Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Exceptional is the new normal

Yesterday I awoke to the horrific news of the murder of 10 people, predominantly women, in Toronto by a driver who referred to himself as part of the "incel revolution".  Incel refers to people who are involuntarily celibate - men who feel that they are not attractive to women and who blame women for it.  Now while this is a blog about technology and education, and I really don't want to get into a post about what happened in Canada, one thing that does strike me is that technology did play a part in developing this mindset.  Incel is a misogynistic group on Reddit, and the accused also used Facebook to post his hate-filled agenda.  At the same time as I was hearing this news, I was also reading further in our school's summer read The Subtle Art ....  Yesterday the chapter I read was about feeling special.

Mark Manson, the author, writes that most of us are not special or exceptional in the things we do because to become truly great at something takes time and effort and we have limited time and effort.  And yet daily we are bombarded with stories on the internet:  on Google, Facebook, YouTube and so on, as well as on TV.  Because our attention is flooded with so much information, the only bits that really catch our attention are the exceptional stories from the extremes of life's bell curve - and this flood of extreme information has conditioned us to believe that exceptionalism is the new normal.  The downside of this is that when we see everyone around us doing "exceptional" things, we start to feel insecure ourselves.  We want our posts to be "liked", and in order for them to get noticed among the myriad of posts people are exposed to every day, we need to be posting things that are more and more extreme.  Mark writes:
The tendency towards entitlement is apparent across all of society.  And I believe it's linked to mass-media driven exceptionalism .... the inundation of the exceptional makes people feel worse about themselves, makes them feel that they need to be more extreme more radical, and more self-assured to get noticed or even matter ... the Internet has not just open-sourced information; it has also open-sourced insecurity, self-doubt and shame.
Of course we can't all be extraordinary - otherwise nobody would be - but being average has now become seen as a badge of failure.  And perhaps this is what is pushing some people into the low end of life's bell curve, as they think it's better to be there than in the middle - because at least at the bottom end you will get attention.

And here's another thing that Mark points out:  the people who are truly exceptional have got to where they are because of a belief that they are not exceptional - and because of that belief they are focused on improvement because they know they could be better.  He writes that "the knowledge and acceptance of your own mundane existence will actually free you to accomplish what you truly wish to accomplish without judgement or lofty expectations."  And the good news about that is that you will then be free to enjoy the unexceptional, life's simple pleasures, such as friendship, a good book, and so on.

Some people do attempt the amazing.  Currently my son is walking the Pacific Crest Trail - but he's not doing it to get likes on Instagram and Facebook or comments on his blog.  He is sharing his experience with friends and family, but mostly he's doing the walk for himself because he loves being outside in nature.

We know that this pressure to be perfect is becoming quite endemic in many of today's students, with studies from Canada, the UK and the USA indicating that university graduates are feeling more societal pressure than previous generations as a result of platforms such as Facebook and Instagram that promote a perfect public image.  Many young people base their own standards on what they see on social media, which can intensify their feelings about body image and social alienation. Along with this comes a "hidden epidemic" of mental health issues with increasing rates of depression, self-harm and anxiety.

So the Internet can be both good and bad.  As pointed out in a recent Guardian article, if a young person types in "self-harm" they can to to websites where they are offered help and support, or they can go to destructive sites where people are discussing how to self-harm and hide their eating disorders.  And I end this post with a question to educators - what are we doing to support the positive and to help our young people to deal with the negative?

Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight cc

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