Where can marginalized losers get self-esteem? (6-3-22)
Liah Greenfeld writes in the WSJ: Equality inevitably makes self-definition a matter of one’s own choice, and the formation of personal identity—necessary for mental health—becomes personal responsibility, a burden some people can’t shoulder. A relatively high rate of functional mental illness, expressing itself centrally in dissatisfaction with self and, therefore, social maladjustment, thus must be expected in democracies. But while high rates of mental illness are an old problem, the soaring rates of the recent decades aren’t explained by equality alone. They are related, in addition, to what happened to Western values, especially in the U.S., since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The disappearance of the West’s common opponent rendered individual identities in the West more confusing and dissatisfying. Having lost sight of what they, as a society, were against, millions of Westerners lost the sense of what they represented, rejecting common reference points, such as personal responsibility, which previously constituted the core of the self in the West. Virtues and vices, Soviet-style, came to be seen as characteristics of groups, significant social groupings were defined genetically, all personal discomfort was attributed to society, and the burden of responsibility was shifted off individual shoulders.
This change transformed the understanding of justice from one based on individual actions to one based on collective, biologically determined dispositions. It encouraged social maladjustment because people believing themselves decent were naturally uncomfortable in a society that wasn’t decent. And at the same time it trapped huge numbers within vicious, yet inescapable genetically determined identities. While solving the problem for some, this change in values accelerated the increase in rates of mental illness.
The tragedies in Uvalde and Buffalo underscore the urgency of addressing the mental-health crisis. Understanding its causes will help us do so.
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