There is a spectre haunting popular culture.
The spectre is the ego.
What is it?
The term ‘ego’ was first popularised by genius and Godfather of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. In psychoanalytic theory, the mind could be divided into three parts: the id, ego and super-ego. The Id consisted of the unrestrained wants and desires that drive us. The Ego was the facilitator of these desires. The Id said “I’m hungry” and the Ego found a socially-acceptable solution to that problem.
It bought you a sandwich.
The Ego I am referring to relates to this Freudian type. It is still the personal assistant of our animal psyche. The particular aspect of the ego I am interested in, however, is not the fulfilment of desire, but in the construction of our identity. Eckhart Tolle – philosopher and educator – defines the ego as “our identification with form, ideas, status, talents and even events”. It Is this kind of ego that has overtaken much of our culture and its output. It is this kind that has particularly pervasive and toxic effects. It is this kind I work to rid myself of every day.
A need for special-ness
The ego needs to be special. As a result, it lives on division and comparison. It pits us against others, constantly needing to differentiate itself in some way. We have all experienced this. How often do you come into contact with someone, whether online or in real life, and find yourself comparing? This is often involuntary. Sometimes it is so common we don’t even acknowledge that’s what we are doing. But there it is, the voice of comparison. The ego needs to be special, and when it isn’t, there is pain.
Think of a dimension of yourself in which you find identity. Maybe its your intelligence. Maybe its your physique. Maybe its how secure you are in yourself. I am confident at some point you have compared yourself to another person and felt a touch of sadness. Maybe they were physically stronger than you. Maybe they appeared smarter. Maybe they exuded a sense of contentment and happiness. Either way, your ego no longer felt superior. It experienced a crisis.
Its times like these that we – or rather that part of ‘we’, the ego – scrambles for other forms of ‘specialness’.
“Well, they might be stronger than me, but I’m much smarter than them. I am intellectually superior, and that’s more important than physical strength”
“He might be really good-looking and rich, but he’s a snob. I am a man of the people and am morally superior. That’s more important”.
“He might appear really confident but I am more successful than him, I have more money”.
Floyd, Nikki, Cardi and Mark Corrigan
This is demonstrated tragically – and with no hint of awareness- by individuals such as Floyd Mayweather. Whenever he is challenged publicly, how does he respond?
“I have more money than you though”.
He is so strongly identified with material wealth that he can’t even seem to see how others would find this response questionable or comical.
Similarly mindless displays of ego are prevalent in our present mainstream hip-hop culture. This arena has become a feeble and shameful distortion of an industry that once prided itself on truth-telling. See Tupac, Public Enemy, The Geto Boys and Eminem for great examples of hip hop’s past.
Compare this to the almost-endless ego-intoxication of ‘artists’ like Nikki Minaj, Cardi B or virtually any popular male rapper.
Now I like dollars, I like diamonds
I like stunting, I like shining
I like million dollar deals
Where’s my pen? Bitch I’m signin’
I like those Balenciagas, the ones that look like socks
I like going to the jeweler, I put rocks all in my watch
I like texts from my exes when they want a second chance
I like proving niggas wrong, I do what they say I can’t
They call me Cardi Bardi, banging body
Spicy mami, hot tamale
Hotter than a Somali, fur coat, Ferrari
Hop out the stu’, jump in the coupe (the coupe)
Big Dipper on top of the roof
Flexing on bitches as hard as I can
Eating halal, driving the Lam’
Told that bitch I’m sorry though
‘Bout my coins like Mario (Mario)
Yeah they call me Cardi B, I run this shit like cardio
(From ‘I Like that’ by Cardi B)
Do I even need to comment on these lyrics? Flagrant materialism meets narcissism and meanness. “I like texts from my exes when they want a second chance” – rejoicing in the pain of others.
Not great stuff to be feeding into the ears and minds of impressionable young people.
Or perhaps we might look to Nikki Minaj’s famous verse from the song Monster:
Pull up in the monster
With a bad bitch that came from Sri Lanka
Yeah I’m in that Tonka, color of Willy Wonka
You could be the King but watch the Queen conquer
OK first things first I’ll eat your brains
Then I’mma start rocking gold teeth and fangs
Cause that’s what a motherfucking monster do
Hairdresser from Milan, that’s the monster do
Monster Giuseppe heel that’s the monster shoe
Young money is the roster and the monster crew
And I’m all up all up all up in the bank with the funny face
And if I’m fake I ain’t notice cause my money ain’t!
