The Burden of the Best?

For the second half of the 20th century and the early 21st, these were the robust anthems of American life: “Winners never quit, and quitters never win”; “The one who wins is the one who wants it the most”; “It’s not about how many times you fall, it’s about how many times you get back up and keep on going.” Occasionally, we even heard the aphorism frequently attributed to the late NFL coach, Vince Lombardi: “Winning isn’t the most important thing; it’s the only thing” (although this one has been criticized for its implied endorsement of unethical behavior).

Well-intended tropes like these, which held that confidence augurs success—that it’s possible to will victory—were meant to encourage and galvanize, but they also inspired some unhelpful developments. Perhaps the most notable of these was the self-esteem movement in US schools, which reasoned that inflating kids’ egos would also inflate their test scores. It didn’t, and in my 2005 book, SHAM, I chronicled the metastasis of self-help’s simplistic, koan-like canon throughout American life. I wrote derivative pieces for Skeptic, the Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today, and many other outlets, and did a bunch of high-level media appearances. For a time, I was the undisputed expert on this particular emperor’s nakedness. Blind self-belief, I pointed out, could (a) inspire people to charge into life without a Plan B (since Plan A was sure to work!), and (b) set people up for a horrific crash.

Well, in the intervening years, society has done a 180. The pendulum had already begun to swing back when my book came out, but it has now splintered the wall on the far side of its housing. Suddenly, we are celebrating the inclination to quit, and lionizing the competitor who falls and elects not to get up again.

The cultural anthems, too, are very different. “Self-care” has supplanted “self-confidence.” The “killer mindset” has given way to “knowing your limits.” The media have consumers poking under every rock for signs of fragility. “There’s a good chance that someone you know is struggling with their mental health,” reported Good Morning America on May 19th. “A lot of us feel anxiety and panic. Don’t suffer in silence.” Pundits have embraced a new message: not only isn’t winning everything, it shouldn’t even be the most important thing. “Today,” Las Vegas radio host Sam Mirejovsky recently told his audience, “the idea of the alpha is out of vogue.”

London-based psychotherapist and trauma specialist Seerut K. Chawla offered me an informed, even-handed view when I spoke to her: “I think it’s quite important for high-achievers or high-performers to put a firm focus on self-care and stress management. If someone who performs at high levels has incapacitated themselves in some way by a complete lack of balancing action with recovery and stress management they’re likely to do themselves damage. However, what we are starting to see now is an overcorrection. The prioritization has shifted from balancing action with recovery to something akin to coddling. An emphasis on only recovery and little or none on action.”

This metamorphosis is most legible in the realm from which the original catch-phrases sprang: sports. First, tennis icon Naomi Osaka wilted in the face of interviews and began backing out of tournaments. Time magazine then rewarded her with a cover shot beneath the headline, “It’s O.K. to not be O.K.” Next, all-world gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from Olympic competition after a confidence hiccup (the dread “twisties”) early in the competition. Coverage promptly pronounced the withdrawal her “bravest act.” Since then, players in a variety of sports have echoed such sentiments.

“What is publicly promoted now doesn’t necessarily encourage self-care as I describe it,” Chawla tells me. “It encourages something closer to safetyism. Bombarding people with the subliminal messaging that they are weak and fragile is not encouraging self-care, it’s encouraging fragility masquerading as ‘self-care.’” Just as sport’s never-say-die totems went mainstream, moving into boardrooms and even bedrooms (gurus taught seminars in how to “win at love”), today’s cosseted alternative is spreading through society. Workers demand a kinder, gentler, and less punitive office environment. Social media are flooded with memes, coaching regimens, and self-help homilies keyed to notions like It’s Okay to Fail and Losing Doesn’t Make You a Loser. So, it’s now admirable to bend and buckle and concede defeat. Hell, it’s the “brave” thing to do. Strive if you must, but keep in mind that good enough is good enough.

I’m reminded of the 2014 film Whiplash, which explores the tension between a tyrannical jazz teacher, Fletcher, and his top protege, the young drummer Andrew Neiman. Neiman is obviously talented but Fletcher decides he has a ton of unrealized potential. Stingy with praise, Fletcher believes in driving students to their breaking point, and beyond. (We learn that a previous student committed suicide.) Fletcher’s excesses are authentically disturbing—he hurls profanities (and chairs) at students, denigrates and humiliates them in front of their peers, and even slaps Neiman rhythmically across the face to indicate proper tempo. “The two most destructive words in the English language,” he announces, “are ‘good job.’” Nevertheless, by the end of the film, Neiman has emerged as a triumphant jazzy butterfly. And though Osaka and Biles ended up cracking under the strain, they did it as Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, two athletes who’d reached the summits of their respective crafts.

