Selfie by Will Storr review are the young really so self-obsessed? – The Guardian

Me, myself and I students take selfies. Photograph: Alamy

Self-love is a tricky issue, and the right amount of it has always depended on perspective. I have healthy self-esteem; youre a bit full of yourself; hes a total narcissist. But in a world where you can buy a stick to hold your phone at the approved distance to take a photograph of yourself, has it all gone a bit too far? And if so, how did that happen?

Will Storrs thoughtful and engaging book comes at the idea of the human selfs relationship with itself from many angles. Early on, he stays in a Scottish monastery and decides that spending ones time this way in the hope of heavenly reward constitutes a lifetime of self-obsession, which seems fair enough at least for these monks who dont do anything useful in the community, such as brewing beer.

Then he interviews a former East End villain called John, a bouncer who later found God. Violent aggression such as Johns, it has long been said, is somehow a product of low self-esteem. Instead, psychologists tell Storr that it is commonly a response to threatened egotism. This leads us to the central strand of his book, which is that high self-esteem per se is not actually all that desirable. As one scientist remarks: Actually people with high self-esteem are pretty insufferable. Which is unfortunate if true, because for decades it was official policy to increase it for everyone.

Storrs account begins in the 1960s, with the establishment in California of the Esalen Institute, a site of therapeutic hippy self-discovery founded by devotees of humanistic psychology, which more or less says that peoples hang-ups are caused by not being true to their authentic feelings. Storr visits the institute, which is still going today, and paints a wonderfully funny picture of how he is encouraged to give his grouchiness full reign, replying to a cheery Good morning! from another attendee with the line: Another day in twat paradise. For a time, this is wonderfully liberating. This was the me I feared the most, Storr writes. He was the lonely man, the angry man, the weirdo. He was the cunt. And, in that moment, I had a terrible realisation. I was loving being the cunt. The funny thing is, though, that the fun doesnt last, and it comes as a huge relief for the author to be nice to everyone again.

The young selfie-taking woman is clearly a victim of the culture she has grown up in, and not a horrible egotist

The problem with the idea of being your authentic self, Storr decides, is that you almost certainly dont have a single authentic self. And if it is true, as Aristotle reckoned, that you become what you habitually do, then encouraging people to be assholes is simply going to produce a lot of new assholes. That is what Storr reckons happened when promoting self-esteem got onto the official political agenda in the 1980s and 90s, both in the US and the UK. More self-esteem was said to be the key to improving educational performance and curing all kinds of social ills, from drug and alcohol abuse to welfare dependency and crime. Promoting self-esteem became central to educational policy. But in fact, the only reliable correlation between higher self-esteem and better outcomes is with exam results, and it turns out that as you might expect high self-esteem follows good exam results, rather than causing them.

Storr connects the Esalen Institute to wider socioeconomic shifts through the figure of Alan Greenspan: a devotee of Ayn Rands monstrous libertarianism, he visited Esalen and then became an influential architect of US economic policy. Thus was constructed what the author calls the neoliberal self, which is our modern cultural construction of what a person should ideally be: An extroverted, slim, beautiful, individualistic, optimistic, hard-working, socially aware yet high-self-esteeming global citizen with entrepreneurial guile and a selfie camera. Whats wrong with this? Well, If its true that we hold within us all the power we need to succeed, then it naturally follows that if we fail then its our fault and our fault alone. The neoliberal story of the self and its limitless potential is thoroughly antisocial.

And what about the internet? Storr provides some telling comedy vignettes from his stay in a house full of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. One young man runs an asteroid-mining company that has not, to date, mined any asteroids. Its never been tried, this pure libertarianism that Ayn Rand was promoting, he complains to Storr. What we need is a chance to give it a go. He wants to try it in space that sounds best for everyone.

Storr also interviews a young woman who takes selfies all day and posts them to Instagram with captions such as Hypnotising, mesmerising me. Her family background conforms to the theory Storr promotes that parental overpraise constantly telling a child he or she is wonderfully special and so forth predicts higher scores on tests for narcissism. This leads him to wonder whether all the various developments he has documented have led to the creation of an entire generation of narcissists.

This is tricky terrain. The word narcissist still carries a strong tone of moral disapproval, yet the young selfie-taking woman is evidently a victim of the culture she has grown up in rather than simply a horrible egotist. Storr is sympathetic to her, but its worth pointing out that the suggestion that an entire new generation of young people is selfish in unprecedented ways is the kind of thing that the grumpy middle-aged have been saying since time immemorial. And recently, quite a few of the young seem to have found time away from selfie-taking to vote for decidedly anti-neoliberal policies. So, although Storrs cultural history is fascinating and often persuasive, his diagnosis of where we are now might well be too pessimistic. Of course, I quite fancy myself for saying so.

Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What Its Doing to Us by Will Storr (Picador, 18.99). To order a copy for 16.14, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of 1.99.

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Selfie by Will Storr review are the young really so self-obsessed? - The Guardian

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