THE AGENDA

MIL­LEN­NI­ALS CAN’T HELP BUT TURN THEIR PHONES ON THEM­SELVES. HERE, GQ CON­TRIB­U­TOR AND BRI­TISH AUTHOR, STORR, EX­PLORES THE PRES­SURES TO BE NAR­CIS­SIS­TIC, AND WHY AN­CIENT GREECE IS TO BLAME.

GQ (Australia) - - AGENDA - BY WILL STORR

The tech­nol­o­gists of Silicon Val­ley never stop pitch­ing. Count­less thou­sands of apps, web­sites and de­vices are launched ev­ery year, the great ma­jor­ity of which are des­tined only to be a sad mi­nus en­try, coloured red, on some ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist’s spread­sheet. When, in 2010, Ap­ple an­nounced the new fea­ture of its lat­est iphone model would be a front-fac­ing cam­era, it seemed a mar­ginal de­vel­op­ment whose chance of sur­vival would be down to its pur­ported use­ful­ness for video chats on Skype or Facetime. But that’s not what hap­pened. In­stead, an en­tire gen­er­a­tion of teens and twen­tysome­things be­gan us­ing it to snap close-ups of their own faces and slap­ping them on­line for likes and com­ments. Rechris­tened the ‘selfie cam­era’, it meant ev­ery­thing we thought we knew about the nar­cis­sis­tic mil­len­ni­als was spec­tac­u­larly con­firmed. Seven years later, the dark ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the meet­ing of so­cial me­dia and the selfie cam­era are begin­ning to emerge. Front­line med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als talk of an era of “un­prece­dented so­cial pres­sures” where young peo­ple feel model-grade bod­ies and faces are a min­i­mum re­quire­ment for peer ac­cep­tance. Anx­i­ety is on the rise, as are rates of eat­ing disor­ders, self-harm and, in men, the use of an­abolic steroids to boost mus­cle mass. And the pres­sure isn’t only that we look the same, we have to think the same as well. Po­lit­i­cal views are ag­gres­sively po­liced on­line. Whether you’re a stu­dent or a CEO, if you even ques­tion the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tives, you risk the mob turn­ing on you and all the hor­ri­ble real-life up­shots that can lead to. All of this cre­ates a so­cial en­vi­ron­ment in which the pres­sure to be per­fect of­ten feels im­mense. Con­trary to pop­u­lar opin­ion, how­ever, all of this didn’t start with In­sta­gram and the selfie cam­era. In fact, you can trace our jour­ney to this age of per­fec­tion­ism back 2500 years, to An­cient Greece. Modern psy­chol­o­gists have looked at the cre­ation of in­di­vid­u­al­ism, which is a par­tic­u­lar way of look­ing at the world that sees re­al­ity as be­ing made up of in­di­vid­ual pieces and parts. The con­cept has never left us and is dif­fer­ent in pro­found ways to that of other cul­tures, such as that of East Asia, which tends to see re­al­ity as a field of con­nected forces. To ex­plain how this hap­pened, schol­ars point to the fact that An­cient Greece was com­posed of about 1000 in­di­vid­ual city states, many si­t­u­ated on rocky coasts or small is­lands. This land­scape, while be­ing ter­ri­ble for team-in­ten­sive projects such as farm­ing, en­cour­aged small in­dus­tries and trad­ing. For­eign traders brought in new ideas. De­bate was en­cour­aged. In­di­vid­u­als were cel­e­brated for their achieve­ments and be­came fa­mous. In this way, an atom­ised en­vi­ron­ment be­came an atom­ised world­view. It was cod­i­fied by Greek philoso­phers such as Aris­to­tle, a be­liever in the per­fectibil­ity of the in­di­vid­ual through learn­ing and prac­tice. This idea is with us to­day more than ever. Af­ter suf­fer­ing a slight re­treat in the mid­dle decades of the last cen­tury, in­di­vid­u­al­ism surged again un­der the ne­olib­eral poli­cies of Ron­ald Rea­gan and Mar­garet Thatcher. They de­ter­mined to res­cue their na­tions from the eco­nomic chaos of the ’70s by turn­ing as much of hu­man life as pos­si­ble into a com­pe­ti­tion of in­di­vid­ual ver­sus in­di­vid­ual. They be­gan by strip­ping back pro­tec­tions for work­ers, in the form of wel­fare, unions and busi­ness reg­u­la­tions. The job-for­life era of ‘cor­po­ra­tion man’ came to an end. In or­der to sur­vive the wild seas of ne­olib­er­al­ism, you had to be ruth­less, am­bi­tious and self-as­sured. You had to be­lieve in your­self. It was into this surg­ing sea of Me that the self-es­teem craze ar­rived. It had its own roots in the Hu­man Po­ten­tial psy­chol­ogy move­ment that emerged in 1960s Amer­ica and which pro­posed hu­mans were in­her­ently good and burst­ing with un­used po­ten­tial (the non­sense idea we only use 10 per cent of our brains comes from them). In or­der to un­lock this po­ten­tial, we just had to em­brace our own au­then­tic in­ner won­der­ful­ness. By the ’90s, teach­ers and par­ents all over the West were rais­ing chil­dren to be­lieve they were amaz­ing and unique. These were the chil­dren who grew up to be the selfie-snap­ping mil­len­ni­als. To blame mil­len­ni­als for their own nar­cis­sism is un­fair. Ev­ery new gen­er­a­tion is the prod­uct of the last and they’re the lat­est it­er­a­tion of the in­di­vid­u­al­ist model of self that’s been evolv­ing since Aris­to­tle’s day. In­di­vid­u­al­ism, in it­self, is no bad thing; it’s the foun­da­tion of Western progress. But to­day’s ver­sion, warped and ac­cel­er­ated by ne­olib­er­al­ism and Hu­man Po­ten­tial/self-es­teem the­ory, can be harm­ful. We’re led to be­lieve we can be who­ever we want to be and that we only need to dream big and “go for it”. These can be in­spir­ing mes­sages, but what do they mean when we fail? The in­escapable logic is that it’s our fault, that we just didn’t give it our all. Our cul­ture tells us we’re fail­ures. And it’s wrong. We’re still ut­terly beguiled by Hu­man Po­ten­tial ideas that say hu­mans are like gods and have the power to be­come what­ever we like. But how can we be who­ever we want to be, when who we are as an adult is mostly de­fined by genes and child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences over which we had no con­trol? In or­der to break free of the pun­ish­ing mes­sages of cul­ture’s per­fec­tion­ism, we must tem­per am­bi­tions and em­brace the truth of what the hu­man bi­o­log­i­cal or­gan­ism re­ally is. We’re not gods, we’re hubris­tic and of­ten de­luded animals. We’re im­per­fect, all of us. Selfie by Will Storr ($32.99); macmillan.com.au

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