Culture

Vanity and Improvement: An Ethical Evaluation of the Gym-Selfie

Pride may be a sin, but its true nature isn’t how we’re used to thinking about it:

She says ‘I’ve come of age as a writer in a time when it’s no longer possible just to write. A writer must also promote her work and in the process promote her herself as a person of interest. I learned the snarky, casually intellectual voice of feminists and pop-culture bloggers; the easy outrage, the clubby comraderie.’ So that was the age she came of age in and where she learned how to write to an audience, and always aware of herself as a kind of media personality, right? Now, what happened to her?

What happened to her was she became a mother. She had this viscerally real experience of becoming a mother, and she said one day, she was with her infant child on the front porch of her house and it suddenly dawned on her that she had no interest in snark. She had not interest in an audience that might want to comment on her experience. She wanted to get utterly into her experience, and let it simply wash over her. It’s as though the dense reality of this baby blew away her preoccupation with with an audience, and with being a personality.

Here’s  something else I want to just read directly from the article. Listen: “Before I had a child, I took it for granted that no intellectual writer type could ever be taken seriously, were she to cave in to conventional sentiment. As a mother, I was swept away by these huge, ancient, universal emotions I’d previously dismissed as uncomplicated.” It’s very interesting, isn’t it? It’s as though her baby just kind of broke through this carapace of self-regard, this sort of knowing, snarky distanciation from reality. This always playing to an audience. And she found herself immersed in the reality of the experience.

Now here’s what I find interesting. It’s a cool commentary on the generation today coming of age with social media, but it also points to a very ancient spiritual distinction between what is classically called humility and pride.

Pride is not simple self-aggrandizement, or self-affirmation. It is a kind of superiority derived from a perceived separation from reality, or at least from other mortals. The moral opprobrium derived from the sin of hubris doesn’t come from the quality achieved by the individual, or even their awareness of it, but from the separation — the distanciation — from other people and from the world.

It isn’t a coincidence that the self-proclaimed nihilists you know think that they are better than everyone else. It’s a short walk from distanciation from reality and distanciation from distinctions, from value, and from the ability to derive enjoyment from value.

In my opinion, the greatest application of the distinction between pride, as theologically understood, and pride as contemporarily, culturally understood, is the much-maligned gym-selfie.

Fundamentally what is wrong with taking pictures of yourself while working out?

A possible criticism is the distanciation that the camera itself tends to create (what Davis Aurini calls “the electric eye“). Such a phenomenon can be easily seen in the horrendous case of Fitbit, where the emphasis on metrics has in some cases so dramatically separated its users from the end goal — fitness — that they believe themselves to be “succeeding” if their numbers look good, even if their health and fitness are observably flat-lining or deteriorating.

If a gym-rat is simply taking photos every time they go to the gym, that’s obviously a concern. The photos, and not the work-out, become the goal, and their health can actually suffer from this shift in focus.

But to listen to the mocking and satirizing of photographer gym-goers, usually by people who rarely or never work out themselves, you’d think that the fitness aficionado had committed some sort of felony against common decency. The degree of contempt and caustic snark behind the criticism of the “vanity” of gym-bros ‘n hoes speaks to a different motive than generous concern.

Which side smacks more of “pride?” The people trying to improve themselves, taking pictures of themselves for encouragement, documentation, and personal enjoyment? Or the people who, from a cultural high ground, distance themselves from the reality of physical pain and struggle, pointing and mocking those arrogant pricks who go to the gym and aren’t ashamed to show it?

The watch you see above belongs to one Jocko Willinck. Willinck is a former Navy SEAL, an author, an expert on business leadership, and an avid athlete. He is regularly mocked on Instagram for regularly posting pictures of his watch, which shows what time in the God-forsaken morning he begins his workout. His response, of course, is to tell them to unsubscribe. Joe Rogan, for one, likes seeing what time Willinck is up and killing it in the gym. It motivates him, and it also motivates me. I want to be more like Willinck, and those watch-pictures remind me both of the distance between me and Willinck and of what I have to do to close that distance.

And I do close that distance.

What’s especially ironic about this issue is that any drive towards self-improvement is fundamentally motivated by an awareness of distance between your self and your idealized Self. “Humility,” in the colloquial sense, is the tacit motivation behind any attempt at improving a skill or working out.

What people normally call “pride” is simply a joy in yourself and your accomplishments. This is a good thing, especially when that pride overflows and inspires others to emulate or even surpass you in accomplishment. Vanity in the theological form — the distanciation and separation from this joy, perhaps for viewing it as naive, immature, or “uncomplicated” — is a bad thing. People looking to get in better shape should not let a confusion of these two meanings get in the way of working out, or in participating in the encouraging culture of fitness.

Golden Let-Downs

There’s something ironically reminiscent of the Obama years, in the expressions of outrage and betrayal by formerly loyal supporters.

