As those of you who are familiar with Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba and his writings (those, anyway, who have managed to pass their eyes from the picture onto this text – more on this anon) are aware, he has difficulty with the issue of ‘self-esteem’. In particular, he struggles with the pervasive memes that all look, to him, like variations on the theme ‘I am awesome, and every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.’
While the evidence that any of Us is ‘good’ (never mind ‘awesome’), on any day, in any way, grows progressively more meagre. As should be apparent from the debacle that is, to date, the 2016 US Presidency campaign, in which the candidates, and their backers, seemingly compete for their ability to cover themselves in nightsoil, and use that ability as a propaganda tactic. A successful propaganda tactic. [EDIT, one year later: Yeah. No shit, Sherlock.]
Yes, it’s uncomfortable to think of oneself as anything other than ‘good’. “No persons are villains in their own stories”, to paraphrase George R. R. Martin, and the phrase has also been used to describe the philosophy behind the character narratives in Harry Turtledove‘s alternative-history works. Indeed, Martin goes further; far from never being the villains in their own narratives, persons (for example, the Turtledove character Jake Featherston) usually style themselves the heroes. Both of them have made very good livings pandering to Our desires. “Every day, in every way … and I’m sure as hell doing better than those fools!”
That word villain has a story of its own. To Amoebae of a certain age, it conjures up images of Snidely Whiplash, of personified ‘evil’ that, in its intensity and self-acknowledgement, is remarkably rare – rare enough to grab our attention, to rouse our emotions, to get us to
root … er, shout against (or for) him.
But … the word is derived from words in Latin and Old French meaning ‘farmhand’, ‘yokel’, ‘rustic’ …
By which We imply that villainry, ‘evil’, is commonplace, while We Ourselves, as heroes, are, by definition, truly and authentically rare. Sure, that oughta boost your self-esteem, yeah? Now, consider that estimation of the world in the context of a one-person, one-vote democracy …
And you were wondering how come everybody seems to be screaming at each other?
In his letter to the Romans, Paul of Tarsus, paraphrasing the Psalms and Qoheleth, calls out all the ‘heroes’:
There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.
Then again … who defines ‘good’? Who, ‘evil’? Ambrose Bierce, in his Devil’s Dictionary definition of ‘moral’, succinctly described moral relativism, a century before it became fashionable:
It is sayd there be a raunge of mountaynes in the Easte, on one syde of the which certayn conducts are immorall, yet on the other syde they are holden in good esteeme; wherebye the mountayneer is much conveenyenced, for it is given to him to goe downe eyther way and act as it shall suite his moode, withouten offence.
And if, after this, there should be any lingering doubt about the mutability of concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, consider the current furore over bathrooms. What would that discussion have been like ten, nay five, years ago? To say nothing of Ambrose Bierce’s time, or Paul of Tarsus’s? Or of all the times throughout history that ‘good’ has been used to assert the dominion of the bully over the slave?
YFNA argues that ‘good’ is a bad basis upon which to base one’s self-esteem. For none of us is ‘good’, none ‘evil’, whatever either one of those things mean. If any one of us could catch, and hold, that greased watermelon, we’d likely find it to be a mixture of both.
What we are, YFNA argues, is selfish. Or not.
Unlike ‘goodness’, selfishness is something that can be both defined and measured, and it is both defined and measured for species of animals (that means Us) that have interactive behavior among individuals. A selfish behavior is one that reaps a short-term benefit for the individual, ignoring its impact (benign to catastrophic) on any other individual.
A selfless behavior is one that reaps a benefit to one or more other individuals, at some cost to the selfless individual. A cost that is bearable if, and only if, the selfless behavior confers a greater benefit to all the individuals than they would receive if each behaved selfishly – for example, by allowing all to survive and breed, rather than only some.
In general, a selfish behavior involves little learning – it’s what happens when toddlers reach for every thing that attracts their attention during their first trip to the supermarket. Selfless behaviors, rather, involve much learning, with many of those lessons being painful for both teachers and learners, and those lessons often being the source of later resentment and anger – especially when the child who has learned to keep the hands in the cart at the supermarket, and sit quietly, sees another child behaving selfishly, grabbing stuff and screaming, and (for whatever reason) getting away with it.
