The selfie is at once the most simple and complex phenomenon of recent times. From teenagers to politicians, hijabi’s to atheists, laymen to distinguished aristocrats, the selfie has left no one untouched. Indeed, the statistics tell their own story. Consider this: the third most popular hashtag on social media is “#me”, which is entirely comprised of selfies and has over 200 million pictures; an estimated 91% of American teenagers post photos of themselves; and 30% of pictures taken by Britons aged 18-24 are selfies. In fact, since January 2013, the use of “#selfie” has grown by 200 percent.
While the figures are startling, the topic remains contentious. Michaela Davis, the CNN commentator, jokingly called the selfie “crack for the eaglemaniac”, while James Franco wrote in the New York Times that he is “turned-off” when he doesn’t see any selfies on a person’s online profile. Whether the selfie springs from narcissism or our “timeless human need to connect”, the fundamental issue with it has been overlooked. The popularity of the selfie has propelled it into popular culture, and the most worrying aspect of popular culture is its ability to make the questionable unquestionable.
Let me explain.
It is no mystery that we, as humans, are self-loving animals. From Plato and Aristotle, to Hobbes, Hume and Adam Smith, the exposition of self-love has been prevalent. But we do not need to turn to philosophy to understand that we have a special concern for ourselves and our welfare. What we need to do instead is realize that these philosophers paid careful attention to the effects of an uncontrollable type of self-love, the kind that forces us to become beholden to, and captivated by, the valuations of others.
Arguably, no one has articulated this view as well as Rousseau did in the 18th century. His genius was that he realized the way in which self-love manifests can range from the glaringly noble to the incredibly profane. According to Rousseau, self-love takes on two different forms: amour de soi and amour-propre. On the one hand, amour de soi “inclines every animal to attend to its self-preservation” and wellbeing, while on the other, amour-propre is a social sentiment that drives us to seek the good opinion of others.
Although amour-propre is just as natural as amour de soi, Rousseau painstakingly warned us of the former. He believed that amour-propre has the propensity to balloon out of control into a relentless desire for recognition. As such, if amour-propre (or our drive for recognition) went untamed, it would surreptitiously turn into an unmanageable beast, where freedom would be jeopardized for status, integrity for social standing, and “actual worth for perceived worth.”
Rousseau’s reflections could not be more pertinent today.
The selfie, at its core, is an action that appeals fundamentally to our amour-propre, or our drive for recognition. Moreover, its ubiquity is a sure sign of society’s acceptance of the practice. It is these two ingredients combined that make the phenomenon so hazardous.
What’s disturbing about the selfie is not the action itself, but the lack of thought-process behind it. In a world where technology is not only omnipresent, but seamlessly connected with every crevice of our lives, we often forget to ask ourselves how mechanisms, like the selfie, are affecting and shaping our desires.
Indeed, society has conditioned us in such a way that we inevitably have the desire to take a selfie. But this is beside the point. The important question to ask is whether we want to have the desire to take a selfie. If so, is it a desire that encourages our own well-being, or is it one that enslaves us to others’ approval? If the latter, do we want this to be our primary motivation? What do we gain from it and what do we lose?
Ignoring these questions – not just in the case of the selfie, but unexamined behaviors in general — will diminish precisely that which makes us human: our ability to reason, self-regulate, and self-reflect. We will be tugged, pushed and pulled by the whims of society, completely unawares. In an era that sometimes obscures the line between choice and tacit consent, as well as the real self and the self we want to put forth for others, it has never been so important to question our instincts.
Popular culture does not have to make the questionable unquestionable, nor does the selfie have to rob us of our ability to question our impulses. We simply have to, returning to Rousseau, judiciously monitor the way in which the values and practices of society are forming our behavior and desires.
So, before we get sucked into the aperture of our lens’s and splattered across the dot com galaxy…. we should ask ourselves, “Do I approve of my desire to take a selfie?
My purpose is not to answer the aforementioned questions, but to encourage us all to think about the way society can condition our desires and make them a normality. Lest we forget, with normality comes complacency.
By F Shah