Thursday, February 09, 2017

Self, Self Esteem, and Dennis Prager

Lately I've been listening to Dennis Prager (his talk radio program has recently become available here in [redacted]).  He's interesting and makes a number of good points, but I find myself increasingly skeptical of his philosophical underpinnings.  The deeper he goes philosophically, the more I tend to disagree...but more than just disagree, I find myself thinking he's quite confused.  Here's my primary example.

Prager often devotes a certain portion of his show, the third hour, to principles, rather than commentary on current events.  Of late he's been arguing that the aphorism "Be true to yourself" is horribly wrong.  In Prager's view, if one were really true to one's self, one would sleep in when really one should go to work, eat loads of fattening junk food when trying to diet, avoid exercise, and have romantic affairs outside of marriage (all are his examples).  Instead, Prager tells us, we should not be true to our selves but rather true to our values.  Then we'll work diligently, stick to our diets, exercise, and be faithful to our spouses.


Apparently, to Prager being true to one's self means giving in to any immediate urge one feels, without any regard for anything else, such as principles or consequences.  What kind of conception of "self" is this?  I can make no sense of it.

First, what really are one's values?  If someone tells me they value sobriety above all else, and each day they also drink a bottle of vodka, I won't believe sobriety is one of their values.  Professing sobriety might be one of their values, and sure, many people find moral posturing to be important.  But the hypocrite who engages in moral posturing is true to his values, and reveals them, and his self, in his actions.  The things he professes aren't his real values.  Now  I fully agree with Prager that one should be true to one's values... assuming one's values are worthy, of course (something I've not heard Prager mention).  But why is this inherently contrary to being true to one's self?

Second, what sort of "self'" is it that consists of nothing but immediate primal urges?  Prager seems to be suggesting that our real selves lie entirely within our reptilian brains, the compulsive part that responds only to immediate urges.  Really?  That's not me, and I doubt it is Prager.  My "self" is something much more profound and complex than just my immediate primitive urges.  When I waken early in the morning, I often do feel an urge to stay in bed. But I also am aware of what I think is the importance of the work I do, or the race I will run, or the dog I will feed, or the mountain I will try to climb.  If I were to remain in bed, I would not be true to my self.  I'm much more than a few primal urges.

Consider other scenarios that Prager suggests -- eating a cupcake, taking an exercise break, having an illicit affair, any of these might give immediate pleasure, but is it inconceivable to Prager that it might not be in oneself to do these, that being true to one's self might require that one forgo them?  I can't understand Prager on this point.

In fact, we shape ourselves.  We consciously choose, at least to some extent, our explicit values, and we choose our behaviors and our de facto values.  That's the germ of truth in existentialism, incidentally.

What does this have to do with self-esteem?

Prager also condemns the current fascination with "self-esteem," i.e. feeling good about one's self, and being self-satisfied regardless of whether one has done anything or not.  This pre-occupation has also promoted egalitarianism in, for example, schools, where no can fail and no one can excel -- all outcomes must be regarded as equal, whether they actually are or not... and so too, people.

The contemporary definition of "self esteem" is indeed contemptible.  But what Prager misses is that the originator of the concept of self esteem, Nathaniel Brandon, has also condemned the "self-esteem" movement.  Brandon conceived of self-esteem as comprising two things: 1) acceptance of one's self, acceptance in the sense of dropping pretense and illusion and recognizing and accepting who one is, and 2) then earning one's own self respect by virtue of personal integrity, by identifying and pursuing one's highest values, by doing so rationally, with reason.  That's how one develops real self esteem.

One who develops real self esteem builds personal strength and integrity.  Such a person is genuinely true to himself, and also true to his highest values.  There's no conflict.

This matters for many reasons, most importantly because it is the way one flourishes.  But it also has political consequences.  A person consumed by feelings of guilt is a person who has low self esteem; a person consumed by guilt is a person who can be easily controlled.  "You have no right to decide or to resist because of your guilt" is one of the most brilliant, and evil, control mechanisms ever developed by one human to oppress another.  Similarly, a person consumed by feelings of victimhood is also a person of low self-esteem and is similarly rendered helpless and controllable.

Of course, there are reasons one might properly feel guilt, and reasons one might properly feel a victim.  But a person of strong self esteem will do what he can to rectify the former and not identify himself with the latter.  He won't let these define him, but will act to rise above them.  That's because they do not define him. His self is much more than this, and a fortiori much more than a set of immediate urges.

One of the things that is genuinely odd to me about Prager's position is that Prager seems to have no concept that our values, if we really practice them, become a part of our selves.  His positing of an inherent split between them, and even worse, a conflict, seems entirely unwarranted.  I can't fathom it.  There may be no depths to fathom.

Well, perhaps that's a bit overboard.  His argument has had me thinking for days, and struck me as worth 1,029 words of rebuttal.

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