In a field known for its jargon, psychologists consolidate the traits common to top achievers under the laughably ordinary umbrella term, mental toughness (MT). Psychologists score the attribute via industry-standard questionnaires as well as more esoteric experiential measures. It’s hard to find a setting in which MT isn’t at least a predisposing factor in success. Study after study finds that it unambiguously helps athletes to overcome adversity. Accordingly, notes another major study, “The concept of MT has grown in popularity over the last decade and has broken out from its silo of sport psychology into other domains.”

A sampling of those domains, for flavor: In one study of 424 high-school students and college undergrads, MT was linked to lower perceived stress and fewer depressive symptoms. Students fought off the blues even amid sky-high levels of stress, even in cases where others might have devolved into “psychopathy” (I’m quoting the study). Unsurprisingly, MT was positively associated with life satisfaction. These results proved repeatable, showing up in a large study of international students.

Adults with MT have superior coping skills and perform better under pressure. A study of 364 adults also demonstrated that mentally tough people instinctively apply the counseling regimen known as cognitive behavioral therapy, wherein people under duress are able to reframe or reappraise negative events by “telling themselves better stories.” The mentally tough also seem to be better at recognizing environmental threats at an early juncture. Adds another study, “Individuals who score high on MT are confident about successfully completing the task” and are assertive “when confronted with roadblocks.” The authors consider it “vital for high performance in competitive environments and stressful situations.”

In the nine-to-five world, employees imbued with MT tend to be concentrated in senior management positions (though that may be a chicken/egg phenomenon, as it’s unclear whether the MT led to the management or the management experience helped people develop MT). But even for those in less exalted workplace stations, MT pays meaningful dividends. Far from being a factor in psychic overload, as some suggested in the wake of Biles’s Olympic meltdown, MT actually “mediates” crippling stress and suicidality, say researchers. It’s not the mental toughness that’s the problem in burnout; rather, MT mitigates burnout. The mentally tough even weathered the COVID pandemic better than the rest of us. Again and again, almost without exception, the research underscores the importance of charging through obstacles. MT does not guarantee optimal results, but it should at least bring a person closer to their desired outcome.

Mental toughnesshelps individuals cope under pressure. Photo by Marc Rafanell López on Unsplash

For all these reasons, researchers agree, MT is particularly worth promoting among the young, a stance that seems at least somewhat at odds with today’s self-care narrative. Says Chawla, “I would define mental toughness as grit. Tenacity. And a fairly big chunk of that is having some discipline over your own impulses—doing things even when your mind is objecting. This idea is now reviled in mainstream culture in favor of approaches such as, ‘be gentle with yourself.’ [But] if you’re always gentle with yourself you will stagnate and grow weak and fragile.” If our goal is to uphold and not erode mental toughness, it is surely unhelpful to applaud iconic role models for extolling fragility.

Skepticism about self-care is also justified by the ample evidence that coddling and other indulgent initiatives do not work as advertised. What sounds good in theory can fail miserably in practice. The self-esteem movement in American schools offers an illustrative example. Added self-esteem was supposed to empower underperforming kids to apply themselves. In reality, according to psychologists Jean Twenge, Roy Baumeister and others, self-love just made schoolkids proud of subpar performance and created generations of insufferable (and unhappy) narcissists. Self-esteem-based learning was repudiated by some of its most vocal boosters, but many of its tenets have now resurfaced in “social/emotional learning.”

It’s unsafe to imply single-factor causation in discussions of broad social trends, but one can’t help noticing that the language of “self-care” has coincided with a significant increase in “self-harm” (or just garden-variety harm). “Don’t be ashamed you are using [heroin or fentanyl],” consoles a subway poster campaign from the New York City Department of Health. “Be empowered that you are using safely.” As was the case with Biles and bravery, we are taking commonly understood pejoratives and reframing them as their opposites. The stigma of using becomes the empowerment of using safely.

