The New Cardinal Sin: The Greed for Attention

Modern technological solutions and the internet have not cured people of their vices; on the contrary, they have introduced new ones. “Please like,” “Give a thumbs up,” and “Remember to subscribe to the channel,” clamor internet content providers, as well as the users themselves. In the digital panopticon, a greed for attention has taken hold.

As literature, theater, religions, and mythologies teach us, human nature is largely unchanged. New ethical perspectives emerge, but human vices remain the same. Although life has changed significantly since ancient times, we are still jealous, immoderate in eating and drinking (and – additionally – in addictions), impure (in terms of succumbing to sexual temptations), proud, wrathful, lazy, and greedy.

We have not eradicated any of these sins; what is more, at least one new one has appeared. It is the greed for attention, the craving to be noticed at any cost. It differs from classic pride in that it does not seek admiration and obedience from others, but rather aims to occupy their thoughts – regardless of the context. It differs from traditional greed in its currency. The currency is not money that can buy something but glances, mentions, signs of fame, and recognizability. Sometimes I jokingly call them “ego dollars” because it is about noticing someone’s “self,” and giving it attention. This attention need not even be positive; it is important that it exists, that people talk and think about that person, and most importantly, observe them with interest. This destructive new passion stems from the celebrity culture spawned by cinema and television, which in the age of social media has spread almost universally.

The Greed for Attention: Then and Now

Commonly, this attitude is referred to as “attentionism,” derived from the word attention. Psychologically, it is associated with Cluster B disorders: narcissistic, borderline, and histrionic personality disorders. Given the emergence of narcissism, could this be simply a new incarnation of pride? Not quite. Certainly, so-called grandiose narcissism fits the characteristics of this cardinal sin. However, other forms of narcissism do not. Consider “vulnerable narcissism” – individuals perpetually aggrieved because they feel undervalued by others, ready to do anything to gain recognition. This version of narcissism is very characteristic of the victimhood culture, which psychologists Campbell and Manning argue has replaced the Enlightenment “culture of dignity” and the pre-Enlightenment “culture of honor.”

Pride as a cardinal sin belonged to the latter, and the earliest culture, celebrating power and superiority over others. The culture of dignity, associated with democracy and human rights, emphasizes the inherent equality of people and thus does not generate attitudes overly focused on one’s “self.” The contemporary culture of victimhood, however, is focused on the self again, this time in a peculiar bid to establish who is the biggest victim. Victims inevitably attract compassionate attention. Beyond vulnerable narcissism, this characteristic matches well with the borderline personality, which desperately seeks to be the object of constant care and continually fears whether it truly is. It also pertains to the histrionic personality, whose name derives from the Greek word histrion, meaning actor. It is characterized by a desire to focus everyone’s attention on their life as if it were a captivating movie or theater play.

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Old Stars and New Celebrities

I wrote that today’s greed for attention stems from the cult of movie and television stars that emerged soon after the invention of film as a new art form. The theater was never glorified to this extent, historically deemed an immoral place, especially for women. Both film and stage actors are valued for their ability to embody characters and for their exceptional beauty. The same applies to the music scene, which requires talent for singing or playing instruments, as well as a certain appearance. However, the fact that beauty and acting or musical skill attract attention does not equate to seeking it. Of course, actors and musicians, accustomed to the public interest, develop Cluster B disorders more frequently than others. Yet in their case, this phenomenon is secondary, primarily about gaining attention through real merits and achievements. I am, however, interested in the pursuit of attention itself, disregarding the qualities and accomplishments that would merit it. In the celebrity world, this often involves individuals “famous for being famous,” and those who have gained fame by drawing attention to their “self” rather than any substantive content of their character.

Phot. Mart Production / Pexels

Narcissism and Social Media

In social media, we all encounter this temptation. These platforms serve simultaneously as an audience and a stage where the philosopher George Berkeley’s assertion that “to be is to be perceived” literally plays out. Here, it is crucial to add that it means not just to be perceived, but also to be watched and commented upon. It is worthwhile to trace the evolution of Facebook, the oldest and most popular social media platform. Initially, people mostly posted pictures of cats and enjoyable vacations. Some showcased delicious dishes they had prepared. Of course, flattering personal photos were always present; after all, the name, which translates to “book of faces,” implies as much. However, it was not yet obsessive. It was only when Facebook first intersected with the culture of internet celebrities, usually stemming from YouTube, and later with the victimhood culture, that it resulted in a bidding war for visibility at all costs, including the cost of self-harm.

Beyond Just Facebook

The same ruthless competition exists on social media platforms that emerged after Facebook. Instagram, an offshoot of Facebook, primarily serves as a vanity fair concerning beauty. If someone does not possess or believes they do not possess conventional attractiveness, they might flaunt a radical deviation from accepted attractiveness norms. Instagram drives the huge popularity of cosmetic medical treatments, whether those aimed at conforming to standardized norms of femininity and masculinity or those intended to subvert them, as in treatments that visually mimic the opposite sex. Painful and risky procedures of both types are becoming more common as an online image becomes more important than physical health.

