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Joan Didion's "On Self-Respect," and Social Media Culture: Background information when reading Let's Not Do That Again

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Let's Not Do That Again

A Novel

by Grant Ginder

Let's Not Do That Again by Grant Ginder X
Let's Not Do That Again by Grant Ginder
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2022, 352 pages

    Paperback:
    Apr 2023, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Ahima
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About this Book

Joan Didion's "On Self-Respect," and Social Media Culture

This article relates to Let's Not Do That Again

Print Review

For a moment, I can pretend I am a professor, like Joan Didion-obsessed NYU English professor Nick Harrison in Grant Ginder's Let's Not Do That Again, as he discusses her 1961 essay "On Self-Respect" with his undergraduate class. For a moment, I can pretend that in the high evening before one of my part-time jobs, I am not 23, sitting in my parent's home, looking at teenage social media stars on Instagram buying a new mansion like it's a Barbie playhouse. I am not measuring my worth by who deems me worthy. I adopt Joan Didion's understanding of "self-respect," and by extension, confidence and self-ownership. With that being said, let's sit down and talk about what Didion meant in "On Self-Respect" and what it means in the context of modern early adulthood.*

The beginning of "On Self-Respect" recounts Joan Didion's previous meditations on the correlation between growing up and what her older self names "misplaced self-respect." She opens the essay by saying, "Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself." In that dry season, she was 19 years old. She experienced a setback, and this epiphany materialized when she realized the world would not serve her everything she desires, whether or not she felt she deserved it. The world is neither a complete meritocracy nor a place where rewards are granted by dumb luck. Because of this, her self-worth could not rely on what the world would give her. She realized, "The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others."

"Ha, ha," you might say — and I am speaking to Generation Z and the young Millennials when I say this, sitting in your one-bedroom apartment with 40 weirdo roommates and overdue rent, or your parents' house, or a dorm room, reflecting on the same existential dread I feel when the blue light on my phone burns my eyes until they water, making all the happy captions and happy pictures on social media look melted and streaky. How could someone not feel their "self-respect," or sense of validation, comes down to the attention of others when we feel neglected by default? Us, the lonely generation. We have gamified, commodified and even monetized attention through social networking sites. How can we reconcile this with Didion's concept of self-respect?

In the midst of social media culture, we see the opportunities and privileges this exterior validation grants to a lucky few and we sink deeper into existential dread. We see what happens when you are "ahead of the curve": "influencer" teens who are not only financially independent but own multiple businesses; worldly, well-traveled 20-somethings that have the world in their hands. Then we think, "How did I end up here?" Did I do something wrong? We account for all the times we failed ourselves and others, imagining this is why we aren't more successful. Didion speaks to how these thoughts can compound. She writes, "To do without self-respect...is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable home movie that documents one's failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for each screening." And so, the dread pulls you deeper and deeper into this self-disrespect.

At this stage, you might wonder, "Well, what does it mean to be in your early 20s?" It is the intermediary time between young adulthood and this bigger, more mature framework of Adulthood. There is a mutual understanding between young adults and adults that these are two different planes of maturity. Young adulthood is this gray area of existence where the lines between introspection and self-flagellation are blurry. How can people in their early 20s know if they are where they're "supposed" to be, if they are "behind" or "ahead" of the curve? What framework do young adults use to understand their own progress?

I constantly feel that I am not Adult enough. When I tumble into this tunnel of thought, this endless black hole that has sucked me in that is so dark I cannot tell whether my eyes are open or closed, I realize that this is exactly what Didion is describing as a lack of self-respect. Didion is saying that to overanalyze your life in a way that pits you against yourself is a denial of the respect you deserve. You can do all that you can to be the best version of yourself so that your version of success is obtainable. You can also beat yourself into oblivion about where you are right now. These are two separate states of mind. Didion notes this as well, stating, "[T]he willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life—is the source from which self-respect springs."

So, through Didion, in our commiserating, early 20s dread, we learn what self respect isn't. We know that social media influences our daily lives, and it creates the antithesis of self-respect in young adults. We can refute Didion's wisdom and keep falling deeper and deeper into our own darkness. Or, we can become liberated. What does a world free of expectations feel like? What does it feel like to simply be, to find validation within ourselves?

Didion says, "To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home."

So, stop scrolling. You'll find that stable job someday. If you don't have that Instagram body, who cares. If you like to paint — paint masterpieces, paint badly, paint just okay, and don't chase the accolades or the likes. You are doing the best you can. And, as much as I, or even Joan Didion can tell you, at the end of the day, the person who needs to say this to you the most is in the mirror.

*This is a meditation on Joan Didion's "On Self-Respect" and not a full critique of whether everything she ever said is considered politically correct through a modern lens. Because as Grant Ginder points out, it is not.

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

Article by Lisa Ahima

This "beyond the book article" relates to Let's Not Do That Again. It originally ran in May 2022 and has been updated for the April 2023 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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