I’m not a narcissist. But Clay Shirky thinks I should be.
The media critic recently posted a controversy-mongering blog titled “A Rant About Women,” the premise being that women would do well to act more like men — stand up for themselves more and do what it takes to get ahead, even if it means being a “pompous blowhard”:
[Women] are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can’t say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.
Reading Shirky’s rant certainly doesn’t surprise from a gender standpoint. Most women have heard it our whole lives: Be more like men, even if said men are glorifying and rewarding reprehensible behavior.
What gives me pause is that Shirky, like so many of our “thought leaders,” isn’t leading at all, rather, willingly following the cultural trend of less substance and more self-aggrandizement, less selflessness and more LOOK AT ME HEY OVER HERE. So because that’s the way our culture is heading, we should equip ourselves to be better narcissists? As if we needed any help in that arena.
I see this less as a gender issue, though that is undoubtedly a factor, and more as a dangerous societal shift. We should be challenging a system that exalts arrogant self-promotion and “being discovered” over the actual work of making things better. Instead, Shirky critiques the behavior of people (not just women) who refuse to kowtow to this path of least resistance. Anna North at Jezebel said it well:
Shirky writes, “in an ideal future, self-promotion will be a skill that produces disproportionate rewards, and if skill at self-promotion remains disproportionately male, those rewards will as well. This isn’t because of oppression, it’s because of freedom.” Shirky has an idealistic view of self-promotion — he also thinks it’s a marker of a variety of other skills, about which I’m very skeptical (see above). Others take a dimmer view: it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and women had better transform themselves into better dog-eaters. This “change-yourself-to-fit-in” advice has been given to pretty much every marginalized group over the years …
Those who are marginalized by a system are often those best able to see its flaws, and teaching those people just to work around their marginalization is a great way to keep them quiet, and to keep anything from ever changing. Let’s not fall for it.
This “self promotion equals greater rewards” system is not a future we should embrace willingly. In fact, it’s a pretty dismal picture of humanity where navel gazing and notoriety inform our fundamental identities.
To Shirky’s credit, I think it’s a fair point that we need to stand up for our work and make our voices heard (not just women, but especially women). But I think it’s unproductive, not to mention morally suspect, to do so because we hope to “get famous five years from now.” And I can’t believe that the loudest blowhards in the room are the ones doing the real work of changing the world. They’re too busy talking about the work — or themselves — to actually get down to doing it. Why should we emulate their behavior?
As North said in her response: “’The squeaky wheel gets the grease’ is a s**tty way to run a world.”
She’s right. So how do we cut through the clamor of self-promotion and elevate the people and voices that are doing the often-thankless work of making the world better?