November 11, 2019

America Unhinged

The level of incivility and animosity in America today gives ample cause to wonder whether our society has become unhinged. Educators cast aside subject matter and proclaim their personal likes and dislikes to their captive audiences. Journalists twist facts to promote their political preferences. Politicians ignore their obligations to serve constituents and country and instead spend their time disparaging their opponents, undermining their efforts, and even seeking their removal from office. And the rest of us not only harbor hatred but also parade it without compunction on Facebook.

What can possibly have caused the abandonment of the ideals of personal integrity, respect for others, the benefit of the doubt, and the “Golden Rule” of treating others as we would be treated? There are no doubt many causes, but one important one that has received little attention is the change in focus from self-worth to self-esteem. Though the two concepts are often considered synonymous, in reality they differ greatly.

Self-Worth

This concept derives from the Christian view that every human being is “created in the image and likeness of God” and therefore is intrinsically valuable and deserving of respect. Believing in one’s own essential worth is the foundation of mental and spiritual health and a prerequisite to both small and great achievement. Yet this belief is balanced by the understanding that human worth is a gift from God, reflects our dependence on Him, and therefore requires humility. It is also consistent with belief in Original Sin.  Simply said, the sense of self-worth reminds us of our responsibilities as well as our rights and encourages us to be confident while remaining aware of our inherent imperfection.

Self-Esteem

This concept is secular in origin and therefore is not understood as a gift from God. (Nor, for that matter, does it make any reference to His existence.) Self-esteem therefore implies independence instead of dependence, and does not foster humility. In fact, it is understood to require constant reinforcement—the more we have, the healthier we are supposed to be—so humility is considered an obstacle to be avoided.

The embrace of self-esteem brought into favor concepts that had previously been considered questionable, notably self-adulation, self-affirmation, self-assertion, self-love, and self-actualization. At the same time that embrace disavowed concepts that had long been honored, including self-respect, self-control, self-discipline, self-examination, self-abnegation, self-sacrifice, and self-transcendence. The last mentioned concept is most important because it is among the most central to leading a meaningful, productive life.

How, exactly, has society’s change in focus from self-worth to self-esteem contributed to many of the social problems that now plague America?

Esteeming ourselves while shunning humility has encouraged self-adulation, egotism, and in extreme cases narcissism. Over time, we have become so filled with admiration for ourselves that we have had little inclination to respect others, let alone admire them. Similarly, the more we strived to avoid self-criticism, the less capable we were of introspection and self-examination, and the more hostile to ideas that differed from ours.

From hostility to others’ ideas it was but a short step to demonizing and denouncing the people who hold those ideas, and then to preventing them from expressing their ideas, harassing them and their families, boycotting their businesses, and committing acts of violence against them. The fact that we are now well advanced in that progression is all too evident.

What would likely happen if, by some stroke of good fortune (or better yet, some miracle) America were to be “re-hinged”—that is, to come to its senses, reject the concept of self-esteem as fatally flawed, and restore the concept of self-worth? In time, the following salutary results would occur:

  • Educators would begin teaching the subject matter in which they were trained, rather than expounding on their personal opinions, often on matters outside their fields. Their increased humility might even lead them to restore the traditional curriculum which gave special emphasis to core subjects like ethics, logic, history, science and math.
  • Students would receive a genuine education rather than an extended experience in anti-historical fabrication, political correctness, and community activism and thereby become better thinkers and more effective employees, family members, and citizens.
  • Journalists would abandon the delusion that they are too important to follow the traditional journalistic code and would commit themselves to reporting and analyzing the news objectively and with discernment.
  • Politicians would appreciate that “public service” is not a synonym for self-aggrandizement and begin taking their oath of office seriously by working with colleagues in both parties for the good of the American people and the nation.
  • As a result of the above salutary effects, and of their own escape from the debilitating pursuit of self-esteem, all Americans would be better able to live and work in harmony with others.

At first consideration, such an outcome may seem overly idealistic. Many would contend that an entire country can’t change this dramatically. But in fact it has changed and rather dramatically over the last half-century. And what has changed for the worse can surely change for the better.

Copyright © 2019 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved.

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero
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