As one who has enjoyed a lifetime fascination with words, their meanings and wider associations I recently came across the word “solipsism” and, upon researching its meaning and implications, realized that it may be the most contemporary and relevant word in the English language in 2020.
An understanding of the numerous contemporary examples of solipsism and the way it is increasingly influencing our culture is worth talking to our kids about, but we’ll get to that.
Solipsism is partly about narcissism but the distinction between solipsism and narcissism is a subtle but important part of that same discussion.
Briefly put, solipsism is the philosophical theory that the self is all that exists while narcissism is excessive love of oneself.
For many of us around my age, puzzled by what we see as a breakdown of normal social and cultural civilities — a spike in drug overdoses, increase in petty or even violent crime, that the police are bad people and I as an individual can do whatever the heck I want wherever the heck I want - that worries us adults.
We worry about what the next generation may be increasingly accepting as normal.
All this leaves us looking for a word or words which describe evidence of an increasing conviction that “its all about me” and that the laws and rules and simple civilities are for others - but not me.
Solipsism may be that word because it describes the belief that the self is the only existing reality and that all other realities, including the external world have no independent existence without “me.”
The notion of solipsism, going back to philosophers like Descartes and Berkely explains a lot: Trump and his followers, the “All Cops are Bastards” ACAB crowd painting slogans on a city street, the individual’s right to camp, defecate and dump used needles wherever one chooses and the whole basket of antisocial behaviours about which we are counselled to be patient, even empathetic.
Others, like me, see this as is simply being supportive of a solipsistic way of life.
This column is not the place to be launching into examinations of those schools of philosophy which advocate the ascendancy of individual idealism over “real world materialism” but it provides a clue as to bizarre social and political behaviours we see reported in the U.S. and, thankfully, to a lesser extent here in Canada.
To carry it further, and again when we seek to understand much of what is reported to be happening around us, solipsism also encompasses that lack of understanding of the social contract which gave us a democracy in the first place.
What “I believe,” is the only belief and “what I say is the only truth” despite any external evidence to the contrary. My solipsistic version of reality is all that exists.
The self is everything, and competing or conflicting views are not a part of my reality and can be ignored or even violently rejected.
Essayist David Foster Wallace describes the emergence of solipsism as a defining philosophy for 2020 in this way: “all this brave new individualism and self-expression … has deteriorated into the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation … and the loneliness … of never once having loved something more than yourself.”
All of which begs the big question — how do we steer our kids, the post 2020 generation, to an understanding that there are major differences between individual liberties, independence, dependence, co-dependence and interdependent relationships.
In other words, the existence and acceptance of the needs of others beyond our own.
The good news is that there is a way and many B.C. school districts have embraced a program which emphasizes the needs of others beyond one’s self.
The program, called “Roots of Empathy”, was originally developed by Mary Gordon, recognized internationally as an award-winning social entrepreneur in the field of education.
Since 2000, “Roots of Empathy” has reached over 173,000 children in 81 per cent of B.C.’s school districts, across all five health regions.
Nineteen years of research in Ireland, Scotland and here in Canada at UBS has shown that the program significantly can reduce “me only” aggression and, at the same time, increase social awareness and behaviour, along with kindness, caring and inclusion as personal values which children might carry into adulthood.
Why is this important for the next generation? I don’t really know, except that in a world where, increasingly virtual reality and observable actual reality often do not correspond it is important that our kids learn that the difference between the two is not just a philosophical concept.
Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.