial is to accept that everything is actually happening in your brain and you’re giving value to what is what; no matter how you may believe your self-esteem is driven at any moment, it’s driven by you. There is no escaping you. 8)

      • Max Bell
      • June 2nd, 2011

      Very zen, innit?

      “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

      Modern Christianity, to the sophist of integrity is like GeoCities to the web designer; an endless supply of examples to avoid. But then in deconstructing the bullshit, you learn a great deal about the role of semantics in reasoning.

      It’s like the legions of tea baggers claiming Ayn Rand as their patron saint, even though she wouldn’t give any of them the time of day if she were still alive (unless it was to lecture them about being poseurs) — their actual grasp of the subject is much the same as Billy Idol reading the first PAGE of Nueromancer and writing “Hack the system”. They’re not actually adopting a philosophy; they’re using it as a prop.

    • Laroquod
    • June 3rd, 2011

    Heh heh I like that GeoCities remark. Sorry — off-topic. Did you know that Jason Scott (of @textfiles on Twitter — long-time archivist of computer history, who also happens to be the dude behind @Sockington, pardon me if you already know all this) and his ‘archive team’ managed to save most of GeoCities when Yahoo! decided the future didn’t need any of that information, anymore? Yeah, the design was famously amateur, because a lot of people with no design experience were getting webby for the very first time and there were no prefab forms to fill in. That’s what makes it so important in our history, which is looking increasingly monotone. Everybody’s got a Blogger blog, or WordPress, and they are all of a piece. Even I’m on Blogger now, so I wouldn’t have to handcode all of the automatic syndication, etc., that it does and to avoid destroying my home server if any post were actually, you know — get Noticed or something.

    Back on topic — I’ve never actually read Ayn Rand, but it’s amazing what you can absorb by hearing *about* her.

    P.S. I’d prefer it personally if Billy Idol hacked off the movie Hackers, which hacked off Gibson into the broader, funnier, let’s-not-take-ourselves-quite-THAT-seriously, ‘Hack the planet!!’ 87

      • Max Bell
      • June 3rd, 2011

      Good point, there.

      When I first got into computers, I spent a lot of time with pre-written BASIC programs, trying to get them to run unmodified on a Macintosh and naturally, getting a lot of baffling errors. I had no concept of things like “you need to open an output window before you can PRINT to the screen”. I have vague recollections of attempting to learn Pascal (because it was considered a better language for Macs than C) and even buying a copy of Turbo Pascal at one point but fortunately, the process eluded me.

      Now I look down at the section below this editor, which shows basic HTML markup, and think to myself “that’s not coding, that’s formatting”.

      But to someone who has no concept of how HTML works, it’s going to be dense and impenetrable.

      Then again? The real problem isn’t the training wheels — it’s the people who refuse to ever take them off. If wordpress yanks my blog tomorrow? This was all just so much disposable BS in the first place — a scratch pad for those times when I just absolutely had to sit down and write a long post. If any of it was that important to me, I’d already have a backup for it.

    • Laroquod
    • June 3rd, 2011

    I started coding on the Mac with THINK C++, and I believe they also made a THINK Pascal. THINK was definitely the way to go over Turbo, on the Mac.

    The thing about programming on the Mac is without a reference guide to the built-in Apple toolbox routines, you were kinda lost. And although THINK included all sorts of tools to link into the toolbox, they weren’t good at explaining it. For that you had to buy Apple’s series of overpriced, oversized ‘Inside Macintosh’ volumes. Buying all those books amounted to a huge developer licence fee of a kind, right there.

    And yeah — I put my most important stuff on my handcoded blog, too.

      • Max Bell
      • June 3rd, 2011

      I never made it beyond Basic, but I kind of have to believe that if I really would have wanted to be a coder, I would have learned — much like how I would have actually played Dungeons and Dragons, instead of just collecting the books.

        • Laroquod
        • June 4th, 2011

        You never actually played? That’s too bad, man. And I was just thinking earlier today about whether I had time to start an improv roleplaying group on Twitter. Not using D&D rules, tho.

        • Max Bell
        • June 4th, 2011

        Get lamp.
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