It’s been a decade or two since American society embraced this more understanding view of addiction, and yet rates of substance abuse—and the mortality from same—have never been higher. In 1900, when cocaine and heroin were in fact legal, about one in 300 Americans lapsed into addiction. The estimate today is one in 133. Similarly, there were fewer than 3,000 overdose deaths in 1970, when heroin (by then, illegal) was the scourge of America’s inner cities. Even the height of the crack epidemic saw under 5,000 ODs. In 2020, meanwhile, an astonishing 92,000 Americans succumbed to drug overdoses, according to the NIH. “In all my years I’ve worked in the substance abuse field, I’ve never had so many patients die,” Joan Hartman, vice president of behavioral health services for Illinois-based Chestnut Health Systems, told the journal STAT.

Though myriad underlying factors figure in that dismal outcome, outreaches emphasizing forbearance clearly have not eradicated the problem. While forgiveness encourages more current users to seek treatment, studies suggest that stigmatizing drug use cuts down on new experimentation—the ultimate goal. As comedian Bill Maher observed of New York’s poster campaign on the June 3rd episode of Real Time, “You should be ashamed you are using. That might get you to stop.” Or to quote the STAT piece again: “[H]istorians say that demand slows when drug users became so outcast that even those looking for a risky thrill or a way to escape began to stay away.” Bottom line, there is no reason to suppose that behavior in the addiction realm would exist apart from the operative truism in other areas of life: You get the behavior you reward.

Or, in scholastic settings, you get the behavior you ignore.

At urban schools nationwide, forcing students to find their best selves has taken a backseat to making allowances for their worst selves; one might say the mantra is “It’s OK to be a problem.” The disinclination to put troublesome kids on the “school-to-prison pipeline” has wrought any number of putative scholastic reforms, headlined by the concept of restorative justice. The assumption here is that disadvantaged children, especially children of color, arrive at school already damaged by systemic racism. If we recognize their special burdens, accommodate their cultural norms, and give them second chances, they’ll be less inclined to act out. They will come to justify society’s newfound faith in them. (Sound familiar?)

But the process of restorative justice confounds its own evaluation. Obviously fewer expulsions and arrests will occur in a system that avoids punishing, expelling, or involving police in “school matters.” That hasn’t stopped academic elites and left-wing political camps from touting the “success” of these “antiracist” measures.

Still, today’s schools aren’t quite the land of Kumbaya. A study of NYC schools, a prototypical venue for such concepts, “found no evidence of the impact of restorative justice on student problem behaviors, suspensions, or school climate.” Nationwide, a third of teachers report being subject to violence or threats of same, though many refrain from telling anyone (so strong is the external pressure to not rock the boat and the internal pressure to avoid being labeled a racist). In my home state of Nevada, things are so bad that teachers are picketing district headquarters. A few months back, police allege, a teacher was strangled and sexually assaulted by a student unhappy with his grades; a second teacher was severely beaten soon after. All told, citywide, the 8,300 calls to 911 are an increase of nearly 19 percent over the last full pre-COVID school year.

Finally, nowhere is the topic of self-care more directly relevant than in suicide prevention. Here too we face a chilling irony. The more we obsess over self-harm, the more of it we seem to get. Rates of suicide declined noticeably between 1970 and the early 2000s, but then began an uptick and by 2020 were a good 30 percent higher than in base-year 2002 (when I began researching SHAM). During that two-decade span, media messaging executed a significant shift from Lombardi-style muscularity to the mushier language of self-care. Messaging about suicide prevention in particular became ubiquitous.

In SHAM, I demonstrated how people who perpetually take the pulse of their happiness turn out to be some of the unhappiest people alive. They’re forever reevaluating, and forever finding new things about which to be disappointed. As Twenge, Haidt/Lukianoff, and Talib have since demonstrated, children raised amid a surfeit of physical and emotional air bags come of age bereft of one of the most vital traits in a competitive society: antifragility. Says Chawla, “I think this is part of the overcorrection and the coddling trend we’ve seen wreak havoc on society in recent years. We insist on putting people in safe spaces and wrapping them in cotton wool.”

Human beings need to be tested. They need to be hurt occasionally. They need to see their coping resources stretched thin. They then build additional resources and learn the golden lesson: Tomorrow is indeed another day. So, as with addiction, while we must do all we can to prevent self-harm among those who grew up lacking antifragility, it behooves us to ensure that the next generation is better equipped.

