A good friend, someone I’ve never met but who has become a good friend nonetheless, made a comment to me that piqued my interest. He said he was considering writing an analysis of selfishness, what it is and how it has affected American culture.
My comments to him, off the cuff as I rattled off a typed reply to his email, suggested selfishness may mean different things to different people. By that, I think context is highly important in framing the meaning of the term.
One person boarding a crowded bus may think it selfish for another person to rush to take a seat. But the subject of his scorn may know an elderly and feeble woman normally boards the bus at the next stop and, so, is securing a seat to give to her when she boards. Is the bus rider who is securing a seat selfish? Would that rider be considered selfish if, by securing the seat, he prevented another, equally feeble, man from taking it?
Whatever the context, though, an act (or a person) being labeled selfish involves someone making a negative judgement about the person or act being characterized as selfish.
I went on to suggest to my friend that the concept of selfishness may represent many more states of mind than a single word can fully convey. Perhaps our understanding of the concept is clouded; perhaps we are limited in our ability to generalize about what selfishness means because our language does not give us adequate ways to differentiate “selfish” behaviors with respect to the contexts within which they take place.
My friend raised the matter at the same time he mentioned what he (and I) considers a travesty of justice. A teacher in Florida was fired, because she ostensibly intimidated some of her students to allow her to view Facebook posts, critical of her, made by other students. While the circumstances surrounding the matter were incomplete in the newspaper article that addressed the decision to fire her, the decision seemed, to me, to be unreasonable. Was the teacher selfish for wanting to read what was being written about her? Were the students who wrote negative comments about her selfish in their disregard for their words’ influence on the teacher and other students? Were the parents who pursued the teacher’s termination selfish for wanting to punish a teacher for monitoring students’ online conversations…perhaps something the parents should have been doing themselves but failed to do?
There are thousands of questions about what constitutes selfishness and how it manifests itself in our society today. It’s topic about which I’m looking forward to reading when my friend, Juan, writes his analysis.