Return of the Slackoisie

In an op-ed that reaches into a universe too distant for even the New York Times, Alfie Cohen attempts to revitalize the “everybody gets a trophy” sense of entitlement that gives rise to exaggerated self-esteem of youth.  Yes, the Slackoisie have a new champion.

But seriously, has any child who received a trinket after losing a contest walked away believing that he (or his team) won — or that achievement doesn’t matter? Giving trophies to all the kids is a well-meaning and mostly innocuous attempt to appreciate everyone’s effort.

Even so, I’m not really making a case for doing so, since it distracts us from rethinking competition itself and the belief that people can succeed only if others fail.

Rather, my intent is to probe the underlying cluster of mostly undefended beliefs about what life is like (awful), what teaches resilience (experiences with failure), what motivates people to excel (rewards) and what produces excellence (competition).

Between the use of bizarrely loaded language, obvious strawman arguments and low-rent logical fallacies, Cohen posits that society has returned to the bad old days of meritocracy.

The conventional wisdom these days is that kids come by everything too easily — stickers, praise, A’s, trophies. It’s outrageous, we’re told, that all kids on the field may get a thanks-for-playing token, in contrast to the good old days, when recognition was reserved for the conquering heroes.

It’s “conventional wisdom”?  And those who succeed through hard work and dedicated effort are “conquering heroes”?  As the past few years’ worth of graduating law students learned the hard way, life isn’t always easy. While Cohen tries to spin the message as “life is awful,” which may be the way it was portrayed in his house, the reality is that life doesn’t give every kid a trophy, an A or a job.  Even when they play by all the rules, just like mommy and daddy told them, reality doesn’t always play fair.

In any case, no one ever explains the mechanism by which the silence of a long drive home without a trophy is supposed to teach resilience. Nor are we told whether there’s any support for this theory of inoculation by immersion. Have social scientists shown that those who are spared, say, the rigors of dodge ball (which turns children into human targets) or class rank (which pits students against one another) will wind up unprepared for adulthood?

One might suspect that if someone is “smart” enough to get their essay in the New York Times, they would similarly be smart enough to comprehend the mechanism of incentives. It’s just not that difficult a concept.  If your team loses a game, you have two choices: work harder to win next time or find a different game to play.  Don’t care for dodge ball (“which turns children into human targets,” which makes it an evil game)?  Play baseball, which doesn’t.

I would suggest fencing, but that turns children into human targets too.  Of course, there may be a reason why many sports “turn children into human targets.”  We spend our lives as human targets, and it helps to know how to avoid being hit when one tries to survive, if not succeed.  We may not like it that way, and may well prefer not to have anyone try to hit us with a ball or the end of a sword, but that choice is in the other person’s hands, not ours.

Extrapolate this survival technique to vying for a promotion, where there is one job opening and multiple people interested in the position. It’s fine to urge that those interested only promote their own qualities, but it’s possible that someone is going to suggest their strengths are better than the competition’s.  And ultimately, someone will get the job and others will not. Life isn’t awful, but it is most assuredly competitive.

But where Cohen reveals how tenuous his grasp on reality is his argument about “conditionality.”

Children ought never to receive something desirable — a sum of money, a trophy, a commendation — unless they’ve done enough to merit it. They shouldn’t even be allowed to feel good about themselves without being able to point to tangible accomplishments. In this view, we have a moral obligation to reward the deserving and, equally important, make sure the undeserving go conspicuously unrewarded. Hence the anger over participation trophies. The losers mustn’t receive something that even looks like a reward.

He elevates the emotionally overwrought perspective, where he focuses on the view from the “loser’s” side, and where the denial of a reward is a punishment reflecting the conditionality of affection.

Over the last decade or so, two Israeli researchers, Avi Assor and Guy Roth, and their colleagues in the United States and Belgium, have conducted a series of experiments whose consistent finding is that when children feel their parents’ affection varies depending on the extent to which they are well behaved, self-controlled or impressive at school or sports, this promotes “the development of a fragile, contingent and unstable sense of self.”

Conflating parental love with success is an interesting, but wholly unrelated twits.  If so, and Cohen’s saying so isn’t sufficient as he’s demonstrated a willingness to spin too hard by half, then the solution isn’t to hand out participation trophies, but to distinguish parental love, which is unconditional, with success in school, sports, whatever, which is, by definition, conditional.

A parent doesn’t stop loving his child because he lost at dodge ball. Rather, a loving parent helps his child to be a better dodge ball player. Or tiddly winks. Or whatever sport, game, musical instrument, academic subject, non-academic interest, best suits his child. But he doesn’t withdraw love because of dodge ball. Unless the parent is a really bad parent.

Other researchers, meanwhile, have shown that high self-esteem is beneficial, but that even more desirable is unconditional self-esteem: a solid core of belief in yourself, an abiding sense that you’re competent and worthwhile — even when you screw up or fall short. In other words, the very unconditionality that seems to fuel attacks on participation trophies and the whole “self-esteem movement” turns out to be a defining feature of psychological health. It’s precisely what we should be helping our children to acquire.

And therein lies the fallacy.  High self-esteem is beneficial, but only if it’s warranted.  Unwarranted high self-esteem is the stuff of a miserable life, when a child finally grows beyond stunted adolescence, edges toward maturity, and learned that the world doesn’t see him as his mother does.