The learning associated with selflessness is so hard, and the resentments so great, that the eight years of the decorous and cultured Obama Administration have left in their wake a population screaming for each of its self-identified groupings to behave as selfishly as possible.
Consider, as an example, human mating behaviors. (Were you wondering, dear readers, when The Amoeba was going to get around to explaining that picture? Look. Consider it an experiment. The one and only post in the entire history of the Dude & Dude blog that’s gotten anything like a respectable number of views is the one that featured an image of a busty bimbo in a revealing T-shirt. Rule 1: the customer is always right. Rule 2: if the customer is wrong, see Rule 1. In a democracy, who is The Amoeba to try to refute the rule of the majority?)
YFNA argues that copulation (‘sex’) is the ultimate in selfish behaviors. It’s all about how you yourself feel while this is going on. You have essentially zero direct information about how the other person(s) involved feel(s), you only know what they show and tell you, which may or (as is the case with sex workers) may not be trustworthy. You project your aspirations on some other person, based on external clues (attractiveness in a thong, for instance), and hope you can break down that person’s defenses long enough for you to get what you want – which, given that each defensive breakdown can ruin that other’s health, or commit that other to twenty year’s slavery at the hands of screaming toddlers/teenagers, can be expected to be pretty stiff.
The learning path necessary for you to get – and accept the keeping of – that object of your selfish desires is long, arduous, and painful. It involves, YFNA argues, learning and feeling respect for the partner; learning how to listen, to respond, to negotiate, to navigate the inevitable torrents of conflict, to recognize when selfish urges would lead to disaster and act accordingly, to let go if that’s what’s called for; learning, in fine, how to love. The costs of failure to learn (misery in relationship, financial inadequacy, infidelity, disease, divorce, rape, murder) are abominable – rates of all of which are going up as our behavior codes give way to selfish impatience, our technologies give us the (transitory) illusion of control over birth and disease, and our social structures (for now; but keep the recent assaults upon reproductive controls in general, and Planned Parenthood in particular, in mind) provide a safety net (an expensive one) for those who have suffered consequences.
YFNA has frequently heard it said, in the context of self-esteem, that one must first learn to ‘love’ (perhaps the better word would be ‘respect’) oneself before one can love (respect?) others. He can understand the appeal of this message to those who have experienced the ‘command to be good’ as a tool of oppression. He is nevertheless unsatisfied. Homo sapiens is a social species, and it’s been argued that it owes its existence to its well-developed capacity for being social. Any view of the self that promotes selfishness over all else – what the ancient Greeks called hubris, as YFNA understands the matter – runs the risk of hurting the society to which the self belongs, and, ultimately, that self.
For whatever it may be worth, YFNA is distressingly aware of the capacity he has for destructive selfishness, for hubris. He has a responsibility, each and every minute of each and every day, to remember what he has learned about being social, about how and when to behave selflessly, and apply it, no matter how painful it is, to prevent the expression of that destructive hubris. Knowing in advance that, periodically, he will fail, and, in that inevitable failure, will need to beg grace from his fellow humans, accept that grace if it is forthcoming, and then carry on to the best of his abilities, remembering that he is a servant, and his best is what his master, society, requires. Jesus of Nazareth may have enjoined Peter (and, through Peter, all of Us) to forgive his neighbor seventy-seven times. It is up to YFNA to ensure there is not a seventy-eighth occurrence.
In this, The Amoeba reckons, self-respect and self-preservation are appropriate, indeed necessary. There are, after all, times when he succeeds, and his master, society, expects him to accept these successes and build upon them, for his own good and for the good of all. But there is no time, no energy, no justification for self-exaltation, for hubris, for ‘self-esteem.’
First pride, then the crash;
the bigger the ego, the harder the fall.
It’s better to live humbly among the poor
than to live it up among the rich and famous.