Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Less Big Brother and more proper parenting please

In 1964, when Charlie And The Chocolate Factory was written, Roald Dahl thought he had invented grotesque caricatures of unimaginably awful children.

Mike Teevee is obsessed with television; Veruca Salt wants everything and she wants it now; Violet Beauregarde is rude and competitive; and Augustus Gloop is greedy and obese. The hero, Charlie Bucket, by contrast, is kind, poor and refuses to cheat.

Today, the first four characters seem barely exaggerated representations of our celebrity-fixated, instant-gratification, something-for-nothing society, in which the impoverished Charlie Bucket is more likely to be seen as a loser than a winner.

When even the Speaker's wife is prepared to demean herself on Celebrity Big Brother and another contestant has had a fake six-pack sculpted on to his beer belly, you have to wonder whether the rot of narcissism is eating away at Britain as corrosively as it is in the US.

Narcissists live in a fantasy world - they think they are better, richer, more attractive and more intelligent than they are. They favour short-term gratification over long-term grind.

But the narcissism of today's culture keeps trying to drag us away from reality towards an infantilised - and fake - fantasy of pleasure.

The extreme manifestations of narcissism have done serious damage to our society. Young people are constantly being told that they 'must have' the latest brands.

Combine the 'must-have' message with the equally pernicious 'you deserve the best', or 'because you're worth it', and you can see how a sense of entitlement is kindled.

No one ever told my generation, when we were teenagers, that we must have designer goods; they belonged to a different universe, inhabited by the very rich.

Nor did anyone tell us that we deserved any better. As a result, we didn't crave it.

Narcissism at the top of society has done just as much damage. The boardrooms and trading floors of the City before the crash were thronged with narcissists.

Studies show that narcissists, because of their over-confidence, do well in bull markets, but tend to lose everything when markets turn down.

In the credit boom, both borrowers and lenders showed a narcissistic over-optimism about house prices and about their ability to repay loans. Those who didn't get into debt and paid off their credit cards every month are still shouldering the bills for the anti-social narcissists who took unsustainable risks.

This is just one of many examples of narcissists changing the terms of trade for everyone else.

If enough vain women opt for Botox and surgery, the rest of us start to look raddled and old by comparison. If narcissistic teens cover their Facebook pages with half-naked photos of themselves, other teens feel prim and unattractive if they don't follow suit.

It is an incredibly hard trend to reverse.

We need more children's books like Harry Potter, in which narcissistic characters like Gilderoy Lockhart are pilloried and the values of courage, altruism and friendship are elevated. We need parents to tell their children that they are loved, but not that they are special and we need reality TV contestants who are more like Anna, the heart-warming ex-nun in the first series of Big Brother, and less like Nasty Nick.

Otherwise, we shall raise another generation who believe that bling is best and that fame is the ultimate goal.

It won't make them happy - just like a superficially enticing Happy Meal, in fact.

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