The self esteem defense

June 29, 1995|By Andrew Ferguson

NOBODY HAS yet suggested that Timothy McVeigh, the accused Oklahoma City bomber, suffers from low self-esteem, but it's only a matter of time.

You'll hear it soon from his lawyer, or some rent-an-expert shrink.

Or maybe it will be Oprah -- Oprah in the generic sense, as one of the dozens of daytime talk-show Barnums whose job is to display a parade of freaks in order to massage the emotions of TV-addled countrymen.

Perhaps McVeigh himself will take the stage and tearfully recount beatings from a psycho dad and icy stares from a boozebag mom.

Oprahphilsallyjessygeraldo will diagnose yet another instance of the dysfunction of the decade: "Tim -- may I call you Tim? -- your problem is you don't like yourself."

An exaggeration? Don't bet against it.

Self-esteem is to our age what "iron-poor blood" or "an attack of the humours" was to earlier times.

It is the all-purpose cause and effect. It is the will-o'-the-wisp rationale that explains every event, exculpates every transgressor. It is overused.

When I browsed through a database of newspapers and magazines, limited to a two-week period in April, the term self-esteem popped up more than 550 times, including four mentions in a single edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, two for Fortune, three for Billboard and seven for Essence.

Different writers writing different articles on different subjects. All had reached instinctively for the buzziest of buzzwords.

Leafing through a trendy parenting magazine, for example, you will read: "We have to be content with ourselves before we have the ability to truly give to our children."

This is one of the neatest philosophical tropes of the self-esteem movement: self-absorption as altruism.

It reached its most popular expression in Whitney Houston's anthem, "The Greatest Love of All."

She sings: "Everybody's searching for a hero. People need someone to look up to. I never found anyone who fulfilled my needs. So I learned to depend on me. . . . The greatest love of all is easy to achieve. Learning to love yourself -- It is the greatest love of all."

The song went double-platinum and has become a staple of Super Bowl halftime shows, Olympic extravaganzas and sing-alongs in school assembly halls.

Do you burst into tears at odd moments? You probably suffer from low self-esteem.

Are you one of those hairy-chested fellows who never cries? Sounds like a self-esteem problem.

Are you too aggressive? Too shy? Your self-esteem needs a tune-up. And so on.

At once infinitely elastic and important-sounding, explaining 0` everything from bad manners to homicide, self-esteem is perfectly suited for that hothouse of inchoate thinking: the American educational system.

Here is where self-esteem has taken deepest root. Educational theory has already inflated the language with such gassy participles as "mentoring," "modeling" and "therapizing." "Esteeming" is next.

In education schools everybody sounds like Newt Gingrich reading from a book by Alvin and Heidi Toffler.

In her hair-raising book, "Ed School Follies," the journalist Rita Kramer discovered that the reigning educational philosophy is now self-esteem, although the word philosophy is probably inappropriate.

The results will be familiar to most parents with students in public school: the abandonment of "tracking," the devaluation of grades, the trend away from the transmission of objective facts toward the inculcation of subjective feelings.

The psychologist William Damon makes the case that many of the more vacuous self-esteem efforts -- for example, handing out cards that say "I'm Terrific" to school kids -- may indeed lower their self-esteem.

"Some (children) develop an exaggerated, though empty and ultimately fragile, sense of their own powers," he writes in his new book, "Greater Expectations."

"Some dissociate their feelings of self-worth from any conduct that they are personally responsible for. Other children develop a skepticism about such statements and become increasingly inured to positive feedback of any kind. In time, this can generalize into a distrust of adult communications and a gnawing sense of self-doubt."

So, we'll be having no unseemly criticisms of the self-esteem movement. Certainly not on Oprah, and certainly not in the schools.

You can even see the outlines of the new all-purpose excuse taking shape.

"I'm sorry, your honor," the defendant says, "I was just living so much in my head. It was like reason had me by the throat. I couldn't feel straight."

Case dismissed.

PB

Andrew Ferguson is a senior writer at Washingtonian Magazine.

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