We should not be too hard on them — or on yourself, if you happen to be in their number. The ability to criticize our representatives is a precious one. The disappointment and sadness expressed by his supporters prove how cheap and false the Left’s allegations were about the mindless loyalty of the right to their golden-haired God Emperor.

With the simultaneous attack on Julian Assange and the apparent softening on immigration on the heels of his bombing of Syria, how can anyone right of center (let alone a member of the Alternative Right) be optimistic about the remainder of the Trump presidency?

When I voted for Donald J. Trump in November, I was unconvinced by the actual policies he was promising… or at least not persuaded by them. It’s not that I thought he was a liar (by the standards of his office of aspiration), though any honest person listening to the man is forced to admit that he is less than honest. He’s from New York, for one thing. Even the “truthful hyperbole” strategy he employs — while essentially honest in nature — is dishonest in its mechanics. But there are more important things than a president’s truthiness.

A nation is not so much “led” by its leader as it is reflected by him. There are over 330 million of us and only one president: which one really holds more sway? Certainly the president is a powerful cultural figure, but no one could possibly be more powerful than the collective actions of an entire country. How else could we get a reality TV star as our leader?

Let’s be serious: Donald Trump was never going to make America great again. You can point 330 million people to water, but you cannot even move them, let alone make them drink.

I don’t say this to condemn Trump, of course. I voted for him, and stand by my vote, because I only voted for him for one reason: protecting freedom of speech.

The press, and even supporters, tend to softball the issue by couching all assaults against free speech as mere “political correctness.” Since the First Amendment only protects free speech from abridgment by Congress, it is easy to conflate the right with the law that ostensibly protects it. In doing so, we completely miss the constrictions on expression at the hands of corporations, schools, Hollywood, and the culture at large. They are every bit as dangerous to the civic health of a Republic as constrictions that come from the government itself.

To provide just one example, any criticism of Islam can be caricatured as “Islamophobia,” which takes any intellectual justifications out of a criticism and pathologizes a sincere, and perhaps even true, concern. This is not done at the Federal level, nor even the state level, but by television news programs, by parent-teacher associations, by church congregations, and by dinner party guests.

This means that government isn’t the problem. Government reflects the problem. The problem is with us. Perhaps, like Solzhenitsyn, we do not love freedom enough. Perhaps we love reality TV too much. But I repeat myself.

In my book, In Defense of Hatred, I wrote that the inability to defend what you love can lead us to an inability, or an unwillingness, to love in the first place:

If we cannot hate, then we will retroactively convince ourselves that we didn’t really love it. And the danger of unrequited loss by establishing a meaningful preference, might not be worth it. It might be better to never love.  To wish that what you loved had never existed, so you could be spared your pain.

If we cannot say what we think without fear of reprisal, then what’s the point in getting involved and learning enough to have an opinion at all? And if no one has, or is willing to articulate, a civic opinion, how can a Republic survive? It does not matter whether these restrictions come from the government or from other people. If we cannot use words to resolve our differences, than we will eventually have to use violence.

In 2015, Trump stepped onto the stage and said all the wrong things. It was exactly what we needed. Suddenly, everyone who was afraid to say what they really thought about immigration, about Islam, even about race and gender, saw a Golden example of a man breaking all the rules and winning.

No amount of backsliding on promises can undo this psychic victory. Now everyone knows that everyone else knows the problems with immigration, and we can talk about it. When everyone laughs out loud at the emperor’s nakedness, it is impossible to pretend that the robes are beautiful again. Trump happens to play both the part of the boy and the God Emperor simultaneously, a feat few others could so masterfully perform.

Let’s not pretend that the task of making America great was a burden for the president’s shoulders alone. Frankly, I’m glad he finally let the true believers down. There is something weak in the hope that a single leader will make all your problems go away. It’s a weakness of spirit that Jack Donovan touched on in his piece on Trump:

Men in America can’t keep waiting for someone to come and stand up to feminists and race-baiters and social justice warriors for them, and then stand behind them, saying, “yeah, what he said.” They can’t keep waiting for some elected leader to put big businesses and banks and all of the scheming, swindling, greedy sellouts that run this country in their place. These people hate you, and they don’t care what you think or what you want. No matter what happens to you, they believe you have it coming, and if you don’t do anything about it and take control of your own life and destiny — you will deserve it.

Whatever happens to white American men — and all of the men who are unable or unwilling to benefit from rent-seeking identity politics — will be up to us.

Enjoy the liberal and progressive butthurt, but don’t get too angry with Trump for letting you down. He had one job, and he did it. Make use of the cultural space restored by the God-Emperor, and exercise those rights which he has shielded from the culture at large.

That’s the heart of civic life in a Republic: the speech of the citizen, not of the dear leader.