Andrew Cohen: ‘Selfie’ captures our narcissistic culture

The Oxford Dictionary Online has chosen “selfie” as its word of the year. How perfect.

In case you missed it, a “selfie” is “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam, uploaded to a social media website.” The word’s popularity has soared this past year, largely because of the “selfie” hashtag on Flickr and other photo-sharing websites.

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The Merriam-Webster Dictionary maintains there were more popular words in 2013. It is also important to note that oxforddictionaries.com, which chose the word, is not the Oxford English Dictionary, which has not yet entered “selfie” into its esteemed lexicon.

That doesn’t matter, though. A word that people are using suggests something they are doing — a trend, a fad, a fashion. For what it says about us, and the way we live now, “selfie” is perfect.

That’s because this is the Age of Self. The motif of our time is us: how to advance ourselves, how to amuse ourselves, how to advertise ourselves. It is all about us all of the time. It is the celebration of self.

This pattern has reached critical mass in a society that worships celebrity and has easy means to magnify and amplify everything, from the ordinary to the obscene. In another time, it was harder for the vain and silly to become large and loud.

Once, no one noticed. Now we notice.

Today, our currency is self-aggrandizement. On Facebook, Instagram, Flickr and Twitter, we shout: “Look at me! See how wonderful I am! Aren’t I great?” This is how Miley Cyrus became one of the big stories of 2013. Desperate for attention, she “twerks” — another of the popular neologisms of 2013, which means dancing to popular music in sexually provocative ways, particularly thrusting hip movements. It worked for her, as it did for Elvis Presley in the 1950s.

That Cyrus may have bad taste or that she betrayed her young admirers is another issue. Exhibitionism is the oxygen of entertainment, and exhibitionism is Cyrus.

But the selfie culture is moving from entertainment to politics, where its consequences are greater. It has turned politicians into narcissists — not that many weren’t already.

For Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, the past year was one, long selfie. It was about holding up a camera to himself, adjusting the image for distance and light, making a face, snapping his picture, foisting it upon the world.

His self-portrait was defiant, angry, morose and unapologetic. Encouraged to get help, he refused. Confronted with the truth, he dissembled. Asked to apologize, he mumbled. He is beyond shame.

What was most striking was his lust for publicity. He could have laid low and tried to heal himself; instead, he offered himself to the American networks, thumped his ample chest and declared he was going to be prime minister. He had to talk and talk and talk.

His addiction was to self-advertisement.

The selfie was made for Rob Ford.

So it was with Mike Duffy. As the evidence mounted against him, he invented a public persona for himself as paterfamilias, who just couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything wrong.

Canadians know me, he insisted, which was apparently all they had to know.

But Duffy, like Ford, is the image of self-gratification. He wanted an appointment to the Senate for years. When he got it, he was most interested in what his celebrity could do for his party.

Other senators chose issues to champion; Duffy chose himself. He worked the system and turned it to his favour. That isn’t to say that he should have been suspended without due process. For him, like Ford, personal interest trumped the public interest.

What is interesting in this sordid story is that the one person who looks honest (though misguided) is Nigel Wright, the prime minister’s former chief of staff. He was so allergic to the cameras that all year the television networks were reduced to replaying the same clip of him attending a parliamentary committee. It seemed to be the only image of Wright. Unlike the rest of the world, he doesn’t seem to believe in “sharing.”

There was a time, before the selfie culture, that politicians resigned their positions when their integrity or honour were impugned. That rarely happens anymore.

Today, in Canada, politicians say or do virtually anything and rarely leave. Principle doesn’t matter. No one pays attention and no one gets angry.

We’re too busy taking pictures of ourselves.

 

Andrew Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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