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Old 12-06-2003, 10:49 AM
fredaevans fredaevans is offline
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Not fishing related, but one of the best ever 'reads.'

The selfish generation
We allow marketeers to dictate our social norms - with dire results

Jenni Russell
Saturday December 6, 2003
The Guardian

Queuing in a branch of WH Smith some months ago, I was a captive audience while one shop assistant told another about an encounter with an elderly woman who was looking for a book that wasn't on the shelves. The assistant had not known and not cared where the book might be found, and the old lady had asked if she could be more helpful. "So I told her to **** off," was the assistant's triumphant punchline.

A friend in a precarious industry, shattered by his third redundancy in three years, made an appointment with the local careers service to discuss other options. The adviser didn't bother to turn up for the first appointment, or for the second. There was no apology and no explanation. My friend wasn't prepared to be humiliated by asking for a third. "Just when you feel like a piece of rubbish, they treat you like one," he said.

An acquaintance on a newspaper, a tough and experienced journalist, felt so continuously unwell that her doctor decided she was going through an early menopause. Then her hypercritical and contemptuous boss moved on, and her symptoms disappeared.

One factor links many of the miseries we inflict upon one another, from anti-social behaviour to bullying at work and our encounters in public places. It is our lack of respect for others, coupled with our obsession with being treated with respect ourselves. And the less respect we encounter, the less prepared we are to offer any to anyone else. It's no longer true that most people aspire to having good manners; many just want to protect their egos in every social encounter. Conscious of our jealous sensitivity to any slight, we go out into the public arena armed only with our own willingness to be aggressive or oblivious in response.

We live in a culture where the primacy of the self and its satisfactions is everything. We are bombarded with messages telling us that we should have what we want because we're worth it. As consumers, we are kings. We know that we have rights, that brands seek our favour; that as long as we can pay, we feel powerful. We like that sensation. It is seductive because it is so at odds with the reality of the rest of our lives. As workers and producers we are under more pressure and feel more insecure than ever before. Our private lives are increasingly unpredictable; our financial futures uncertain. There is no general respect for mundane lives, well lived, in a popular culture that celebrates wealth, beauty, celebrity, notoriety and youth. Most of us cannot feel confident about our worth and about the regard in which we are held.

This conflict between our sense of entitlement and our shaky sense of self-worth enrages us. At work many of us bolster ourselves by struggling to assert our superiority to others. Managers who crave the respect of their staff, but fear they don't have it, create the semblance of it by frightening those underneath them. They are too concerned with maintaining their status to think about the damage they are doing to their subordinates. Service staff who feel their jobs are beneath them often make their disdain clear by doing them as gracelessly as possible. Minor officials take pleasure in exercising obstructive petty authority.

This behaviour matters enormously because we are social animals, critically dependent on the reactions of others for our well-being. Two centuries ago the Earl of Chesterfield, writing to his son, warned him that men will forgive any quarrel or criticism, except one. They cannot tolerate being treated with contempt. Last month new scientific research demonstrated that the brain reacts to a social snub in just the same way as it does to a physical injury. In effect, by our thoughtless and self-protective behaviour, we are going through our days delivering small social injuries to one another, each one of which is felt as acutely as physical pain.

Some of this is caused by our confusion over the end of deference. Freed from old social codes, we can be reluctant to show respect to anyone, in case it appears to diminish us. Much of it, too, is simply carelessness, or lack of time. We know, and are often embarrassed by, our own sensitivity. We know how easy it is to feel negligible when powerful people ignore emails or job applications or requests for help. We know that we can be made furious by a bus driver ignoring us at a request stop, or feel ridiculously uplifted by the unexpected kindness of strangers. But we don't ascribe such power or significance to our own behaviour.

The people most vulnerable to hurt are those whose self-worth is already undermined by those around them: bullied workers, mothers who have given up work, recent immigrants, people in menial jobs. Those with the least money and the least authority are made continually aware of others' contempt. But the erosion of concern for others is taking place at all levels of society. The wealthier you are, the more protected you are from the consequences. Prosperous people can largely pay others to be nice to them. Yet they too practise and suffer from the new selfishness.

Fewer people now observe the conventions of good manners. They accept invitations, only to withdraw at the last minute when something more desirable appears. At formal events, some people are ruthless about ignoring a neighbour in favour of a more useful guest. The old idea that one had a social responsibility towards one's host or fellow guests is beginning to be replaced by a determination to maximise one's individual satisfaction, regardless of the emotional injury caused to anyone else. The values of the market are openly invading the social sphere. Why practise duty when you could make a contact or secure a gain?

The answer is that we are all diminished by this behaviour. If every social encounter is reduced to a self-marketing opportunity, we will all, at some point, be made savagely unhappy. It may work, temporarily, for the powerful and desirable. But at some time every one of us will experience failure, be perceived as dull or grow old. We all want to be valued as human beings, rather than commodities. It is the generosity and tolerance of others that makes our lives bearable.

The human, social and economic cost of our lack of mutual respect is enormous. Consider the wasted emotional energy, the destruction of confidence and creativity, and the alienation that results from it. Anxious and undermined, we hand on humiliation to others, then deplore the dissolution of social bonds. The industries that surround us will do nothing to reverse this trend. They make their money and find their audiences by appealing to our egos.

We cannot allow marketeers to establish our social norms. We need to find ways to re-establish the encouragement of empathy, respect and consideration towards the people around us. The existence of those values acts as a social safety net, connecting us to one another. They make us feel happier and less threatened by the world in which we live.

It's another burden to be taken up by schools. It's also a task for companies, which need to pay much more than lip service to the proper treatment of the people within them. But it's an individual responsibility too. It takes thought. This morning I didn't swear at the van driver who blocked my car, and I was neither impatient nor frosty with the checkout woman who swiped my shopping so slowly that I was 10 minutes late for my son at school. It's nothing to be proud of. What did you do today?

jenni.russell@blueyonder.co.uk
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Old 12-06-2003, 01:01 PM
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pescaphile pescaphile is offline
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Thanks for posting this Fred. We'd all be better off, both individually and collectively, if we'd only be a bit kinder to others and less insecure of our own worth.
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