In the late 1970s I attended an Objectivist lecture in New York where Ayn Rand answered questions. After the event wrapped, I walked toward the stage, camera in hand, to snap some shots of my favorite living philosopher. Her handlers quickly came up and said words to the effect that Rand did not like people taking photos of her.
To my question back then of “Why?” I can add today, “What would she think of our selfies-saturated society?”
On the “Don’t take my photo” front, you might think, “Because I don’t like my own appearance.” Is this rational? Why should an individualist care what others think? There’s much about your looks that you can’t control. If you get your sense of self-worth from other people’s opinions about your looks, you might have a real self-esteem issue. If you value yourself, you judge yourself by a rational standard, not by the misguided, ill-informed, or simply wrong opinions of others.
But there are things about your appearance that you can control. So maybe your photo-phobia is really a matter of wanting to match what you know you can be. Need a haircut? Need to lose some weight? Need some hair plugs? Well, do it!
If you are one of those who inundate Instagram with selfies, some will object that you’re a shallow, superficial narcissist. Do you really think others are fascinated by personal details of your life that are of little consequence to them? So what if you had eggs versus oatmeal for breakfast? (But it’s probably okay to alert your Facebook friends to a great new Indian restaurant. Maybe you can meet them there for a meal!)
If, while visiting the Sistine Chapel, you’re more interested in taking a selfie than in contemplating the ceiling, the selfie is a barrier to the beauty of the world. If you post selfies of yourself on a Bermuda beach as a “Ha, ha, I’m here and you’re not” to put down others, then you’re getting pseudo-self-esteem by comparing yourself to others, you fake! If you post selfies with achievers like Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk because you don’t have the ambition to achieve anything yourself, well, you’ve still achieved nothing. If you post selfies of yourself with Kim Kardashian other than as a goof, you are a lost soul and I cannot help you!
But I’ve been taking selfies for decades, before digital cameras even existed and before “selfies” even had a name. So am I a narcissist?
In 1981 when I traveled to Rome, the city that gave birth to the republican system that so influenced America’s Founders, I wanted a photo of me in front of the ancient Senate house that reflected the values to which I was committed. I traveled to Berlin that same year in a closed military train through the communist zone. When I saw the barrier, topped by barbed wire and machine guns, that separated the bright, free part of Berlin from the ugly, enslaved side, I wanted to remember that moving experience with a photo of me in front of the wall. When I traveled to Moscow in 1989 as part of the first group to hold a free-market conference behind the Iron Curtain, I wanted to mark my pride in participating in the efforts to bring down an evil empire.
When I’ve obtained selfies of me with folks I’ve worked with or admired, it isn’t to reflect their achievements on me but to inspire me to mine, and to associate myself with their values! Selfies of me with friends and family members? I love them!
So as you extend your selfie stick, first ask “Why?” There are some bad reasons to take a selfie, but there are a lot of good ones as well. Click away!
William Thomas, “Self-Esteem Is Not Comparative.” March 11, 2015.
William Thomas, “What Really Matters: Putting Social Status in Context.” July 7, 2011.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.