Be Yourself?  Screw Yourself!
  (...after all, what if you suck?)

        4/10/07

sexy transformation


The essay about Byron elicited many compliments, and I’m sincerely gratified that so many of you out there enjoyed it — but it also elicited a bit of confusion and disapproval, mainly from people who couldn’t understand why The 1585 would select as its avatar someone who was so “phony.”  This reaction intrigued me so much that I decided to make “phoniness” itself — or, rather, baseless accusations of it — the subject of a new piece.

But this essay isn’t going to be about Byron again.  For one thing, his “realness” or lack thereof was a special case — the man was so conflicted that he had no idea what about himself was “real” or “fake,” and being driven by this uncertainty was a big part of what made him (and all subsequent artists, whom, as I explained, Byron invented) great.  For another thing, the objections weren’t really about Byron himself anyway — they were about the idea that excellence itself is supposedly “fake.”  And I don’t think it is, so that’s what we’re going to examine now.

In the far-left sociological cosmology (and also in the far-right one, although it never gets articulated the same way on that side because those people are generally too stupid to articulate their gut reactions upwards into coherent principles), no-one is supposed to be any better than anyone else at anything.  All forms of excellence — intellectual, sexual, artistic, or what-have-you — are inherently oppressive, and, by virtue of the ad baculum fallacy, must therefore be fake.  Indeed, a good portion of liberal energy over the past two decades, especially within academia, has been expended in efforts to prove the ultimate “fakeness” of anything that was ever purported to be better than anything else (although, thankfully, the Liberals retreated somewhat from this position after the Conservatives called their bluff by channeling the populist jealousy it engendered into making a bona fide retard President).  Anything that ever appeared to be “good” only appeared so because it — or its audience — was “biased” against something else.

Examples abounded during the ’90s, but my favorite has to be the removal of the analogies section from the Verbal portion of the SAT.  It wasn’t removed because of racial bias, or gender bias — which are valid objections when there are legitimate grounds to make them — but because an analysis of the test revealed that the only way to do well on the analogies section was… to be smart.  Apparently, skill at verbal and conceptual analogies cannot be learned by studying, and so that section of the test favored only those kids who were naturally good at it, rather than the kids who had studied the most.  Around the same time, the initials SAT themselves were backronymed from Scholastic Aptitude Test into Standardized Achievement Test — aptitude, after all, means being good at something, whereas achievement means… uh… what?  Learning how to look like you’re good at something, even thought you’re not, just because you could afford tutoring?  What the hell is the point of a test that measures that

Oh, right.  There isn't one, but people with money are completely in control of what everyone else does or doesn't think of as fair.  I forgot.

Anyway, I could have dealt with that, if the people-who-are-good-at-stuff witch hunt had stopped there.  But eventually, people realized that even studying the most was unfair — in fact, it was hardly any better than aptitude!  After all, doesn’t studying the most require determination, which is a form of aptitude?  And weren’t those pesky smart kids simply the ones who had started “studying the most” early in life, as opposed to six weeks before the test?  Those cheating bastards!

By the early ’00s, opposition to people who are good at stuff had dropped all distinction between learning and natural ability, and the country just went full Glampers on anyone who was remarkable for any reason or by any means.  This culminated in the ascendancy of reality shows and George W. Bush, and the apparent passage of a law stipulating that all commercials that would once have featured a supermodel now had to feature Queen Latifah.  But the zeitgeist found its quintessential expression in one of 2002’s biggest-selling singles — and, not coincidentally, one of the single most insipid things yet produced by the human race — the rock-by-numbers crapfest “Complicated” by Avril Lavigne.

Curiously interpreted as bearing a “good message” by the atypically retarded teens of the 21st Century, the song — in addition to sucking, of course — actually has an awful message, upon which I’ll expound after a painful-but-brief recap of the lyrics:

                Uh huh, life's like this
                Uh huh, uh huh, that's the way it is
                Cause life's like this
                Uh huh, uh huh, that's the way it is

                Chill out what’cha yellin' for?
                Lay back it's all been done before
                And if you could only let it be
                you would see
                I like you the way you are
                When we're drivin' in your car
                and you're talking to me one on one but you become

                Somebody else ’round everyone else
                You're watching your back like you can't relax
                You're tryin' to be cool you look like a fool to me
                Tell me

                Why you have to go and make things so complicated?
                I see the way you're acting like you're somebody else gets me frustrated
                Life's like this you
                You fall and you crawl and you break
                and you take what you get and you turn it into honesty
                and promise me I'm never gonna find you fake it
                no no no

                You come over unannounced
                dressed up like you're somethin' else
                where you are and where it's at you see
                you're making me
                laugh out when you strike your pose
                take off all your preppy clothes
                you know you're not fooling anyone
                when you become

