Taylor: Internalized ethics of selfies

I had thought of selfies as an aberration until I read The Road to Character, by David Brooks.

Welcome to the ‘selfie’ society! You know what selfies are, of course. Pictures people take of themselves. Usually using cellphones, you can, apparently, buy accessories that let you hold your phone way out front to click your own picture.

My granddaughter borrowed my iPad for about 10 minutes. She took 12 pictures of herself. All the same.

Click. “This is me.”

Joan and I used to chuckle at tourists who poured out of a bus to stand in front of some famous landmark to have their pictures taken. Usually by a member of their own party. Sometimes by a total stranger, to whom they entrusted several thousand dollars’ worth of camera and lenses.

We imagined the narrative of their slide show: “This is us, in front of Niagara Falls. You can just see the falls in the background. This is us at the White House. This is us at Yosemite….”

Click. “This is me.”

I had thought of selfies as an aberration until I read The Road to Character, by David Brooks. Brooks suggests that selfies are a symbol of a radically changed society.

Most of my generation grew up assuming that wisdom accumulated over time. One studied the ancient philosophers, the great writers, the famous scientists, to seek wisdom and truth. We were expected to follow in the footsteps of those who had gone before.

And so we inherited a moral code, a set of ethics, that focused on responsibility. Loyalty. Working your way up. Suppressing personal emotions and desires, in favour of the greater good.

Then things changed. As Brooks says, “Moral authority is no longer found in some objective good; it is found in each person’s unique original self.” Look deep within yourself to find your own ultimate truth.

Education subtly shifted its emphasis from moulding and training (from the Latin word “educare”) to drawing out (from a similar Latin word, “educere”) the abilities already there.

Click. “This is me. I’m fine.”

Most of us, Brooks says, assume that this shift started during the ‘hippie ’70s’. He argues that it started in the 1950s and ’60s—while my generation was growing up. A series of best-selling books, from Dr. Spock to Norman Vincent Peale, urged people to reject repression in favour of free self-expression.

There were some positive results. As Brooks comments, “The shift… helped correct some deep social injustices. Many social groups, notably women, minorities, and the poor, had received messages of inferiority and humiliation. They were taught to think too lowly of themselves. The culture of self-esteem encouraged those groups…to raise their sights and aspirations.”

Click. “This is me. Get used to it.”

At the same time, a selfie culture set up the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon. If truth is found within oneself, who needs a religion burdened with traditional teachings?

The earlier moral codes required God to be out there somewhere, watching over you. Such a God had to be a separate being.

The selfie culture internalizes God. God is in me, in you.

Click. “This is God.”

I don’t agree with everything Brooks writes. I don’t want to go back to a distant God. But I think he nailed the selfie culture.

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