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The Politics of American Narcissism

November 26, AD2015

saint, joan of arc, church militant

Egotist, n.: A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.

—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

In 2000, you probably could have asked twenty of your friends and coworkers and found only one person who knew something about narcissism. Fifteen years and a gazillion selfies later, narcissism and narcissist are tools of the trade for the commentariat; activists demand empathy where once they would have been content with sympathy. Often, though, like Bierce’s egotist, it’s a matter of the pot calling the kettle “self-absorbed”.

Narcissism and the Appeal to Pity

Let me give you an example: In 2010, neuroscientists Jennifer N. Gutsell and Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto in Scarborough published a paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Gutsell and Inzlicht claimed that an experiment showed people displayed differences in “mirror neurons” between viewing people of their own race having difficulty and those of “outgroups” in the same situations. In the latter case, they claimed, to those who had tested high on racial prejudice, the effect of watching “outgroups” in difficulty was similar to “watching a blank TV screen”.

To be fair, Drs. Gutsell and Inzlicht tried to use neutral terms and generalize their conclusions. However, the test subjects were exclusively white. Had they tested non-white subjects in the same manner, I submit they would have found the same correlation, and done better science to boot. They simply hadn’t neutralized the experiment sufficiently. Since they didn’t, the test results were interpreted by the press as a uniquely “white” problem; and outrage generators like Democratic Underground said, “See? They don’t empathize enough with us!

In informal logic, it’s called an ad misericordiam fallacy, or “appeal to pity”: You must agree with me because 1) I have suffered; 2) I am suffering now; and/or 3) I will (continue to) suffer if you don’t give me what I demand. The narcissist demands that we agree with him, not because he’s right, but because he’s wretched. At its worst, it becomes a manipulative whine: “If you really loved me (if you really empathized with me), you’d do X.”

How Much Empathy is “Enough”?

Of course racists lack empathy for people who aren’t members of their race. However, to say it’s a “white” problem is to assume that everyone else goes around feeling the same about, say, the Kazakhs or the Qataris as they do about members of their own ethnic group. Such an assumption isn’t warranted.

For instance, last year Japanese officials, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, paid tribute at the Yasukuni Shrine to the soldiers who died in World War II. In other contexts, this would have been a natural regard for fallen soldiers. However, the Chinese, who suffered many brutalities at Japanese hands during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, regarded it as an insult.

Another example: In 2011, Pres. Barack Obama made the fight against gay and lesbian discrimination “a central point of [his Administration’s] foreign policy,” and announced that “transgressing nations like Nigeria could be denied aid”. Naturally, the Nigerian government took this piece of egregious souperism badly. One presidential advisor was quoted as saying, “If the Americans think they can tell us what to do, they can go to hell.” Even more pointedly, Nigerian blogger Nwachukwu Egbunike wrote, “The [British] Union Jack was lowered at midnight on October 1, 1960 in Lagos. Which also struck midnight for the master-slave relationship.” What Obama had intended to be seen as moral leadership came off as simple Western neo-colonialism, and all the more ironic for his own African ancestry.

A final example of this point: At the University of Missouri, near the end of the demonstrations, black students gathered together to share their fear, to create a black-only “safe space”. So caught up in the moment were the non-black supporters that few realized they’d been excluded as untrustworthy, that their sympathy had been devalued. The black students couldn’t “share, decompress, be vulnerable and real” in front of them because they weren’t black; they couldn’t understand. Indeed, Asians, Latinos, and Middle Easterners were never acknowledged. The excluded became the exclusive.

Insensitivity Masked

I’m not saying that the progressive narrative is wrong in its assessment of social conservatives’ empathy. At this point, my argument is merely that the “narrative of victimhood” is riddled with narcissistic traits. It presupposes — and makes normative — an unusually high degree of cross-cultural empathy. It also heavily depends on racial stereotypes and emotional manipulation for its impact.

While on paper the millennials are the most inclusive of the last three age cohorts, this isn’t irreconcilable with their greater degree of narcissism. Dr. Jean M. Twenge, author of Generation Me (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), positively burbles about their “more inclusive attitudes — especially the long-overdue embrace of LGBT youth and same-sex marriage.” However, to varying individual degrees, the inclusiveness may be, and probably is, a mask for indifference.

Narcissists aren’t always or necessarily victims. More often, they’re the heroes of their own story. To the degree that a given person is a narcissist, he may be “inclusive” not out of any true magnanimity but rather out of his self-image as a broad-minded, tolerant person. In truth, he doesn’t really care much about who you are or what you do, so long as you don’t puncture his self-esteem or become an obstacle to his desires. But because his empathy is diminished, he can be brutally dismissive of others’ points of view, often mocking opponents. When confronted with an argument he can’t counter or an opponent he can’t silence, he may resort to verbal abuse and narcissistic rage.