One might argue that all of these travails merely testify to a troubled society that has lost its moorings—but even so, the softer-sided “answers” haven’t cured the malady. If anything, they’ve only exacerbated its symptoms. Which brings us back to Biles and Osaka.

Giving people permission to crack under the strain once they’ve reached the pinnacle may be the right message for people at the pinnacle. But when you tell such elites that it’s OK to surrender to the demons, to the fear—and then you put that message on the cover of Time or blare relevant content on GMA—millions of people further down the food chain are also listening. They’re just embarking on life’s journey and looking for guidance. Chawla is not a fan of pushing people into oblivion, but she also notes, “All of human history has involved people being pushed to the breaking point and adapting. That’s how our species evolved.”

Perhaps it is the singular cross the elites must carry—the burden of the best—to push and push and push until... For we as a society count on them to do that, no matter the personal cost. And if and when they do break, we hope that we can save them. Chances are we can. Studies suggest that relatively few people kill themselves in the absence of some grave underlying pathology, but today’s voguish slant on self-care seems likely to cause a much larger cohort to give up or give in prematurely, thereby short-circuiting their potential. And ours.

We demand that police and firefighters run toward gunfire or through a raging inferno. We demand that they put their physical health, let alone their psychological health, second. Admittedly, the world of sport, though inspirational, is a frothy realm in which we have no right to expect our icons to risk life and limb for our amusement. Simone Biles faced a crisis of confidence in a frankly dangerous realm and, as Chawla observes, “it was quite important that she didn’t compete that day.” Similarly, in Whiplash, one of Fletcher’s students does indeed die for his art, committing suicide when the pressure of invention gets to be unbearable. That’s a lot to ask in the name of good jazz.

But widening the lens, maybe the advancement of society depends to some degree on obsessives, people willing to metaphorically take that bullet or run through fire, people with no concept of terms like “balance” and “self-care.” Maybe we need people like electrical-engineering genius Nikola Tesla, whose legendary single-mindedness about pushing the scientific envelope made him spectacularly unsuccessful at the rest of life; his one love affair, by his own admission, was with a white pigeon who’d visit him.

Or maybe we need the likes of photography and motion-picture pioneer George Eastman, another lifelong bachelor who struggled outside the lab. Once Eastman saw his scientific visions fully realized, he took a literal bullet: He shot himself through the heart, leaving behind a laconic note in which he explained, “My work is done. Why wait?”

We are not likely to encourage our children to emulate such bizarre behavior, some of which may have less to do with single-mindedness than with some other mental illness. But the point may be moot, because we almost surely benefit as a culture from the existence of people who go to unhealthy extremes. It’s one of those third rail questions nowadays, but it bears asking: Just as we need cops and firefighters, do we not need the Teslas and the Eastmans, even if being the way they are ends in catastrophe?


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/06/12/the-burden-of-the-best/
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To minimize suffering and maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law—a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.

–Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz

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What would Neitzsche say about such a state of affairs, I wonder.

I was particularly struck by the increase in suicides over the 2002 baseline. Is it possible that the emphasis on prevention incites attempts in the misguided expectation that they will be halted in time?

The poster extolling safe use of drugs is disgusting.

Although we dare not say it. perhaps there are sex-based (not ‘gender-based’) differences in how we should adjust to stress. If a Simone or Naomi is over-stressed it is not toward her natural, evolutionary breeding advantage. Over-stressed women have low fertility rates, however ever the regulatory mechanisms in the body work. And so a woman who hopes to conceive children shouldn’t be in those situations.

But that argument, by itself, doesn’t mean that women shouldn’t compete with men, assuming they are happily foregoing their natural path of bearing children. But perhaps-- and this is an empirical question – it is the nature of the woman’s emotional system, that their limits for ‘overstress’ are lower. The female hormone system, we might suppose, goes wacky and the girl goes crazy, at a lower threshold where it would break a man. At the same level of stress, a man should process, but a woman should back off.

My father-in-law’s motto was “Press on.” Whatever it is which must be done, just do it. And don’t let the stress get into your mind and scare you. Especially if you or others you have known have succeeded in the same task.

On the other hand, I have three daughters, ages 27 - 34, who are successful in what they are doing, but at least for the older two, they are not ‘driven by ambition’, but are calibrating their challenges according to their comfort levels. (One might even be building a business coaching about comfort levels.) That can be a good advice for women who want to be women. Not necessarily the right advice for men who want to be men. And we won’t speculate about best rolesfor people who don’t follow natural paths.