                Somebody else round everyone else
                Watching your back, like you can't relax
                Trying to be cool you look like a fool to me
                Tell me

                Why you have to go and make things so complicated?
                I see the way you're acting like you're somebody else gets me frustrated
                Life's like this you
                You fall and you crawl and you break
                and you take what you get and you turn it into honesty
                promise me I'm never gonna find you fake it
                no no no

                (repeat first verse; repeat chorus; hold final “no” like you have real bad diarrhea
                and make face accordingly
)

Many thanks for filling us in on what “life’s like,” O unremarkable 17-year old.  You will be the first to whom we turn in all of our lives’ great crises, provided of course that they revolve around the insoluble paradox of how pretending to be a preppie is unacceptable whereas pretending to be a punk is virtuous, which they won’t.

But stripped of the punks-vs.-preppies stuff, the song reveals itself as something far more insidious — it is at its core an anti-self-actualization anthem.  The “good message” is that you should not even bother trying to make yourself something greater than what you are, because it’s “fake” and “it’s all been done before,” and because you will incur the wrath of a teenypunker harpie who looks like the ghost of the stillborn third Olsen Twin and “likes you the way you are,” but whose feelings to that effect are conditional upon your only being a poser in the exact same ways that she is a poser, and no others.

In short, it is a “just-be-yourself” song that unintentionally reveals the utter emptiness of that sentiment.  Maybe he was trying to become himself — isn’t what you want to be truer than what you are?  What you are is only an accident.  Maybe he always dreamt of being dapper, but couldn’t be because his family was poor, so the first thing he did when he got older and got a job was buy some swanky threads, and he was all pumped about it, and what happens?  His so-called best friend shits all over him because she’s threatened (and with good reason:  after all, if he keeps dressing stylishly then he might eventually learn who David Bowie is and how to pronounce his name). 

Maybe he’s being “fake” when he’s around you, because you are clearly a bitch.  I’m skeptical of whether “just be yourself” actually means anything, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t supposed to mean “just be me.”

And what pathway is offered up as the alternative to this supposed fakery?  What is it that “life’s like” again?  You fall and you crawl and you break / And you take what you get and you turn it into honesty.”  What the fuck is that supposed to mean?  Instead of trying to improve yourself and take charge of your life, you just drive around in a car all day with a bitch and passively let life happen to you, because that’s the only way you can be “honest?”  Talk about herd mentality.  Clearly, someone needs to send Avril a copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra — and, just for good measure, three copies to the middle-aged corporate hacks who actually wrote the fucking song.  But we can see why she needed the help, because it’s not like soup-to-nuts I-vi-IV-V isn’t innovative or anything.

Avril Nose Job
"My original nose was just so... phony."

Okay.  We’re done with Avril.  But we’re not done with “just be yourself.”  From what I can tell, the phrase meant something once, long ago — something, I guess, about not bowing to external pressure to change things about yourself that you don’t want to change.  And that’s cool.  But now it means “don’t change anything about yourself, ever, period, even if the change would be a positive one, and even if the desire to change is originating within you, because if you desire to change something about yourself then it must be because of evil, oppressive, fake external pressure.”

What if I want to be read a lot of books and become smarter?  Nope.  Fake.  Keep on being stupid, because everyone should like you the way you are.

What if I want to work out and become all seeeexxxxxy?  No way.  Fake.  People shouldn’t care about that.  We’ll talk more at McDonald’s.

Should I practice the guitar day and night and get really good at it?  Hell, no.  Everything that takes work is fake.  Here, just play this fucking video game that simulates playing the guitar instead.  There, isn’t a video game about the guitar realer than playing a real guitar?  Aren’t fake things real and real things fake?  Isn’t all achievement a biased, subjective, easily-deconstructible illusion?  AREN’T I STUPID AND FAT AND NOT GOOD AT ANYTHING AND THEREFORE THE MOST “HONEST” PERSON WHO HAS EVER LIVED?

This may seem like an unwarranted reductio ad absurdum, but I’m afraid it’s actually a totally warranted reductio ad absurdum.

    What the heck is that supposed to mean, asshole?

What, reductio ad absurdum?  It’s a rhetorical device where you apply your opponent's warrant to a different claim to highlight the reasons why it's ridiculous.

    Well, excuse me, I guess I didn’t know that because I’m not as smart as you!

Yes, exactly.  You do realize that what you just said was the literal truth, right, and that it makes no sense to offer the statement sarcastically as if I were the one at fault and not you, right?

    Well, maybe I would understand it if you said it in English instead of saying it in Latin just to be a dick!

I’m saying it in Latin because that’s how you say it.  You’re the one who’s being a dick.

    You should have stopped the essay and wasted a lot of time explaining what it means in English.

