Are We More Narcissistic? Part 1

Narcissus by Michelangelo

I read an article the other day about the implications of Facebook for our spiritual lives. I’ll blog about that specifically later this week, but in the meantime I wanted to talk about the so-called “epidemic of narcissism,” because the author of the Facebook article cited that in his article.

People talk about a rise in narcissism as if it’s a foregone conclusion. I’m not completely convinced, for reasons that I’ll talk about in part 2 of this post, but here are some preliminary thoughts:

Several of us got into a discussion on FB recently about manners. One good friend speaks for many of us when he wrote, “What concerns me is a purely anecdotal perception of a rise in… rudeness and anti-social behavior. Among adults and young people today, more and more, I encounter a complete lack of, well, basic manners. [What concerns me] is a sort of ‘nobody matters but me’ narcissism.”

I often think the same thing when I encounter people with bad manners and boorish behavior—that they think the world revolves around them and that they’re too good for the rules of polite society. Google “narcissism epidemic” to see how pervasive this story is.

I find myself wondering whether this is the right story, however. I hit upon an intellectual exercise: just for fun, to see how many different theories I could come up with to explain the rise in bad manners that didn’t involve narcissism. What if the party line that so many of us parrot these days isn’t true? Or maybe the party line has some truth to it, but is way too simplistic.

Here we go:

Assuming the premise that bad manners are on the rise (which I also think you could argue against), here are some possible explanations that do not include the narcissism meme:

1. We no longer live in the “children should be seen and not heard” society. Children are now empowered to speak and interact a lot more than they used to. I think most of us would see that as a good thing. At the same time, however, they’re still learning what is and is not appropriate behavior. So yes, we will see them slip up. And we’ll see that more because we see them more.

2. Children (and adults) mirror what they see on TV, which is full of wisecracking characters that say things that are designed to make us laugh, but are often not appropriate for polite society. And children are watching TV unsupervised more than they used to so they don’t get the countermessage that “we don’t do things that way.” I’m not saying this is a good thing, mind you. But it’s not really narcissistic either.

3. We are much more culturally diverse than we used to be, with a lot more mixing, so what looks like boorish behavior to us may simply be a different way of being.

4. There are just a lot more people in the world, so we’re bumping up against each other more, which increases the likelihood that we’ll see people not at their best. A related idea: people eat out a lot more than they used to, which means that ill-behaved kids [and adults, actually] are going to be more visible now. Breaches of manners that would have taken place in the privacy of the home now occur in public.

5. The pace of life feels overwhelming to us. We go too fast and demand too much of ourselves and others, and so we have no mental buffer in place when things get stressful. We find ourselves lashing out, giving the finger on the freeway, saying things we never would have said if we’d been in our right minds. Maybe people lack training in emotional intelligence rather than in good manners, but again, that’s not narcissism, but a lack of self-awareness.

6. People who are self-centered and demanding are actually NOT always  narcissists. They are people who feel invisible, like they are not being acknowledged. This is why family systems folk will tell you that people who lash out at clergy are actually seeking connection with them. Ignoring them or cutting them off is actually the worst thing you can do—the behavior will only increase in frequency and severity. (Of course we need to help people express their needs in appropriate ways. But that’s another post.)

7. There’s no question that manners relax over time. I don’t find it rude for children to call me by my first name, for example, assuming they are basically respectful when they do it. But to people who were brought up in a time when you NEVER did that, it seems like an incredible breach of respect, or at very least, jarring to the ears. And then when you see outlier behavior beyond even that, forget it.

In other words, if people did X when you were a kid, and Y was the extreme, it’s going to seem like the sky is falling now that everyone does Y, especially if you see someone doing Z.

Next up: “narcissism and Facebook.”

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6 thoughts on “Are We More Narcissistic? Part 1

  1. Roy Howard says:

    This is an insightful commentary. I’m curious about your resistance to the notion of cultural narcissim which I (used to) think is prevalent but now you’ve given me some new ways to consider the shift. Christopher Lasch (of blessed memory) is persuasive on this point, at least to me. What your are arguing for is a different description other than narcissism for cultural practices that place self at the center of the universe. That is a hard argument to make.

    Glen Beck, Al Sharpton, et. al, could be described as the result of a society that has has historically has a shadow side that self-centered all the way down to bedrock. Is American individualism so cherished another word for cultural narcissism?

    Thanks for raising an alternative way to look at what is happening.

    • mamdblueroom says:

      Well, and the thing about armchair sociology is, I have to say not all of my theories may be correct, nor should they be weighted equally. It’s probably a “many of the above” thing. I just find that the more I hear a certain point of view trumpeted, even if it makes sense, the more I want to be skeptical of it. The ‘epidemic of narcissism’ story is so prevalent that it begs for a counter-narrative. What are the agendas of the people telling this story, and how do those agendas shape how the story is told and what is left out?

      I think where I’m headed is to think about narcissism as less a blunt instrument that explains many (most?) of society’s ills than as one thread among many in our cultural tapestry. I think I’m wanting some nuance is all.

      The other thing I’m skeptical about is whether we are way, way, way more narcissistic than we used to be. Haven’t we always put ourselves at the center of the universe? And what is the evidence that it’s worse now, and could that evidence be indicative of other things in addition to (or instead of) narcissism?

  2. Roy Howard says:

    One thread among many is surely right on. How could cultural ills come down to one factor – narcissism? And I wonder if we need some nuance in defining narcissism itself; it is not merely self-centeredness, but something much more binding, if that’s possible. Whether it is worse now or not, the new factor is total access to everything/everyone at all times combined with a loss of public civility in discourse.

  3. […] Part 1 on the “epidemic of narcissism” here. […]

  4. […] I said in my earlier posts, Hipps hits the narcissism angle, but I’ve already said enough about that. Except one final […]

  5. Barbara Hauck Binder says:

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