Books

Will Storr
Selfie

Who hasn’t wondered: “Who am I?”? In Selfie, Will Storr asks: “What is ‘I’?” Storr, an award-winning British journalist and author of books including The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, embarks on a journey that is both personal and political. Along the way he consults neuroscientists, psychologists, economists and sociologists. He speaks with a range of informants, from self-abnegating Benedictine monks to “CJ”, a young woman who upon being advised that taking a selfie at her godmother’s funeral was inappropriate, retorted: “I look good. It’s always appropriate.” 

Storr observes the human comedy with a sharp but empathetic eye and the human tragedy, including the rise in mental health issues and suicide in CJ’s generation, with compassion. He entwines the tale of a lifelong struggle with low self-esteem with his intellectual quest to understand exactly what is meant by “self”. In the process he calls into question one of the great shibboleths of contemporary Western culture: the idea that we are perfectible. 

The ancient Greeks embraced the notion of kalokagathia, which blends the concepts of beauty (kalos) and goodness (agathos). This “ideal of human perfection” set Western civilisation on a radically different path to those cultures that had their philosophical origins in Confucianism, for example, a world view that is preoccupied with the place of individuals within society as a whole. Kalokagathia informs the contemporary sensibility, uncomfortably shared by Storr, he confesses, that “fatness” is a kind of “moral transgression”. Storr draws other historical connections, including the surprisingly logical link between the hippie-ish quest for “authenticity” and the so-called zero hours contract. 

As a self-described troubled teenager growing up between 1988 and 1995, when the self-esteem movement was at its “peak of influence”, Storr recalls teachers, therapists and friends assuring him that “my problems were rooted in low self-esteem and solving them was simply a matter of raising it”. The Esalen Institute, founded during the Human Potential Movement of the 1960s, specialises in doing just that. Storr enrols. His description of his time at Esalen is at once hilarious and horrifying. But it’s when he pursues the history of the self-esteem movement’s spread in the ’80s and ’90s that Storr makes the startling discovery it was all built on a lie.

There are a number of moments of cultural shift in this story. One occurs over the 20th century as, in the words of sociologist John Hewitt, “the era of ‘character’ vanished and that of ‘personality’ arrived”. Another was the rising influence of über-narcissist and spiritual mother of neoliberalism Ayn Rand beginning in the 1940s and the spread of her doctrine of “virtuous selfishness”, embraced by acolytes including Alan Greenspan, whose policies as chairman of the US Federal Reserve helped bring about the global financial crisis in 2008. Then, of course, there was the arrival of the “self-esteem craze”, nothing less than “a rapturous copulation of the ideas of Ayn Rand, Esalen and the neoliberals, with each party falling upon the other as if in love at first sight”. 

Their collective love child was an irascible Californian state assemblyman named John “Vasco” Vasconcellos, a self-esteem evangelist. In the 1980s, the age of Reagan and Thatcher, Vasco persuaded his state government to commission an academic study into the relationship between self-esteem and social problems such as truancy and violence. The logic was that self-esteem offered an economical fix for otherwise complex and hard-to-solve social problems: why waste money helping people when they can help themselves? And if people couldn’t be bothered helping themselves, why should the state help? The commission’s findings, as trumpeted by Vasco, led to the promulgation of a raft of legislation across 30 states that “sought to promote, protect, or enhance the self-esteem of Americans”. This quintessentially American fad spread abroad, including to Britain and Australia with profound implications for education and child-rearing. It helped to undercut social welfare programs, including the idea of a “safety net” for the most disadvantaged. There was only one problem: as one dissenting former taskforce member told Storr, it was all based on “a fucking lie”. The academic study had not proved the thesis at all. 

Most of the taskforce didn’t care: they were on a mission, which as the group’s chair said, was “beyond science”. An uncritical media helped transmit the infection to the public. Academics were constrained from speaking out; Vasco controlled university funding. It took a year of ferreting in archives, listening to long-forgotten cassette tape recordings of meetings and tracking down former allies of Vasco decades after the fact for Storr to obtain this scoop – but it’s dynamite. 

Selfie presents persuasive evidence that the “self” is a construction of DNA, the unconscious and culture. This book should by rights bring down the entire house of cards that is the self-esteem industry. Yet the lie is by now woven so tightly into the dominant “free market” economy, the slickly hip neoliberalism of Silicon Valley and ubiquitous social media it has spawned that it is unlikely to unravel. The internet, a kind of “global online encounter group”, Storr writes, has taken “the neoliberal gamification of human life to previously unimagined places, pitching self against self in ceaseless competition for followers, feedback and likes”, while its overheated tribalism taps into “darker wells” of “moral outrage and tribal punishment”. 

The pernicious myth of perfectibility says if you succeed, you deserve it. If you don’t, if you’re poor, sad, addicted, maybe even disabled, you can blame nobody but yourself. Just ask the News Corp tabloids. The idea that governments ought to be run like businesses, with an eye on the bottom line, and that we are clients rather than citizens, has produced a Trump presidency in the US and entrances many Australian politicians as well. The “social perfectionism” of a generation high in frequently literal self-regard, meanwhile, is associated with a rise in narcissism and a decline in empathy, as well as greater levels of depression, anxiety and self-harm. We are limited and imperfect. We need to learn to live with ourselves.  CG

Picador, 416pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 24, 2017 as "Will Storr, Selfie". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CG