My father (who turns 89 today) used to tell me, “rich or poor, it’s good to have money.”  People who lived through the great depression and winter in the Ardennes were a practical bunch.  The message wasn’t about how not to lose, but how to win. Hard work, tenacity and resilience were good things.  They still are.

While money isn’t the only measure of success, though I can’t fault a guy who didn’t have two dimes to rub together in his youth from desiring the wherewithal to provide a comfortable life for his family, neither is the belief that getting hit by a dodge ball makes you a winner. That’s not how the game is played, and life isn’t anymore unforgiving.

Life is not awful, but success in life isn’t a product of self-delusion. It takes effort. Sadly, the New York Times rewards Alfie Cohen’s effort by putting this tripe in its paper, and thereby emboldens the Slackoisie to believe that they are just as entitled to a fabulous life as those who have earned it.

8 thoughts on “Return of the Slackoisie

  1. John Jenkins

    I remember that, for a time, it was fashionable in some social science circles to argue that low self-esteem was a driver of youthful criminal behavior, with the thinking being that those who do not think they can win playing by the rules will resort to other methods. Then, some intrepid researcher decided that would be fertile ground for a book and actually looked into the relationship between criminal behavior and self-esteem. Her results were that youthful offenders were much more likely to have higher self esteem than their accomplishments warranted, lending credence to the position that unwarranted self-esteem is a problem. I would wager that every CDL has come to a similar conclusion when trying to explain to a client how the system actually works, as opposed to how the client thinks it does (do you still hear the one about how the undercover cop has to tell you the truth if you ask him whether he is a cop?).

    1. SHG Post author

      The pervasiveness of unwarranted self-esteem has skewed my perspective in recent years. It’s everywhere. I see it in young clients. I see it in young lawyers. I see it everywhere.

      But what’s interesting is where I no longer see it. Many of the one-time scambloggers, who were outraged that their entitlement didn’t come to pass, have since come to the painful realization that life doesn’t hand them Ferraris because they went to law school, and that mommy and daddy lied when they told them they were fabulous. Now that they’ve suffered for their unwarranted self-esteem, I see them working harder toward surviving, maybe even creating a better life for themselves. I give them credit, even if belated, for coming to grips with reality. I would hate to see another generation suffer the same fate.

  2. Wheeze the People

    Raise the minimum wage to $100 an hour and most of these pesky problems are solved. Maybe you can write an NYT op-ed piece about this elegant solution . . .

  3. Brett Middleton

    It appears that Mark Twain knew Mr. Cohen, unless it is simply that the NYT has the editing philosophy of an agrigultural paper of the 1800s: “The less a man knows the bigger the noise he makes and the higher the salary he commands.”

    Meanwhile, if I may be forgiven a link, a recent book gives us a counterpoint view: Megan McArdle: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success.

    1. SHG Post author

      While I haven’t read the book, and based on this video, I’m not sure that her argument is fully conceived, but her point is well taken.

      1. Andrew Roth

        Megan McArdle was raised in wealth and privilege by a powerful behind-the-scenes influence peddler in the New York City building trades. She is a self-dealing scumbag, right-wing think tank hack, and master manipulator of family connections, the last person who should be given a pulpit to opine about hard knocks. The fact that she’s hawking her book about “failure” in the NYT Book Review (alongside noted wage thief Ariana Huffington’s latest collected thoughts on goodness) and not as a self-published e-book on Amazon is mainly a testament to the rising tide of corruption at the Times.

        Some people are better for their society when they retreat into idle wealth instead of corrupting the public discourse with their smarmy, hackneyed, condescending tomes about how they, too, have suffered hardship, and it was a good thing. The problem isn’t necessarily with the content of Megan McArdle’s writing per se, which may be sensible enough; the worst problems are with her troubling family background and the really sick ulterior motives that her benefactors likely have for insinuating her into the public discourse.

        This is most certainly not a woman who rose to her current position through sheer meritocracy. I first read about her a couple of years ago on Paul Carr and Mark Ames’ fringe-leftist Exiled/NSFW Corp platform, and these guys were also flipping the hell out over the conflicts of interest that they believed Glenn Greenwald and Radley Balko to have, so I took their vitriol about McArdle with a grain of salt. When I saw her profiled in the NYT Book Review, all I could think was, my God, they were right.

        I do not for a second believe that McArdle or anyone working in concert with her is a plain dealer. The likelihood that she is peddling bog-standard right-wing agitprop is too great to take her writing at face value.

        I read the Cohen piece the other day, and my reaction was that it kinda sucked and that I wasted my time by reading through such poor writing and equally poor reasoning. To my disappointment, Ross Douthat, whose essays I usually like, also drew on his innermost reserves of suck this weekend, putting out the most conceited pedantry and lowest-grade fallacious tradcon talking points I recall ever reading from him. Meanwhile, Kristof, Friedman, and Dowd are basically allowed to write whatever crazy nonsense they like on a regular basis as long as they maintain their distinct personal styles. So I have an easier time taking the New York Times op-ed page seriously when it argues that standards are irrelevant than when it argues that they’re crucial, since it has no consistent standards of its own.

        The problem is a lot deeper and wider than participation trophies.

        1. SHG Post author

          So I take it you don’t care for Megan McArdle. Fair enough. Her being a despicable hypocritical right-wing agitator aside, it doesn’t make her point wrong this time.

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