So let me get this straight wait I’m the rookie
But my features and my shows ten times your pay
Fifty K for a verse no album out!
Yeah my money’s so tall that my barbies gotta climb it
Hotter than a middle eastern climate
Find it, Tony Matterhorn dutty wine it, wine it
Nicki on them titties when I sign it
How these niggas so one-track minded
But really really I don’t give a F-U-C-K
Forget barbie fuck Nicki she’s fake
She’s on a diet but my pockets eating cheese cake
And I’ll say bride of Chucky is Child’s play
Just killed another career it’s a mild day
Besides Ye they can’t stand besides me
I think me, you and Am’ should menage Friday
Pink wig thick ass give ’em whip lash
I think big get cash make ’em blink fast
Now look at what you just saw I think this is what you live for
Ah, I’m a motherfucking monster!
Lyrically this certainly shows more talent than Cardi B, but are the values embodied any less abhorrent?
We see the same shameless materialism, the same rejoicing in damaging others “Just killed another career it’s a mild day”.
This is sheer madness. And it’s being celebrated. The ego ethic is rampant.
Almost incomparable, is the subtly satirical way such thinking/behaviour is handled by one of my favourite series, Peep Show. In this scene Mark allows himself to be pressured into buying condoms so a man he detests can have sex with a woman he is infatuated with. Being the conflict-avoider that he is, he goes through with this, but his ego is still desperately searching for a way this situation can be turned in his favour. The result, buying coloured condoms to make Jeff’s todger look “faintly ridiculous”, gives Mark the sense he has ‘won’, albeit in the most minor way ever. His ego has retained a smidgeon of pride.
Special-ness as victimhood
In one form or another, the ego simply has to be better than the next person. It doesn’t necessarily have to be better than everyone, but it does have to be better than anyone who it draws itself in comparison with. This is often someone who possesses something you admire, or who possesses one of your ‘identity-traits’ in a more extreme form.
It’s important to note that “better” doesn’t really mean “better”. It doesn’t mean better in an obviously superior sense. Many egos play the victim. We’ve seen this emerge recently with the toxic trend towards using offence to curtail free speech. People are using their alleged repression or offence as a means of self-identification.
If people are less successful, they can justify this – and maintain their ‘special-ness’ – in various ways. Perhaps they are harder done by than the next person. Perhaps they faced more obstacles. Or perhaps they “could have” been just as good, but they lacked the opportunities. They’ve been unlucky. Whether you are special by being ‘superior’, or special by being beaten down, the ego must find a way.
A question I’ve searched for an answer to: Why does the ego need to be special?
Well, there are a range of theories from psychology, spirituality, possibly even anthropology as to why this is the case.
For now, I am going to approach this from an evolutionary standpoint.
The purpose of the ego
As we’ve already mentioned, the purpose of the ego is to keep us – in physical or psychological terms – alive. Its central priorities are to facilitate our desires and give us identity. In biology, ‘us’ means more than just the person we call ‘I’. Us also means our genes. The ego facilitates our survival to enable procreation and the continuation of our DNA.
Ok – so how does this relate to ego behaviour?
The ego needs us to do things. Things like hunting food, and defending our tribe, and sourcing shelter, and attracting mates. The ego needs us to accomplish. There are two drives at play here. If we don’t take actions ensuring our survival, we will die quite soon. If we don’t produce visible displays of strength or usefulness, we will fail to attract mates, and our genes will die too. As such, the ego needs us to achieve and accomplish in order to ensure our short term (our own) and our long term (our genes’) survival.
So it’s like this.
When we are lacking in status, the ego cannot rest. It drives us to go and achieve things. It pushes us towards accomplishments. It forms our identity around with these accomplishments. Unfortunately, the contentment we get from these accomplishments is temporary. This is an essential part of the ego equation. If our accomplishments could give us lasting contentment, we might cease striving, and would risk us or our genes dying out. As such, because the ego attaches itself to temporary things so we never feel truly content. We never get lazy.
But there is a tension there, a paradox. The ego needs us to feel good enough about ourselves to act, or else we will be outcompeted by more confident individuals. So it rewards actions that increase our chances of survival or reproduction, it gives us a little boost. This is the essence of self-esteem. However, the feel-good cannot last too long, or we would get lazy. As such, self-esteem is conditional. Our self-worth is transient. We must constantly prove our position in the tribe. We need to go and achieve again.