NO, I SHOULDN’T HAVE.  YOU SHOULD HAVE LOOKED IT UP IF YOU DIDN’T KNOW WHAT IT MEANT.  THAT’S WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO DO WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT SOMETHING MEANS — LOOK IT UP, INSTEAD OF GETTING MAD AT THE PERSON WHO SAID IT FOR NOT ALTERING HIS SPEECH TO ACCOMMODATE PEOPLE WHO DON'T KNOW THINGS.  IN THE TIME IT TOOK YOU TO HAVE IT OUT WITH ME ABOUT THIS, YOU COULD HAVE JUST GONE TO FUCKING WIKIPEDIA AND LOOKED IT UP.  YOU ARE ALREADY SITTING AT A COMPUTER RIGHT FUCKING NOW — JUST OPEN UP A NEW WINDOW.  WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?

    OMG did u here tehy fond anna nicole’s diery and can u belive sanjaya haznt ben votid of yet OMG!!!!!

Prepare yourself, for your world is ending.

Anyway, what I was about to say before, as usual, I was so rudely interrupted by a person I made up, is that you should start paying attention to how people use the word “only” — specifically, how they insert it into sentences where it has no place:  “He was only able to beat me up because he knows karate;” “He’s only smarter than me because he reads a lot of books;” “She’s only considered more attractive than I am because she exercises and wears sexy clothes”…  Okay, well, these additional hypothetical complainers may have correctly identified the reasons why their rivals are outcompeting them at this or that, but what the fuck does “only” have to do with anything?  Are we to believe that actually making an effort to be good at something counts as cheating?  Isn’t figuring out what you have to do to be better than other people at something and then doing it pretty much inherently the way you get good at something?  What’s “fake” about that?  And if that’s “fake,” then what’s “real” — sitting on your ass all day hoping you’ll magically get good at something?

Hell, the “only” reason we don’t smell bad is because we take showers regularly — so why don’t all these people who care so much about being “real” just stop showering, if they’re so ardently opposed to artifice?

What’s that?  Because showering is easy, and you only condemn methods of getting good at something as “fake” when they actually require effort, and there are other people who are willing to put in that effort, and you aren’t?

Oh, okay.  I’m sorry. 

Sorry that this is where the politics of self-esteem have gotten us.  It’s not like I’m against feeling good about yourself — a lot of 1585 is about pride and self-worth — but I just feel like self-esteem is supposed to be based on something.  I’m not going to employ conservative language and say that it’s “a privilege not a right” or some shit, but I do feel as if it’s supposed to be based on something.  If you feel good about yourself despite the fact that you suck, then something is wrong — and there are a lot of people running around these days who feel good about themselves not only despite the fact that they suck, but because of the fact that they suck.  The politics of self-esteem has resulted in people who genuinely believe that sucking is morally superior to not sucking. 

The self-esteem-based reshaping of education began in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and was initially focused specifically on girls.  The idea was that many girls were performing below potential in school because they lacked confidence as a result of being intimidated — directly or indirectly — by boys.  So educational models began to move away from dynamics of true and false, right answers and wrong ones, winning and losing, and towards cooperative interactions that held less truck with objective ideals, while the more personal arenas — like “Health” class — started pushing the idea that no-one should ever let anyone else convince them that they are not awesome.  After much of the pioneering girlcentric self-esteem literature was discredited (most famously, it was revealed that feminist researcher Carol Gilligan had studied girls in a vacuum, and that when boys were studied in the same way, it turned out that their self-esteem was just as low as that of the girls; i.e., high school is a place where everybody is intimidated and silenced by everybody else, and not just girls by boys) we had a chance to bring everything back to normal, but we didn’t.  Instead, we hauled even harder in the direction of reforming education so that its primary goal was raising everyone’s self-esteem.

The result was a generation of people who feel so entitled to sucking that nobody can ever tell them that anything is wrong with them even when something is seriously wrong with them — a generation so shocked by the notion that there are ever situations where Person A is right and Person B is wrong that, when this idea is finally introduced to them for the first time in fucking college, it actually causes some of them to get up and flee the classroom in tears.

And with this, the Left has supremely fucked itself.

Because, you see, this newfangled self-esteem approach to education was only implemented in liberal areas of the country, and so the result has been that an entire generation of Liberal kids is entering college in complete denial of the fact that anything is ever truer or better than anything else — in other words, with no way to defend themselves against the Conservative kids who, when the Blue-State kids first encounter them in college, are the first people they’ve ever heard tell them they’re wrong about anything.  Luckily, the Red-State kids are so stupid that this still only results in a tie most of the time, but it’s still a big problem.  Where are tomorrow’s Liberal politicians, activists, and thinkers supposed to come from if an entire generation of Liberal kids has been raised to be opposed on principle to the ideas that anyone is ever wrong about anything, and that any idea is ever better than any other idea, or that anything is “true” and anything else “false?”  Who the fuck gets into politics if they believe that?  Who the fuck gets into anything if they believe that?  All they know how to do is say that everyone has “the right to their opinion” and then go home and play that game where you pretend to play the guitar.