TikTok operates similarly, using short videos targeted at a younger audience. The bodies and faces presented adhere to the same norms or deviations from the norm as on Instagram, often also pointing to various cosmetic procedures. This is particularly concerning considering that the audience for these contents is mainly underage.

Twitter Battles and Cancel Culture

A different principle prevails on X (formerly Twitter), where succinct and blunt statements about reality thrive, which do not necessarily enrich us cognitively. It is enough that they stimulate us emotionally. Unlike Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, which are predominantly female, X is dominated by men. They compete among themselves and with a few women there over dominance and try to impose their interpretation of the world on others. This also touches on pride, but here in the sense of striving for power.

Unlike creators of literary, philosophical, or journalistic works – in the old style based on logical argumentation – tweet authors typically do not aim to get closer to the truth on a subject, but to set the boundaries of acceptable discourse. Visibility and influence, the number of followers, shares, comments, and the reach of a comment – how many people read it – are valued more highly than truth. Consequently, X has the most online mudslinging. It is also where the culture of silencing, known as cancel culture, has most flourished – proponents of a vision different from one’s own must be deprived of a voice, rather than engaged in discussion. After all, arguing with reasonable arguments might boost the profile of someone with a differing view, which is viewed as unacceptable.

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Attention Greed and the Problematic J.K. Rowling

The most famous figure to have experienced canceled culture, though ultimately not erased from the public sphere, is J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter saga and the Cormoran Strike series. Attempts to erase her (and outright hate her) began after she joked about a UN program directed at “people who menstruate.” “There used to be a word for those people, remind me what it was!” she quipped, unaware of the backlash she would face. The verdict was immediate – she was to be ostracized for allegedly spreading “hatred” toward trans people. What did this “hatred” consist of? Nothing other than the suggestion that gender is physical, not a matter of will, and that the harms experienced by women due to being women are more significant than how trans individuals perceive themselves.

For example, should the genital mutilation of girls in African countries be referred to as the mutilation of people with specific organs? On one hand, it would be incomprehensible, and on the other, degrading. However, the roused online mob neither pondered this nor similar issues. Instead, they revealed with satisfaction that the talented and wealthy Rowling had been knocked off her pedestal, and replaced by people without merit but with loud voices.

Attention Greed and Pride

In describing what constitutes the new cardinal sin, I constantly brush up against the sin of pride. The difference lies in that the proud are self-assured, while those greedy for attention constantly doubt their worth. They believe that to gain attention, and thus value in the eyes of others, it is worth self-mutilating, sinking into nonsense, revealing and celebrating their failures, and persecuting those brave enough to argue against the dominant narrative. As these examples show, greed for attention is much closer to envy than to pride. Constant thinking of oneself as the center of the universe and the greatest victim cannot occur without comparing oneself to others.

Woe then to people with real talents, who can argue or simply dislike being fed nonsense. They cannot defend themselves against accusations of “privilege,” even if – like Rowling – they started from a working-class background and a marriage to an abusive man. How she managed after leaving him, becoming a single mother, and writing a saga about a young wizard in cafes, could not be forgiven by envious detractors. After all, they have it worse and they know how to fight adversity, namely by exaggerating it and constantly complaining. Another trait of theirs, contradicting the uniqueness and originality they often boast of, is conformism, never stepping beyond what is permitted in their environment.

The Desire for Wisdom

In conclusion, it is worth asking, what virtues do those who do not yield under the pressure of attention-seeking conformists possess? Certainly, one such virtue is the courage to use one’s reason, expressed by Horace in the maxim Sapere aude (“Dare to be wise”). This attitude is associated with the culture of dignity, where people are treated equally, and the good and the truth, as well as many other values, do not depend on the number of likes or shares.

This does not mean that we should stop drawing attention to ourselves. Posting one’s thoughts online is not inherently wrong, just as it is not wrong to share photos and videos where one looks favorable. Even appealing for sympathy is permissible to a certain extent, provided it does not mean flooding the internet with the narration of one’s entire life. Where is the line? I would say it lies in internal integrity, not doing something merely to attract attention. Some actions are beneficial for us and society, while others are not. Acting against one’s health is never appropriate. Similarly, in the spiritual realm, irrationalism is poison for the soul, even if its effect is momentarily intoxicating.

Translation: Klaudia Tarasiewicz

Published by

Katarzyna Szumlewicz


PhD in Pedagogy, MA in Philosophy. Author of the books "Emancypacja przez wychowanie" (Sopot 2011) and "Miłość i ekonomia w literackich biografiach kobiet" (Warszawa 2017). Works as an assistant professor at the University of Warsaw. A second-wave feminist, a rationalist, and someone who is vigilant to all types of nonsense.

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