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April 20, 2017

The death of humility

(Caroline OConnor/ Daily Collegian)

I’m humbled to stand before you today.

We see this in sports for every award, milestone and major victory. The champion or award recipient is “humbled” when being recognized for their accomplishments. It is an unassailable phrase, perfect as filler for any speech; to be modest, to relate, to walk the fine line between confident and cocky, being “humbled” is a strategy straight out of a PR manual. And we sort of accept the words when we hear them but, much like the phrase “I could care less,” a second layer of thought exposes faults. Well, you actually mean you couldn’t care less and, well, you actually aren’t “humbled,” you’re the opposite.

Being humbled is not to be honored; it is to be defeated.  It isn’t humbling to win a championship, but it is to lose; to be defeated when winning was a probability, if not an inevitability. We’re slowly losing the definition of humility as it is repurposed for branding rather than meaning, like so much else. Meanings change over time and in the vastness of English, there is always another word to use, but what is distressing about our affront to humility is its loss of practice coupled with its loss of definition.

C.S. Lewis, in “Mere Christianity,” wrote, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” Beautiful and imperfect (I’m sure we all could rattle off a few people who should think a little less of themselves), his words perfectly encapsulate what technology has done to us – we don’t stop thinking of ourselves. Phones with their thousand photo camera rolls let us sit and indulge on our memories. We get high off our self-importance, remembering how funny or “savage” we were in a drunken weekend escapade. Every photo is scrupulously analyzed for every minor imperfection or perceived interesting detail. The more we stare, the more we see.

Social media only compounds. Snapchat has given us the excuse to photograph everything, especially the most embarrassing and inappropriate. What vanishes to the public in 24 hours lives forever with us, screenshotted as fodder for a future fix. We re-watch our snap stories to bask in ourselves – “look how fun I am!” – and to monitor the frame in which we are presented to the world. Pictures are no longer to record memories but to project a certain self-image we want others to see. We stop acting in the moment and start acting for the viewer. What do we value in our portrayal? Attractiveness, adventurousness, “savage”-ness, and alcohol consumption. To achieve these qualities, we take photo after photo, video after video. We alter and edit, masking ourselves with filters, lighting and framing. All to achieve a self we want others to view, a self that tends to conform to the dominate trends and imagery of society. And we act it too – doing things we normally wouldn’t to attract the attention of the lens or to create a moment from nothing.

We have a platform enabling us to reach our network instantly and with no backlash. Everything becomes material; we elevate our ordinary lives to something worthy of mass expression. Anything that gives us a momentary chuckle is worth recording and distributing, regardless if it has any value outside the moment. We think our drunken stream-of-consciousness ramblings are important. Even eventful things that occur organically are paused or reenacted to be recorded for the world.

All this in the name of getting attention; we want likes on our posts and views on our snap story.  Why else would we be able to see who looks at our snap stories other than to obsess? We want people to pay attention and we have the means to check if they are – a perfect recipe for narcissism.

What does it mean to lose humility? A society driven toward attention, striving for the next like, the next view seems to be where we’re heading.

Evan Gaudette is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at egaudette@umass.edu.

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