Monday, July 15, 2013

Relative and Absolute Self-Esteem: Removing The Jerry Springer Effect

All lives are trade-offs of each other; no one life is any better then any other: no one has it all.

Scandals, gossip, drama, and the like. For many people, stories and events having such themes make up a huge portion of their entertainment diet. They watch with vicarious excitement at the next outrageous issue or dilemma troubling some person or group. This kind of humor at others problems is similar to the comedy of slapstick. Its obvious that people find amusement in the problems of others when they are at a safe distance from those troubles. The question then emerges: why do people like to see the misery of others, preferably, from a (spacial and mental) distance? Although there may be other explanations, I believe this is because people use others problems as ways of either justifying their own issues or to provide themselves a relative frame work where there own problems fit into a context where they perceive their troubles as “not that bad” in the light of those “worse” problems. Because of this, people in our society build their self-esteem on the backs of others. I suggest another way of creating self value which does not rely on marginalizing others and creating a sense of superiority over them.

The building of self-esteem on top of the perceived troubles of others can be named. I prefer to call it: The Jerry Springer Effect (JSE). This is based on the talk show with the same name. The talk show serves as a prime example of this way to prop-up self-esteem. The show's main premise is to host guests who's problems are deem outrageous by the status quo. This includes things like: finding out your significant other was born the opposite sex they appear to be now, or that ones spouse was cheating on them with their parent, or that a family member is a prostitute and proud of it. These extremely taboo and uncommon (we hope) issues are they key to why the show has been one of the longest running on TV. For most people watching, the problems of the shows guests are so far removed from their daily lives, it gives them more then sufficient psychological and personal distance from the guest's troubles. Because of this, people use this show to frame their own problems. They may say to themselves in the back of their mind: “John not washing the dishes is annoying, but at least he's not sleeping with my mother.” The shows overly shocking guests give most a reason to see their troubles as not so bad, thereby raising their self-esteem. In a sense, they proper their self-worth on the backs of the show's guests.  

Although there are many ways of increasing self-esteem, many find it hard to do so in an ethical way. It may seem that one can only prop themselves on the backs of others to elevate their sense of self. Some may argue that gaining self-esteem can only be done at the expense of others, like a kind of social food chain or hierarchy. This point fails to acknowledge that there are two basic ways of gaining self-esteem: absolute and relative. The argument that self-esteem comes at the expense of others fits into the absolute category. Absolute refers to the idea that there is an objective measure to which everyone can compare their situation. Self-esteem becomes dependent upon ones opinion or perception regarding their place on that objective scale. The people they perceive to be below them on the scale represent the base on which one props their self worth on. One looks at those below them with a range of emotions from pity to contempt. While they look at those higher then them with feelings like envy or admiration. On the other hand, relative self-esteem acknowledges that all people are on a level playing field when it comes to self worth. None are more valued then others; there is no social ladder or objective scale to adhere too. Rather, people see each other as equal by virtue of the fact no one can have it all. That is, although from a distance another self-esteem or life-condition may seem desirable and superior, but the law of habituation ensures that all lusts lose their shine, and all novelty becomes habit. In other words, people get used to what they have, turning it into the mundane banality of day to day life. Because of this, a relative self-esteem sees all self-worth and life-conditions as trade offs of each other; each one has something positive and negative about it, thereby neutralizing it and evening all of them out. Its plain to see how relative self-esteem is the more ethical choice, but are the various self-esteems really even?

It can be hard to imagine how the life of a CEO at a fortune 500 company can be a trade off of the life of a homeless person. Its obvious that the CEO has a lot more money and is thereby able to get the necessities and wants of life which are denied to the homeless person. The poverty of the homeless person seems to stand as an obstacle between them and any kind of happiness and security. Although this may be a common view, its a facile one. Consider the case of a self made millionaire who after gaining his fortune, returns six months out of the year to the life he had before his riches: that of a hobo. He leaves his big house, prestigious job, and lovely wife, to live a life “off the grid” as he calls it. For him and perhaps many others, there are perks to living a homeless life free from stagnate commitments and responsibilities. He talks with great fondness about the feeling of watching the stars from a freight train car, or feeling excitement about what the next day brought. I would like to make note that although all lives may be trade off of each others, it does not necessarily justify keeping people in positions of poverty or oppression. What a trade off signifies is that although one understands that all lives have their good and bad sides to them, it does not mean that one’s life-condition or self-esteem must stay in the same place. Counter-intuitively, there may be good sides to poverty like a lack of boredom or an absence of existential nihilism; but it does not mean a poor person would want to stay poor. Part of the possible good sides of being poor may be the hope of a better tomorrow, which colors their present moment with a positive/optimistic mood. Appearances are deceiving by leaving out most of the story. We let our superficial assumptions hinder a complete view of these “undesirable” kinds of lives.