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Good article. If only that it pertains to another aspect of the failings of wokism.

The word I would use is “resilience”. I agree with the concept that “it’s ok to fail”. But I would frame it as: if you aren’t as least failing from time to time, you aren’t trying hard enough. And so failing by itself isn’t the problem; the problem is if you don’t ever push yourself to that point at all. And the problem may also be in how you respond to that failure. Which leads to another old adage: if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. Go ahead and fail. Then get up, and do it again.

The best players in the game “fail” in the batter’s box 7 out of 10 times. But fail just 1 time less, out of 10, and you’re in the HOF. Steph Curry is the best shooter of all time, bar none, and even he misses more often than he makes from deep. So no, there is nothing wrong with failing. But it’s about being in the arena to start with, and it’s about continuing to jack them up.

As the author notes, the issue of ‘safetyism’ and ‘coddling’ has already been well explored by Haidt/Lukianoff, among others. “knowing your limits” is indeed vitally important, but doing so implies that you’ve pushed yourself and actually had exceeded your limits at least one time, to even know where those limits lie.

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Great essay. The author helped crystalize a lot of the thoughts and misgivings I’ve been having recently. A couple of points. First of all, I will predict that we will shortly see a marked decline in the quality of the professional management class. Don’t get me wrong, managers who can care for workers and establish trust as a foundational contract tend to be hyperproductive and encourage productive systems. But it’s in the nature of the job to have to say ‘no’ to people more often than ‘yes’, and an inability to fulfil this basic managerial function leads to workplaces with incredibly low standards for staff.

Second, although I certainly don’t endorse the type of safetyism shown in the safe drug use poster, there are specific areas where caring should be emphasised over shaming. Carceral programs have, in the past, tried to shame and stigmatise users into reform their behaviour- with predictably unsuccessful results- and whilst many may be sceptical of the ‘whole life’ approach to addiction treatment, there can be little doubt that many addicts are attempting to temporarily anaesthetize themselves out of a life in which they feel a complete failure and deep levels of shame.

Drug rehab has become a huge industry in America, offering a huge variety of therapies ranging from the somewhat effective to the absurd. But one thing upon which most experts agree is the degree to which 12 step programs do help. I would tentatively suggest that both a belief in a higher power (even if only as a placebo) and an attitude of self-forgiveness for one’s failings (paired with the decision not to repeat them) are both integral to the successes of such programs.

If there is a failing with the safe drug use concept, it is a problem of messaging- or more precisely timing. In metaphorical terms it is tantamount to opening the barn door as a means of triaging in advance the likelihood that the horse will escape! There is a place for self-forgiveness and for mitigating shame, but only after we’ve given a drug addict the choice between prison and rehab- in other words, once they are in a program.

There is also a place for safe use and safe use sites, but these should mainly be employed for addicts who have been through rehab programs and subsequently lapsed. No one else should be eligible to use them. This may seem alternately cruel or altruistic, depending upon your viewpoint, but I can assure you it is neither. The reason why the West lost the War on Drugs was because they refused to see it as a war which was primarily financial and logistical, and one which could only be won at the level of the market, with the user.

I don’t really want to get into the dynamics of why we should supply known drug addicts who have been through rehab with seized safe drugs when they lapse, but sufficed to say that we know from the drinks industry that the 20% heaviest users comprise two-thirds of the total market. Even if policy makers shy away from supplying addicts using this method (thus depriving drug networks of a large portion of their revenue), at the very least tracking and tracing only a small portion of the lapsed addict population (perfectly legal under the conditions of parole) would pay an intelligence dividend in being able to track retail sales of drugs back up to the level of wholesale logistics.

Our mistake was targeting the people in drug supply networks, who, because the insane levels of incentives meant that even at a senior level, were all easily replaceable. Instead, we should have made shipping drugs to the West so expensive that drug dealers were forced to sell cocaine at a minimum of $200 a gram- and the end of the supply chain is the point at which the product has incurred the most costs.

It was a war of finance and logistics all along and we simply didn’t realise it- we were too hung up on the morality of the thing to realise it’s almost impossible to defeat an unregulated market through conventional means. Government on the other hand has a great deal of experience in sabotaging perfectly viable sectors of the economy…

The other thing we should seriously think about is placing a renewed emphasis on the peripheral harms caused by the trade. If white liberal or progressive kids realised their habit was killing Black men in record numbers, I wonder how many of them would stop?

