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June 05, 2008

No we can't all be special - and to think we can is a road to personal unhappiness and social breakdown, argues Peter Whittle - author of Look at Me: Celebrating the Self in Modern Britain

Posted by Peter Whittle

Don't strive to be special. Peter Whittle - Director of the New Culture Forum and the author of Look at Me: Celebrating the Self in Modern Britain - explains why.

Few would disagree that the need that most of us have to be appreciated by others - by our family, our friends and peers - is natural and healthy. The desire to be well-thought of can act as both a spur to individual achievement as well as a glue for keeping society together. Striving to be top in the field, to hone a particular talent, or to simply make money if that's your chosen path, can be inspiring and attractive.

But the need to be special, to be taken uncritically at one's own self-evaluation, or to draw attention to oneself at every opportunity, is something else entirely. Claiming uniqueness regardless of talent or deed, by making oneself the most seen, by shouting the loudest, or simply by way of brute force, might give the individual satisfaction - although this alone is highly questionable - but the effect on society's morale can be both destructive and divisive. It's this phenomenon which is currently disfiguring the British social landscape, and which I try to explore in Look at Me: Celebrating the Self in Modern Britain.

One need look no further than the language. It's fair to say that the traditional British characteristic of self-effacement is now obselete. Be understated now about your work ("Oh, it keeps the wolf from the door"), or what you have done with your life ("this and that"), and you will be taken at your word. For many modern Britons, raised to cherish self-esteem above all else, such modesty is simply not understood or is tantamount to self-negation, the greatest crime of all. Hyperbole rules the day, regardless of the banality of the circumstances: I'm devastated, you're totally incredible, he's completely bizarre.

Putting yourself at the centre of the universe, childlike as it is, is not in modern Britain a habit restricted to would-be stars, surly youths and hyped-up urban professionals. Educated middle class types do it in more rarefied ways, although the effect is the same in the end. Despite the ever-increasing use in the media of the word "community", and indeed what would appear to be a nostalgia for the simplicities of the past, there is in fact a repudiation amongst some sections of the population of any form of collective identity, whether expressed in nationhood, locality or personal roots. Such concepts are seen as constricting by these single, soaring selves.

Fascinated by other cultures, from which they carefully cherry-pick, and fans on principle of anything which transgresses the "norm", they are self-designated Citizens of the World, flattering themselves with their love for "the other". Totally self-formed (at least in their own eyes), they can shine forth, unsullied by any form of limiting group membership. Even when they do something as collective as a political protest - Not in My Name! - it is still resolutely egotistical.

Not that a group in itself is a bar to being special - so long as it's the right one of course. If you can claim victimhood of one or other variety - and according to one recent report, that's upward of 70% of us - you too can count yourself special. If that fails, then you can always exploit your emotional life for the benefit of the cameras - or perhaps, hook yourself onto somebody else's grief.

But it is in the cult of celebrity - which could arguably be better renamed the cult of visibility - that we can see the most glaring manifestation of what we might call the flight from ordinariness in modern British culture. Witnessing the elevation of the nonentity from mostly well-deserved obscurity to a position in which he or she receives blanket coverage from tabloid and broadsheet alike - as happens most obviously in so-called reality television - is an utterly demoralising and draining experience. Our attention is forced onto people and events which would otherwise barely occupy our thoughts, and in the process our own everyday priorities, concerns and efforts are demeaned and diminished. Jade Goody's effect on us has not, ultimately, been an elevating one.

The current obsession with celebrity is at odds with the broader landscape of British culture, which has traditionally prided itself on being less susceptible to such things. It exists now purely as an end in itself, the flip-side of our own obsession with ourselves. Celebrity is seen by thousands as an utterly attainable state, a tradable commodity. The more level-headed might be amused by the passing circus. Even those with a modicum of self-awareness would be able to put a distance between it and themselves. But for the less well-equipped, brought up to believe that all must have prizes, there really is no hope. And if, like the yob, they feel they've been told they are infinitely capable and then cheated of their place in the game, they might even get violent.

Should any of this matter? If you worry about the gradual disintegration of the public arena, then yes, it matters. If you are one of those people who finds yourself slowly but surely abandoning visits to restaurants, cinemas and theatres, exhausted by the loud exhibitionism and selfishness which passes for "vibrancy", then it matters. If you despair at the debasement of both our culture and its belief in the importance and capacity of the individual, it matters. It you believe that an attachment to something bigger than just our own selves is vital not only for social cohesion but inner balance, then it matters hugely.

A couple of years ago, the Prince of Wales, in his typically plaintive fashion, bemoaned the fashion for out-of-control self-belief. He complained in a leaked memo:

What is wrong with everyone nowadays? Why do they all seem to think they are qualified to do things far beyond their capabilities?
Predictably and wilfully misrepresented, the Prince was torn limb from limb by a media which saw only aristocratic de haut en bas. But you didn't have to be remotely privileged to see he'd put his finger on something. His remarks sparked a few days of discussion about the failings of the education system. Vitally important though that is, it's not the whole story. If the Prince feels like venturing into further enquiry, perhaps Look at Me: Celebrating the Self in Modern Britain will give him more food for thought.

Peter Whittle is Director of the New Culture Forum and the author of Look at Me: Celebrating the Self in Modern Britain.

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a good piece. yet one wonders at the effect of the death of community. another SAU publication tells us that 40% of British families lack a dining table and a kitchen table, meaning that rare family meals are huddled around the idiot box. we know how few marriages survive. we are not yet as peripatetic as americans or australians (partly due to people held prisoner in council houses), but the gap narrows. our jobs are narrower in focus, more specialised, and in less personal organisations, plus we change jobs faster.

so we have little community left with which to register our achievements. increasingly, nobody gives a crap about you. this may partly explain why so many of us go off our rockers with insane grief over some dead celebriity, signifying that many of us build little ersatz communities to replace real communities now dead.

Posted by: s j masty at June 5, 2008 06:53 PM

44 years ago, my mother, who had worked as a Public Health Nurse, and her professorial friend, determined that my best bet, my only chance, was to become a Licensed Practical Nurse. I couldn't believe it. Les than this, however, was echoed by my 'Guidance' Counsellor. While I detest the use of the word, 'victim', this is the first time, and only time, I shall use it in relation to these high aspirations held for me.

I was raised in a very intellectual household, albeit a madly confusing one, as my mother was, indeed, certifiably insane, and one of her quirks, (and she was first-generation Polish-American), included the use of English word spellings, causing no end of corrections from, well, 100% of the people in my little world. It was true that I was not of genius stature as was my mother, but I believed I had more to offer than just picking a trade - although, had it been suggested that I apprentice as a carpenter, or a professional stagehand, my chances for personal success would have been greatly increased.

Now, as I look back on my life, I see a rather big mess because I was so utterly trivialized, that now, at an age where people have been very settled in one thing and another for decades, I am still fighting this lack of self, and, very, very much wanting to make one good 'score', if you will. Something that says, this is me. This is representative of what I can do.

Now this should not require celebrity status, but, I fear, it would take that level of recognition just to allow me to catch up even just a little bit. But no need to worry; Mr. Whittle's views echo my own exactly. But on days like today, it would be nice to be a celebrity in my own mind.

Posted by: In the US at June 16, 2008 03:40 AM
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