May 25, 1998
Tom Johnson's letter to USA Today in response to an article by professors Martin E. P. Seligman and Roger Weissberg regarding schoolyard shootings
To The Editor:
Professors Martin E.P. Seligman and Roger Weissberg show a surprising lack of psychological acumen in their indictment of "baseless self-esteem" as a cause of school violence. Namely, they fail to recognize the well-known fact that the kind of extreme arrogance which allows a youth to murder over the slightest provocation typically develops as a compensation for low self-esteem and the compounding social maladjustments which result therefrom.
The professors are right that self-esteem has been oversold in modern educational thought at the expense of important values such as merit and responsibility. It is questionable, though, whether this general trend had much bearing on the individual cases of Kip Kinkel or any of the other youngsters who have mounted such horrific rampages.
Consider the "genocidal maniacs" whom the professors note have tended to exhibit ostensible high self-esteem. Both Hitler and Stalin certainly lived long before any "self-esteem movement" emerged. As it turns out, both men had been regularly beaten and belittled as children--surely not the kind of treatment which promotes feeling good about oneself. All this reinforces the theory that pathologically inflated self-esteem is actually inverted self-loathing. (The popular demonization of Jews in both Nazi Germany and the early Soviet Union, moreover, shows that "victimology" is neither a new nor primarily American phenomenon.)
The professors do acknowledge that undue self-esteem produces violence only in conjunction with a "mean streak." I believe society would do well to focus on what generates this kind of rage before fretting over the conceit which serves to accommodate it.
Thomas W.C. Johnson
P.O. Box 121486
Nashville TN 37212