As usual, my essay is to be found on my Substack, which is free to view and comment:

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So often in these pages there is no overview as to what the dynamics are and the processes that are at work, that are driving the phenomena being observed. This is not to say that the works are poorly researched, but the narratives they tell are all low order ones at the microphenonmenal level.

There is no sense of historicism which means that the phenomena being observed seem to move because of anonymous forces that arbitrarily pop out of the ethosphere, holding themselves up by their own existential bootstraps, in a kind of serendipitous fashion parade run by competing ideological couturiers.

In this case the microphenonmenon is the psychology and culture of success, achievement, resilience and failure tolerance, swinging from robust alpha male ‘silverback’ hegemonism to poor-thing-victimological empathy/indulgence.

Steve does his due diligence with a bit of evidential homework and concludes that while the pendulum has swung a bit wildly from the chest beating to pusillanimous extremes, society still needs robust and driven exemplars of achievement, who are prepared to sacrifice everything to achieve their ends, not just for themselves, not just for the audiences they model towards, but to explicate the journey of a larger society that more generally aspires to embody strength of character and ambition to do greater things in the face of sometimes great obstacles.

Who but a Woke could carp at that? But the question remains, why do we need to have this conversation at all? Why has a decadent and self-defeating Woke credo gained so much traction within our culture, and not just in the ambition and resilience stakes? Why do we need to re-strategize to prevent own-goals in a very competitive world order, where the new up-and-coming players don’t give a damn about anything except winning…very likely at our expense?

Why have we become the victims of what Comrade Lenin would have regarded as an infantile disorder; you know, subject to the unhelpful ministrations of undisciplined and romantic naives, opportunistic adventurists and institutionally insulated petty bourgeois ‘intellectuals’ with little practical understanding of how social struggle concretely takes place, or the forces that drive it, or the objective conditions of certain classes of people that would likely bring them into that struggle, and on what terms, and armed with what policies?

For instance, when Black Lives Matter street gangs briefly took over certain inner-city precincts and shut down policing and the police, the local alleged ‘victims of history’ mainly wanted them back, because BLM/Antifa control of their urban space had given criminal elements a very frighteningly free hand to do whatever they liked. It was a complete shambles that not only further victimized and marginalized the supposed victim ‘beneficiaries’, but made what later happened with the break ins on Capitol Hill look like a picnic (something conveniently forgotten by Woke advocates).

This Woke rabble now run both the private and public sector systems of social reproduction and administration. What are they doing there? Why have we learned to tolerate them? How are we going to get rid of them?

Unless one knows where this stuff is coming from and how it is being instrumentalized, one has not got a prayer at properly addressing and dealing with it, short of war.

With a proper analysis, it becomes obvious that the Woke are not some version of socialism, but regime administrators in the same way that the Medieval Church was in relation to the secular feudal system. The Woke are a form of neo clerical Ascendancy that is now in what is becoming a mortal struggle between itself and the neo-con free marketeers, as to who is going to take the rap for the destabilizing trouble that late Indulgence Capitalism as a whole is now in, after a 50-70 year deregulated, privatized and fantasy driven economic and social/existential gang bang, that has left its infrastructure and governance across all its platforms, in shreds, whether we are talking the social welfare infested mean streets of the 'hood, the space cadets down at bankworld, imploding family life or chronically damaged natural ecosystems.

Below is an attempt to provide a more general structure and overview for the more specific issues and struggles covered in these columns, of which cleaving to soft options and indulging failure is but one of many.

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Boomer theory of ‘public acceptability of mental health fragility = increased mental health vulnerability’ is just as superficial & fallaciously lacking in substance as self esteem mumbo jumbo. Correlation is not causation. Where’s the causal evidence? More people being open about not coping & that being culturally accepted might reasonably equate to more people admitting they are struggling but that doesn’t necessarily cause an increase in fragility. There could be a multitude of factors that have contributed to that increase & the ability to counter it given the huge seismic cultural shifts that generations gone by did not experience. Hyper materialism, meritocracy, the death of religion/spirituality/community, fast paced big city living in concrete jungles/isolation, parental inattention/family breakdown/less extended family support structures, fear laden media negativity bias to name a few ….all substantially magnified by the internet.