Is cooperation better than conflict?  In a perfect society, yes.  But in today’s America, education ain’t a scene; it’s a god damn arms race — you can’t dismantle all your shit unless the other guy does so at the same time.  And if all the liberal areas of the country stop teaching their kids how to argue, while all the conservative parts of the country are still teaching their kids that screaming others into submission is life’s highest calling, then it doesn’t take someone with a Ph.D. in developmental psychology to see where this is going to get us in 30 years.

Simply put:  the only kids who believe that there is such a thing as truth believe a bunch of shit that is false, and the kids who should believe the shit that is true believe that there is no such thing as truth.

I'm not just spinning the wheels of paranoia here.  I've taught at a few different colleges, and I've seen it happen.  In a class where some conservative kids denied that the My Lai massacre ever happened, the liberal kids didn't say “yes it did, and this can be proven” — they just said it is impossible in principle ever to say whether anything truly “happened.”  In a class where the conservative kids asserted that the Biblical account of creation was literally true, the liberal kids didn't say that evolution was true instead — they just said it was “mean” to care about which was true, and that no-one should ever think about it.

Nice going, Liberals.  These are some equipped culture warriors you're training here.

Mean to care.  And so we enter endgame.  If you care about an issue, then you probably have an opinion about it, and if you have an opinion about it, then you must disagree with others who have different ones, which means you must believe they’re wrong, and the more you care about it, the more strongly you believe the others are wrong, and therefore you can only be nice by not caring about anything.  I can't even count how many students I've had who refused to write argumentative papers on the grounds that they “do not care” — that “anything anyone else believes is fine with” them.  At this stage in the game, it is revealed as sadly, bitterly ironic that Carol Gilligan’s theories were known as the ethics of care — as, in the end, that is precisely what they do not allow people to do.  Of course, the word as Gilligan and others used it did not mean to be passionate but rather to be nice, and was offered up as the alternative to the supposedly boycentric ethics of justice, which, after all, were only derived in order to provide an excuse for boys to be mean and show off.

Here is their official definition:

    Ethics of Care:  a morality of care rests on the understanding of relationships as a response to another in their terms. Focuses on the moral value of being partial toward those concrete persons with whom we have special and valuable relationships, and the moral importance of responding to such persons as particular individuals with characteristics that demand a response to them that we do not extend to others.    

Maybe I missed something, but doesn’t that just mean being selfish and hypocritical?  Isn’t it just a validation of the animalistic in-group morality that justice and reason were derived to contravene and control?  A reservation of the right to refuse to acknowledge the fact that someone else’s khakis and cardigan are no “faker” than your black wristbands?  A dismantling of the civilized philosophies that in the long run are what keep women safe, just because in the short run you might get girls to raise their hands more often?

The bottom line is, raising everyone’s self-esteem across the board isn’t just ineffective (numerous recent studies have shown that baselessly high self-esteem not only fails to improve academic performance or alleviate bullying, but probably actually worsens academic performance and increases bullying); it’s dangerous.  If we could go in with a scalpel and raise only the self-esteem of the kids who deserve to have theirs raised, then that would be awesome.  But we can’t.  You’re going to end up raising the self-esteem of the assholes too, and raising the self-esteem of an asshole doesn’t make him stop being an asshole — it makes him an even bigger asshole.

And even though most assholes don’t have low self-esteem to begin with, assholes are notoriously good at pretending to be whatever they need to pretend to be in order not to have to change.  Ever wonder how the early-’90s first-wave grunge of good people became the early-’00s third-wave grunge/nu-metal of dickheads?  Simple.  The dickheads learned to emulate the low self-esteem of the people they historically tormented.  They remained essentially the same people as Axl Rose and his ilk, heroically overthrown by first-wave grunge, but realized that if you act like it’s depressing to be Axl Rose, everyone will leave you alone.  The tuning stayed in dropped-D, but the rhetoric slowly changed from “I am a disaffected kid because everyone is cruel and we’re destroying the environment” into “I am a disaffected kid because in school they make me read books and books are for fags.”

And the culture let this happen, because of the belief that the worst thing you could do was fuck with someone’s self-esteem.  So, that kid is an asshole?  Good.  At least he’s just being himself.  That girl is a pissy hypocrite whose pronouncements about life are at best trivial and at worst reduce to insanity?  A+ for being yourself.  Whose idea was it?  The Liberals.  Who ended up getting fucked by it?  The Liberals.  

No-one is making things complicated.

Things are complicated.

Life’s like that.



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