November 24, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Our crisis is one of humility
Pride, shame, hate, violence, fascism -- all from the same source.
I watch the cartoons my daughter watches. I mean, I watch them with her. That might seem silly, but today’s cartoons are not yesterday’s. They’re much better. Compare, for instance, the “She-Ra” of the 1980s with the “She-Ra” of now. After you do, you’ll see why I’ll never ever let my daughter watch my childhood version. I can’t believe I did! The last thing I want is my daughter thinking girls are supposed to act — and dress! — like that!
Democracy leads to equality. The political right hates that. Equality means bigots and ghouls aren’t as super-duper as they believe they are. Equality means they just might have to go out and kill somebody.
Cartoons, like today’s “She-Ra,” are frequently morality plays. Their narratives work through ethical conundrums, the kinds my daughter is facing or will face eventually, as all children do. Another one of her cartoons, called “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” speaks to our current social and political crisis, which I think of as a crisis of humility.
Meaning, there’s not enough of it on account of there being not enough demand. That might be a consequence of history. When I was my daughter’s age, in 1984, American culture was very worried about children and their feelings of shame. (To a degree, it still is.) The culture asked parents to encourage in their kids a sense of pride. Healthy self-directing egos were thought to mean healthy self-directing children, which meant a society of healthy self-directing individuals.
But Uncle Iroh, one of the characters in “Avatar,” knows better. For reasons I won’t go into, Iroh is something of a pariah by the time we meet him. He has fallen from a great height. As such, he’s come to understand the real link between pride and shame. As he tells his young nephew, who’s too proud to be ashamed: “Pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source. True humility is the only antidote to shame.”
Our culture still seems to think the answer to feelings of shame and insecurity is feelings of pride and self-confidence. You often see this after some kind of disaster, like a shooting massacre. We are frequently told suspects felt shame so they lashed out violently. If he had a more robust inner life, a more secure sense of self, perhaps the violence could have been averted. But as Uncle Iroh understood, high self-esteem is not the answer to low self-esteem. The ego is the source of hate and violence. Humility is where one finds peace.
This has some empirical basis. In the 1990s, social psychologist Roy Baumeister led researchers in finding that threats to the ego can disrupt a person’s ability to self-regulate emotions. This can and does result in hate, which, in turn, can and does lead to violence. Baumeister does not address humility specifically, but he does imply it as he gestures toward the problem of being proud instead of being humble.
“The new cultural demands on selfhood make it into a burdensome concern that can produce frequent stress,” he wrote in The Self and Society in 1997. “People feel they must maintain a highly positive image of self that requires constant vigilance against dangers and threats. Even if they do not experience major experiences of humiliation or disgrace, the ongoing threat and resulting demand for vigilance may become tiresome and draining. Awareness of self may often be tinged with worry or stress and hence may take on an aversive aspect.”
You could say the election of Donald Trump, the anti-democratic turn we have seen from the GOP and all the shooting massacres we’ve seen since the reelection of a Black president altogether constitute one giant wounded ego.
You can imagine how this plays out politically. Since 2008, the political right has stood against democracy on account of democracy electing a Black president. To these bigots and ghouls, America is a white man’s country given to them by God to rule with impunity. Every time the outgroup wins a little freedom, the ingroup feels less free. Democracy, moreover, leads to equality. The political right hates that. Equality means bigots and ghouls aren’t as super-duper as they believe they are. Equality means they just might have to go out and kill somebody.
You could say the election of Donald Trump, the anti-democratic turn we have seen from the GOP and all the shooting massacres we’ve seen since the reelection of a Black president altogether constitute one giant wounded ego. The result has been one giant lashing out against democracy the way mass murderers lash out against innocents.
As Baumeister said, in a different but relevant context: “Cultural prescriptions can exert considerable influence by telling people at what point it is appropriate to turn violent, ranging from ‘only when someone is attacking you in a life-threatening fashion’ to ‘when the person implies disrespect toward you by making eye contact.’”
Ego, pride, shame, hate, violence, fascism. These all have a common source in the human mind. The irony is our culture believes the antidote is more of the same. USA Today’s Marco della Cava wrote today that the path toward national political healing this Thanksgiving holiday might be “practicing gratitude.” As one of his sources told him: “We learn to appreciate things when we lose them, unfortunately.”
How about we appreciate losing them? To be sure, you should have what you need. If that’s not enough, rethink your needs. Desire, said Epicurus centuries ago, is what causes so much pain. To minimize pain, and maximize pleasure, you should minimize desire. “Practicing gratitude” can easily slip back to the original problem — to an ego that can’t be satisfied no matter how much confidence it has, an ego that can’t tolerate the “disrespect of eye contact” and an ego that manifests itself politically as a Republican Party turned fascist.
Sure, I watch cartoons with my daughter. Sure, it’s kinda silly. But they are so much better than they used to be! Anyway, they offer a kind of wisdom most adults in this country can’t see. We’re lucky kids do.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.