Our monkey brains are no longer existing in the environments they were designed for where a multitude of messages are relentlessly pounding away 24/7 without relief that no doubt contribute to mentally unhealthy outcomes. Questions of “who am I”? “What is my purpose”? & “how do I measure up”? no doubt can result in confusion, anxiety & malaise regardless of positive messaging.

While there’s certainly something to be said for strong role models, self talk & the better stories we tell ourselves, self help/proactivity usually comes naturally for those low in neuroticism but is an uphill battle for those high in it especially if they have experienced serious multiple compounding life stressors. Motivational stories don’t even pass as a band aid in many a circumstance through no fault of trying.

Let’s not take the simplistic easy way out wishing away our broken culture & it’s consequences created by the generations before via waving those trusty magic boot laces that worked in a very different environment rather start taking responsibility by acknowledging the hard work required whose absence doomed self esteem culture.

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Very nicely put dear Ella. Regards, Christopher N

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I do take your point Ella, but with one exception. A self esteem driven strategy in education or parenting is the opposite of the right type of approach for raising kids with mental and emotional resilience.

I’ve probably linked you this TED talk in the past, but it bears mentioning again for those who haven’t seem it. It’s from a highly successful woman and divorce attorney, who has made quite a considerable living extolling the virtues of fathers:

Although she dwells most on the emotional support offered by fathers, and the boundaries are amorphous when it comes to gendered parenting, it is a proven fact that the male style of parenting, complete with the odd bruise, full of tears through play and the occasion desperately hurt feelings from taking risks is synonymous with building emotional resilience. Put simply, we need to experience frequent minor pain as children, the typical frustrations and angst of growing up, if we are to stand any chance of being able to inure ourselves to life’s routine painful struggles as an adult.

One of the things we’ve taken to doing here in the UK is stocking school playground and general non-school play areas with materials which can hurt, but not injure- with one of the standard approaches being building materials. It has shown remarkable results in fostering emotional wellbeing over the longer term.

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But the neocons are the first to embrace wokeness; it seems to me that wokeness is in fact a neocon/globalist divide and rule strategy. Whether this is true or not, the rise of PC then wokeness has seen the reciprocal decline in the fortunes of ordinary working people. This could be coincidence but I doubt it. Also, whereas I’d say there is much food for thought in your IC narrative – which would nicely describe much of the 20th century – for most of the working class, ‘indulgence’ is hardly how they’d describe their lives now. I’m tempted to say that the clerisy have taken away their bread, but given them circuses instead.

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Actually it usually is tho there are exceptions.

Excellent post El, but it’s not either/or – all the stressors you mention are no doubt to be considered but whatever the stress level, it is just common sense that to the degree that ‘failure’ is accepted or even celebrated, to that degree we will see more of it. All faculties become stronger with use – to the extent that one is obliged to exercise toughness, to that extend one becomes tougher. And visa versa.

It was one of the more disastrous mistakes of the coddlers to deprive boys (especially) of the ‘right’ to free-range. I pity modern kids who aren’t even allowed to walk to school let alone disappear into the woods for a few days before being missed. It isn’t surprising that a coddled generation grew up to give us wokeness and the snowflake generation.

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As an unashamed sexist I have to say that “winning is the only thing” is a boy thing, and “self-care” is a girl thing. We are only discussing this because of the emergence of women into the public square in the last 150 years.

The question is whether the public square can operate with what Georg Simmel called “a more feminine sensibility.” Especially given that, when “a man is arguing with a woman and she dissolves in tears, then she wins.”

My sexist notion is that, over the next 50 years, high-status women will decide that the public square is too icky and low rent, and they will create a new feminine culture outside the public square where they can practice self-care and be safe from argumentative morons.

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‘Toughness’ has such as rough sound to it, to go with ‘roughness.’ But really shouldn’t have a bad connotation. Every kid needs the opportunity to grow in independent awareness, the permission and ability to navigate alone, and to recognize risks. Unless you are a Saudi or Taliban woman, who cannot go out in public without a male escort.

Women’s athletics under Title IX provides an opportunity for girls and women to find confidence in themselves, to cooperate and compete directly, in a way that the school environment no longer does. “Group work” burdens the would-be leaders with the responsibility of carrying the group, but with little recognition that true ‘leadership’ is more than mediation.

Our fear should be that those high-status ‘women’ would be womynx

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What the author describes, quite frankly, is what Stoicism has been saying for over two thousand years.