Living through the ego produces a constant state of flux, a recurring back and forth from rejoicing to lamenting, from self-esteem to restlessness or self-loathing. When things go well; when you get the promotion, when you seduce the partner, when you buy your new car, you feel good. But not for long. As soon as that box is ticked, the emptiness begins to set in. There is a gnawing inside.
We need a new goal, something else to achieve.
How good we feel about ourselves is directly related to how much we are achieving, or how hard we are working, or how ripped our abs are, or whatever.
As such, we simply must continue to do more and more, to achieve more and more, to consume more and more.
But is all this doing, getting and having equating to more being?
Is it genuinely enriching our lives?
It’s a question you’ve probably never stopped to ask, so long as you’re doing well. It’s a question that I’d never bothered to face until my mid-20s.
Indeed, I was so consumed in this mode of being I couldn’t conceive there was another way of doing things.
How could I be valuable apart from the things I do?
How would I live if I didn’t spend all my time pushing myself to do stuff?
Wouldn’t I become lazy, or mediocre?
Would I slip down the social hierarchy, unable to find employment, win the respect of men and the attraction of women?
At base, there was the fear of rejection. The fear of insignificance.
Man-against-man: Why the ego is a problem.
The issue with ego-based living is it puts us into opposition with each other. It encourages us to separate into adversarial groups. It encourages us to shun and be mean to others.
Some problems ego-living fuels or causes:
- War. Us vs you. Leaders can’t be seen to back down. We have to defend “our” values.
- Stabbings in our streets. Have to prove value to group. Have to show im strong. Have to defend my pride. Have to defend myself
- Many arguments. I identify with my POV. If its wrong, I lack value. I need to be right. I need to defend my POV.
- Toxic day-to-day behaviour. Im better than you. I can treat you like a piece of sh*t. Or: I’m insecure about my value. I’m going to treat you like a piece of sh*t.
- Mass-shootings. Ive been rejected by my peers/ the mainstream. I am special because I see things differently. I will show them.
- Radicalisation. See 5.
- Incels. Woman-hating. See 5
- Toxic seduction / manipulation of women by ‘rejected’ men. They rejected me. They thought they were better than me. I can outsmart them. I will show them.
- Toxic dating generally, by men and women. I am better than you. I don’t rely on you. In fact, I have 5 people on the go. I am winning.
- Identity politics. See 3 and 5.
- Reluctance to share wealth, ie, end poverty. I’ve worked hard for this money. I deserve it. I need it. why should I help people? They should help themselves.
These are serious problems.
They cover the majority of suffering in the world.
The Buddhists thought that identification with temporary things caused Dukkha, or suffering. I am inclined to agree.
Identification with temporary things, and the promotion of this behaviour through ego-living, is the fundamental cause of many problems today.
Depression is on the rise globally, particularly in the developed world.
Is it any wonder?
You’re too bold, get real
If this all seems a little farfetched to you, throw it out. But before you do, why not look around you.
We have people who, despite severe health warnings, continue to push themselves in a given sporting arena.
We have people who will continue to do 80 hour weeks, just to maintain their status, missing their kids sports day, and eventually destroying their marriage. We have people who will (almost literally) throw their friends under the bus in order to “get ahead”. You have politicians who will lie, distort and cheat, just to defend their own position. You have people who think it’s good to manipulate and deceive romantic partners – player’s they used to be called – because this somehow shows they are what? Cleverer, less vulnerable?
The ego epidemic is everywhere, and it is real.
So what’s the solution?
Again, that is a topic for another day, but still.
There are some people who do not care about this stuff.
They are almost independent of it.
They care about fundamental things, like friends, family and fun. They have a good relationship with themselves and tend to have good relationships with others.
They are lucky. Perhaps their childhood equipped them better than most.
They are the salt of the earth.
For the rest of us, however, how are we to find value? How are we to be happy with ourselves?
As always, we start with awareness:
– Be mindful of our thoughts.
– Watch the ego carefully.
– When it is trying to differentiate us from others, be aware.
Value that comes from superiority and difference cannot last.
Maybe nothing can. But value that is based on fundamental values and self-love, rather than opposition and superiority, will certainly endure a lot longer.
A final flourish
In the film Cool Runnings, bobsledder Derice Banner asks his coach, Irv Blitzer (played by John Candy, RIP) why he cheated. His response is as illuminating of the ego ethic as any piece of scripture or philosophy:
Irv: “I had to win… when you make winning your whole life, you have to keep on winning. No matter what. You understand that?”
Derice: “No I don’t understand, Coach. You had two gold medals, you had it all”
Irv: “ A gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.”