To clarify this a bit further, consider a hypothetical scenario involving a real world person. In the MTV reality show Rob & Big a commercially successful skateboarder (Rob) and his bodyguard (Big) perform various outrageous activities, usually at the command of Rob. For rob, everything is paid for, from his house utilities to his clothing are all provided for him by his skating sponsors. Many see this as an ideal life. One does what they love, gets attention and fame for it, and lives free from bills and others adult responsibilities. The show itself perhaps attracts most of its viewers because of a kind of celebrity voyeurism. Although some see this as the perfect life, its worth mentioning some drawbacks that would make this life unbearable for the person as any poverty condition, notwithstanding whether the distress is physical/external or mental/internal. Its well known that skateboarding can lead to various moderate and serious injuries. But a deeper, maybe more agonizing pain, would be the fact he needs to stay within the contracts issued to him by his sponsors. If for example he hears or sees a skateboard which is much better then any he has access to now, but is patented by another company, it would defiantly become a problem for him. Another possible issue facing Rob would be the lost of interest in his sponsored activity. If for any reason he feels he does not want to skateboard anymore or finds that he hates it, he would be forced to continue, or face losing the ideal life so many cherish as their dream. Its clear how although at fist glance a life may seem more valuable or have better self-esteem then another, with a closer look, the negatives come out, ultimately evening out all lives because of this balance between positive and negative aspects; no one has it all.

Its important to addresses the issue of people, for some reason or another, who have rob, are violent, commit theft, are con artists, etc. Some would ask how a life which is devoid of these kinds of negative behaviors be equal to a life filled with those kinds of habits. The answer is simple: relative self-esteem is subjective, in that the good and bad aspects are defined by the persons own feelings and thoughts. The good and bad aspects of live are not measured from outside. Because of this, a person who lives a life of theft may have the negative of being a few steps from prison, but may also have the positive of lots of quick money and the excitement of a big heist. The aspects are subjective. This is important for self-esteem because it does not allow one to use the absolute style by propping their self-worth on top of those they perceive to be bad or evil people. A relative self-esteem acknowledges that although actions may be hurtful to others, those committing them are ultimately equal because all people are products of forces they themselves are not in much control of, if at all. Again, a relative self-esteem does not mean to allow negative behaviors, thereby allowing people to be arrested. The point is that one does not build their self-esteem or worth on others who they perceive to be worse then themselves.

How does one derive their self-esteem, if not by relation to others perceived either better or worse then oneself? It seems second nature to feel good about not being this person, or trying to become that person. But what is lost is a focus on the self and its own abilities. That is, when one has an absolute sense of self-esteem, they spend their time in a kind of fantasy running away or toward imagined ideals or icons of others. No attention is given to the good and bad aspects of one's self. With a relative self-esteem one understands that their good and bad aspects are like light and dark aspects. When it comes to self worth or value, if one focuses on themselves, rather then on others, they can become more familiar with these two aspects of themselves, altering them in turn. Focusing on one's light or good side for example can lead to thought over what one sees good in themselves. This helps to have the person develop these good qualities, expanding and enriching them. The same can be said about the negative aspects but in reverse. The person can help themselves to lesson the bad aspects and help either accept and integrate them, or replace them with better aspects. Its with a relative self-esteem that one can help to progress their self-development through focusing on their good and bad qualities, rather then the qualities of others. In short, absolute self-esteem encourages stagnation and stratification because one feels in a perceptual middle between the better and the worse, and one perceives others in different levels on a hierarchy of good and bad. While a relative self-esteem encourages production and growth because the individual, in focusing on their own qualities, is able to fix or expand on them.

Like many things in recent human history and society, there has been a change in how we relate the multiplicity of things in the world, including each other; we have gone from a absolute to a relative understanding of the world. For example, culture used to be thought of in the in an absolute sense where all cultures fell on an hierarchy with western civilization on top being the most advanced. Today a relative understand is favored, with the difference that all cultures are seen as equal and unique in of themselves. Another instance of moving from relative to absolute is evolution. People used to talk of humans or other animals as higher or better then others, but now most researches are stern to point out that there is not vertical ladder of better and worse in nature, its all equal. Perhaps the most personal case of this change in understanding is with morality. Most people in our society today believe that people are entitled to their own morals. They wouldn't consider that their morals are inherently any better then others, maybe just suited better for them because of their familiarity to it. But more traditional societies understood morals to be absolute and would use the law to enforce moral codes on people. Granted today’s laws are kinds of morals, but they are much broader and allow more freedom then anything that has existed before. Therefore, the change from an absolute to a relative self-esteem is not alone in that process; many aspects of our society and understanding of the world and each other have also undergone the same absolute/relative change.

A common habit of ours is to build our self-esteem in an absolute way. We prop ours on the backs of others, deriving our self-worth and mood from our difference, whether better or worse, to others. This way is not conducive to a society where people learn to respect each others differences and see one another as equal. Rather it fosters a society which keeps people in a vertical line caught between the ideal and the undesirable, causing them to see each other as different and more antagonized by their differences and shortcomings. A relative self-esteem can fix this by helping people grow through self-development and cultivate a sense of unity in diversity by virtue of everyone not only being equal but unique as well.