Written by: Dr Marthinus Conradie
(University of the Free State. Department of English)
So you keep hearing people telling you that you can achieve anything you set your heart on. But (and here’s the catch) only if you want it badly enough. All you need is to unlock your personal, individual potential and then nothing can hold you back – except you. You hear this from motivational speakers, online self-esteem gurus and even successful friends, and maybe it even feels great to hear this. You look around you, noticing people who look like they’ve given up hope, and you just know you don’t want to be like them. But you’re also worried. What if I fail? Does that make it all my fault? Does that mean I didn’t want success badly enough?
This is why you should read Will Storr’s book Selfie: How we became so self-obsessed and what it’s doing to us. Okay, let’s just get something straight about the title. Luckily, this book is not filled with the idle rantings of an older man rolling his eyes at the millennials’ online personas. In fact, this book is not really about selfies, not mainly.
It is often said that the so-called West is individualistic, and that because of America’s enormous economic power and media muscle, all of us are being influenced by this hyper-individualistic, mass-produced culture. Maybe that’s why we keep being bombarded with the message that if you – as an individual – just want success badly enough, you can accomplish anything.
We have reached an interesting place in the history of South Africa. We are tired of lapping up ideas from outside. And yet sometimes this sermon that you are powerful, that your individual potential is all you need, is tempting, alluring and seductive, despite the secret cost it might have in increasing our fear of failure. Will Storr’s book explores the origins of that idea. How did the Western sense of self become so individualistic, so obsessed with self-esteem and with being real as a road to success? What does this mean for those of us who do not actually live in the West, but who are flooded with its media products every day? The implications are important, because they go far beyond your own, personal ideas of who you are and what success might mean for you. The Western obsession with individualism sits right at the heart of the global economy and even politics – especially the idea that capitalist markets must be allowed to run free and that real politicians should say whatever they please, no matter how offensive. An obsession with our own right to be real might even influence the lack of tolerance in online space – the trolling, the bullying and the hate speech that so often pollutes internet forums. As Will Storr (2017) puts it:
It’s on the internet, in particular, that the beliefs of others are policed [and] their heresies loudly punished [because] if we are all gods, then our feelings are sacred, and if our feelings are sacred, the people who hurt them must be sinners.
If you are sceptical about Western media dominance, and if you are concerned with its impact on us, here in Africa, this book will expand your understanding of exactly why you are uncomfortable and exactly what you might want to criticise. It might even spark ideas for a healthier, home-grown alternative to the proposition that all we need to be successful is faith in our own, unique potential. For example, what kinds of collective, group-based forms of support can we create and develop to address the challenges endured by South African youth? Don’t get me wrong, I am not implying that hard work does not matter, that innovation and entrepreneurial vigour can be side-lined. This is not the point of Will Storr’s book or my own view. What I am suggesting that we need to think deeper and watch out for harmful assumptions (ideologies) in the way we go about creating a future for South Africans, and this book might just help us to see pitfalls to avoid.
Storr, W. 2017. Selfie: How we became so self-obsessed and what it’s doing to us. Picador: London.
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