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To grow bigger by belittling oneself

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2014-11-15 08:19

For the current generation, there is a playfulness in putting oneself down this way. When one is suddenly knocked down from his normal position, one suffers humiliation. When self-degradation is ritualized, it tends to be internalized and accepted as social norm. But when it takes on the facade of role-playing, seriousness gives way to so-called deconstruction, dragging down the object of exaggerated reverence together with the subject.

I don't know when the saying "You'll lose when you get serious" first surfaced as a popular idiom, but it represents a change of attitude, or rather, a correction to the preponderance of the emphasis on dignity. (The downtrodden have always shown a remarkable degree of resilience over the ages.) While the elite class has no problem accepting institutionalized self-debasement, they cannot accept the underachieving rationale to take over as the mainstream. The class division in self-image, which has never been absent, looms much larger with the advent of a democratic platform like the Internet that enables erstwhile faint voices to join in a resounding chorus.

The funny thing about the current fad of self-derogation is its complexity: It contains many layers of feelings, including contradictory attempts that at once subscribe to conventions and make light of them, frustrations at not attaining status symbols that would have raised them to a higher social plane, and a survival instinct that requires them to sacrifice such luxuries as self-respect. It tends to be stretched beyond the point of satire where every ounce of witty self-deprecation is squeezed out.

As it is a collective expression with a carnival milieu, it gains not only legitimacy but currency that comes with the participation of the majority. In that sense, the first one to call himself a diaosi might have taken courage or honesty, the hundreds of millions who follow him in the practice could simply have found an outlet for their mix of sentiments, or just found it easy to roll off the tongue.

I have noticed some parallels with the pejorative terms for gays or blacks in American usage. They were invented to make these groups feel bad about themselves and, therefore, became sensitive or taboo words. Gradually, the victims started picking them up as a badge of bruised honor, thus injecting a devil-may-care nonchalance or defiance. For those Chinese who want to be proud wearing the hats of "losers" or "underachievers" or diaosi, there is the added comfort in the fact that they are in the majority. But their nonchalance or defiance is relative because once they climb to a higher echelon they will feel prouder and possibly use the terms with condescension.

For the time being, it is populist to embrace this trend. When they have mocked themselves, others would hesitate to mock them.

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