The Image Culture

Over the years I’ve been bothered by the fact that, in so many areas, from job interviews to popular entertainment, western culture, particularly in the United States, has moved more and more to making judgments and decisions based essentially on image. This trend, unfortunately, despite more and more “popular,” as well as detailed and statistical evidence that illustrates the faults of such an approach, seems to be accelerating, in large part, I suspect, because of the excessive intrusiveness of the media in all aspects of our lives.

The complement to “image” is “ego-stroking” or flattery. We all like to feel good about ourselves, and most of us respond positively to those who seem to go out of their way to bolster our self-images.

The financial crisis that has besieged the United States and threatened to swamp the entire world financial system was generated primarily by the interplay of image and ego-stroking. “Everyone deserves a home of their own” — whether they can afford to pay for it or not. “You can have it all” — with a home-equity line of credit to use inflated real estate as a personal piggy bank… at least until the bottom drops out. “Of course, you can trust the derivatives of Lehman [or Merrill Lynch, AIG, CITI Group, or any other well-known investment bank of insurance conglomerate]” — even though we can’t even explain them accurately to our own CEO. “We’ve figured out the stock market, and there’s no way the Dow won’t hit 36,000” — just ignore the fact that such a gain would require either tripling the US GDP or 400% inflation. “Bernard Madoff has an impeccable reputation, and pays incredibly good returns” — with new investors’ money, just like every other Ponzi scheme.

Even the McDonald’s commercials get into the act with “you deserve a break today.” Perhaps you do, but that doesn’t have much to do with whether you really should, given the state of your finances. More to the point, it creates an atmosphere and attitude that what you “deserve” is far more important than what you can afford. It’s blatant ego-stroking, and it’s so obvious and prevalent that very few people even consider the society-wide implications.

But… as is often the case, there’s an even darker side to image and ego-stroking, and that’s a societal turn away from the recognition of and appreciation for ability and competence — unless those qualities also come with a great image. Unfortunately, and in real life, they usually don’t. The accountant or product analyst who tells the CEO that the product isn’t that good, despite the image, is more likely to be fired than praised. The critic who suggests that the singers on American Idol are less than fifth rate will be pilloried or ignored. The job-seeker who’s shy or tongue-tied under interrogation, but who’s brilliant in analyzing or writing or developing new products, usually loses out to the candidate who’s better-looking and glib, even if the substantive skills of the good-looker are weaker or non-existent — which is another cause of the financial meltdown, because the CEOs of the big brokerages and investment banks all had great images and lousy understanding of what they approved…or a lack of ethics, if they did understand.

Put another way, as a culture we’ve come more and more to reward flash over substance, to demand ego-stroking over honest evaluation, and to value the shallowness of quick rewards over long-term substantive accomplishments.

And now we’re paying for it… and most people still don’t understand why. American Idol and all the ego-stroking wish-fulfillment shows still top the popularity charts, and Toyota just became the biggest car manufacturer in the world by spending years building better cars, even as the well-groomed Detroit auto executives in their ego-stroking private jets beg for more federal handouts while trying to keep producing gas-guzzling behemoths that most users buy for their own-ego-stroking reasons. How many drivers really need 400 plus horsepower — except to make themselves feel better?

A hundred years ago, the popular fable was Horatio Alger and how hard work led to success. Today, the most popular books are Harry Potter, and how magic.. and wishing… can make things better.

Doesn’t that say something?