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Figure of Speech: Selfies and looking beyond the lens

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  • November 5, 2018

Recently I Googled the term “selfie” and determined quickly that no further research into the matter was needed. What I found were endless varieties of scantily clad self-representations, with very little analysis about why anyone would transmit these images about themselves, or what the images were meant to suggest other than an easily accessible sexuality occurring in epidemic proportions (79 million images on Instagram alone that fall into this category). 

I don’t think it’s what Bogart meant when he said, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Psychologists speak of both the nature of the selfie as a potential for self-empowerment and self-harm — a symptom of both the need to exhibit a strong self-image, but alternatively also a manifestation of enormous peer-pressure leading to potentially damaging and irreversible exposure. 

In an article published in Psychology Today, Dr. Peggy Drexler summarizes this contradiction: “On the surface, the trend is sort of affirming, if undeniably self-absorbed. … And yet selfies are also a manifestation of society’s obsession with looks and its ever-narcissistic embrace.”

Needless to say, self-portraits, in art, have a long and respectable history. It is difficult to think of Rembrandt without also invoking his many self-representations. The selfie, however, manifests in a place and time where the technology allows a proliferation of damning images in a way that exceeds the user’s ability ever to manage and contain the results. 

And the technology is located in the hands of exceedingly vulnerable individuals whose judgment may not be as sophisticated as one might hope. Even for more mature individuals, the reality of the selfie is that it can replace the lived experience itself. 

As Drexler noted, speaking of one woman’s journey with selfies, “before she even noticed her increasing fixation with her own appearance … was the fact that she was so busy controlling her image that she’d often miss the moment in real life.” 

This fact stood out clearly for me last winter when I led a group of volunteers as part of the Coldest Night of the Year event in Calgary. My team was charged with laying out the wayfinding signs in Prince’s Island Park, a vast and spectacular urban park in the heart of the city. As we rounded a corner we entered a sea of young people, every one of them staring at their phones, all playing Pokémon Go! Not one of them looked up or engaged another person or marvelled at the beautiful landscape surrounding them. It felt like a scene from a science fiction movie. 

Pope Francis himself has spoken about this effect, and characterized it as a self-alienating process. He uses the example of an encounter with a group of young people. “I went to greet them and only a few gave their hand. The majority were with their cellphones saying, ‘photo, photo, photo. Selfie!’ I saw that this is their reality, that this is the real world, not human contact. And this is serious. They are virtualized youths.”

We may well want to ask ourselves why self-discovery — a pursuit from time immemorial — manifests in this way, rather than through, for example, a more reflective, more spiritual address. In part the question is disingenuous. For most, the intoxicating and immediate bedazzlement of today’s technology is ready-made for self-gratification. We have lost the ability to reflect quietly, or to retreat more deeply by looking in, rather than looking out.

Education, dare I say, is one vehicle that might help us to expand our view — that can allow us to take the self and embed it back into the real world. Education compels us to measure our experience against a wider frame. But of course, we need to be prepared to see beyond our own narrow, often comforting, perspective. 

Study, too, can be inward bound, and we need always to draw our students from theory to the real world — from textbooks to potential beyond. And that is sometimes harder to do than we might think. 

As the great Canadian writer Robertson Davies once said: “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”

This is yet another reason why faith and reason go hand in hand. A resonant faith can provide a key opportunity to expand the mind and soul — a way to look deep within, instead of only at the surface, in order that we may have a more comprehensive view. 

Henry David Thoreau’s well-known quote comes to mind: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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