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My dear Ray, you are of course quite right that there is a high degree of porosity between and unity among elements of the ruling classes, and this is a very traditional element of rulership since civilization and specialization of labor occurred in the late stone age…as has been and is, internecine conflict, sometimes leading to civil war.

Various oppositional configurations of conflict between and within the secular and religious estates is a commonplace phenomenon throughout history and today’s situation is no different.

The ‘educated’ petty bourgeoisie dominated administrative class Woke represent both the state and ‘soft’ tertiary/social capital, whereas the neo-cons represent an older manufacturing, mining and industry services capital, with most of its old working class in tow.

All of them have contributed to construction of a fantasy driven Indulgence Economy, rolled out using deregulation and privatization as their libertarian credo, combined with the systematic decoupling of the obligations inherent in civil rights towards an unconditional/zero obligation version of consumer/human rights, with all the responsible agency and moral accountability torn out.

And all contribute through their public relations and marketing subjective consciousness management instrumentalities, and the academic postmodernist push from objective to subjective reality.

Both have over a three-generation period, severely damaged the infrastructure they are supposed to be stewarding. The Woke, like their regime opposite numbers have done to economic governance and environmental management, have defenestrated social governance and the construction of robust social norms and character formation through their laissez-faire ideology, where anything goes because anything does.

No society or economy can keep doing that for long without the eventual collapse of critical infrastructure, which is precisely what is happening across all platforms within Indulgence Capitalism…which means everyone in charge of anything has to start diverting blame elsewhere and obfuscating their responsibility for the situation they are now presiding over.

Just as ‘Old Capital’ is pretending that climate change is a Woke hoax and that irresponsible libertarian misgovernance is a Woke specialty (it is) so Woke capital and state instrumentalities of social management are pretending that the social mush they are presiding over is all the fault of old capital and its ancestors (racism)…and its fetish for reproducing the species rather than legitimately sexperimenting (anyone for trans?).

Both sides are unerringly correct about the commons abuses of the other and professionally blind to their own. They are all posturing obfuscateurs and ideological pimps; the lot of them, on all sides. And the mutual blame game is the ultimate reality obfuscation that very effectively mutually cancels and paralyses necessary reform on any front, except at the margins, which augurs extremely badly for everyone down track.

As the overall situation deteriorates, so the risk of eventual civil war increases, as everyone starts to play for keeps in a game no one can afford to lose, even as the ship they both stand on relentlessly sinks…

PS: ‘Indulgence’ does not mean that everyone is having an easy time. On the contrary, what it means is lousy governance and eventually, highly dysfunctional and self-defeating attitude and behavior. Indulgence starts its life looking like a pleasant relief from ‘repressive’ discipline, until the full consequences of destroying rules-based behavior and its enforcement, come home to roost.

And what most do not realize about the Indulgence economy and culture, is that the deregulated and privatized gutting of social governance is replaced by the most totalitarian system of marketing based and privatized consciousness control ever devised, making the state based autocracies of the past look like amateurs. It makes for unparalleled unconscious conformity, but produces terrible social product that is frozen into narcissistic adolescent exceptionalism and immunity from accountability, for the shit laissez-faire values that now predominate.

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Unbelievable how anyone can promote that with a straight face. If a child comes from a crappy home, school offers the opportunity to show that child that there’s more out there than what the child has seen until that time, and better alternatives to what the child has been exposed to hitherto - and that there’s a way to get to those better alternatives. (Such things aren’t limited to children, of course - it was as a camper at camp one summer many decades ago that my father was exposed to the idea that a college degree could be a ticket to a different life, which indeed it was for him.)

How far we’ve come, apparently, from “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

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Is it not so? The Rats actually speak the truth when they tell us what’s wrong with the GOP and visa versa – it is about the only time either tells the truth. But as you say, both are blind to their own failings.

Touche.

Still one dreams of the second coming. Trump was a desperate chance taken at reform. Sometimes I think that civilization might awaken as if from a nightmare and the yet sane majority might find some Churchill to rally round and wokeness could just evaporate – dead as disco. But perhaps the rot is so deep, the institutions so corrupt that nothing can be done.

They get it exactly backwards. School had been, as you say, the place where whatever else might be wrong with your life, you could depend on being treated exactly the same as everyone else. By ‘recogniz(ing) special burdens’ we in effect say that there is no escape, you are a cripple forever. But that’s what the Rats want – a permanent underclass that will always vote for them.

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