Insensitivity Straight No Chaser

Where the narcissistic progressive hides his lack of empathy under a benevolent broad-mindedness, the narcissistic conservative or libertarian often doesn’t bother with masks.

Let’s grant, for the sake of discussion, that the sensitivity demanded of us by the “narrative of victimhood” sometimes verges into absurdity. (“Doing yoga is ‘cultural genocide’? Seriously?”) As I recently pointed out on my own blog, part of growing up to be self-confident and resilient is learning how to cope with the dislike, opposition, and indifference of others. A culture in which everyone lives paralyzed by fear of hurting anyone else’s feelings isn’t a healthy culture because it can’t be an honest culture.

However, as G. K. Chesterton put it, “To have the right to do something is not the same as to be right in doing it.” Freedom of speech implies a right to speak offensively, but not a necessity to be deliberately offensive. In fact, going out of your way to offend and insult your opponent is counterproductive; it’s no way to get agreement or find a working compromise.

Whatever else one can say about the Mizzou protesters, their protest was provoked and marred by incidents which varied from merely insensitive to deliberately threatening. The emails at the center of the Yale controversy ringingly endorsed free speech and the free exchange of ideas; however, they also admonished displays of cultural insensitivity. But to many conservatives, the students are all crybabies. One syndicated cartoonist drew the Mizzou tiger with a pacifier in his mouth.

The Syrian refugees? Not my problem (says the conservative narcissist); besides, a few terrorists might get in. The poor and homeless? Not my problem; they’re “takers”, lazy bums sucking at the public teat. Offended by the Confederate battle flag? Not my problem; it’s about my heritage, not yours. Screw you … I’m looking out for me and my own.

And if the progressive narcissist can demonize with labels (racist, misogynist, homophobe, speciesist, ableist, whateverist), the conservative narcissist can go toe-to-toe with him, even providing in-house labels for political quislings (socialist, libtard, bleeding heart, tree-hugger, Randbot, RINO/CINO). Because conservatives and libertarians are less interested in hiding even their lack of empathy with each other, their divisions are more open and — well, if not more honest, at least more vocal.

“Hang Together or Hang Separately”

“Think of all the qualities that enable us to form a functioning and vital nation,” says psychologist Jim Taylor, Ph.D., of the University of San Francisco, “— respect, compassion, tolerance, selflessness — and you will see that they don’t exist in the narcissistic personality (or culture). … The indifference, egotism, disrespect and lack of consideration that are central to narcissism are also reflective of the increasingly polarized and vitriolic tone of our current body politic, recent unethical corporate behavior, the rise in cheating among students in school[,] and the gamut of bad behavior among professional athletes. As Pogo noted so famously, ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.’”

Peter Gray, Ph.D., whose blog “Learning Matters” runs on Psychology Today, agrees. “Narcissism is bad not just for society as a whole, but also for the individual narcissist. People high on this trait are often unhappy, angry at the world because of the world’s failure to recognize their superiority. They are generally incapable of forming the kinds of deep, meaningful, lasting relationships with others that we all need in order to live happy, emotionally secure lives.”

*          *          *

I wish I could end this post on a happy, optimistic note. It would be better if I could recommend specific policies, rather than resort to general exhortations. Certainly I don’t mean to suggest that we would be better off with a Borg-like “hive mind” rather than as a disparate collection of isolated individuals. (However, a “hive mind” society could probably more effectively deal with external enemies like Daesh.)

However, how do you get people to be less self-absorbed and more empathetic when they see their narcissism as healthy self-interest and lack of empathy as someone else’s problem? If I tell you that we need to start putting other people’s problems ahead of our own, you could very well reply, “Fine; put my problems ahead of yours first.” It’s a tough sell to tell people that they must become more sensitive to others’ feelings and simultaneously develop thicker skins to protect their own, that they must accept that their needs and desires may never be as important to the rest of us as they think they should be.

But that’s what we must do, if we’re to avoid the complete disintegration and devolution of American society. Benjamin Franklin’s words are just as true in 2015 as they were in 1775: “We must all hang together, or we will most assuredly all hang separately.” Or, to paraphrase Jesus: a democracy divided against itself cannot stand (cf. Mark 3:26).

 

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Born in Albuquerque, N. Mex., and raised in Omaha, Nebr., Anthony S. Layne served briefly in the U.S. Marine Corps, and attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha as a sociology major while holding a variety of jobs. Tony was a “C-and-E Catholic” until, while defending the Faith during the scandals of 2002, he discovered the beauty of Catholic orthodoxy. He currently lives in Denton, Texas, works in the home-mortgage industry in Dallas, participates in his parish’s Knights of Columbus council, and bowls poorly on Sunday nights. Along with Catholic Stand, he also contributes to New Evangelization Monthly and occasionally writes for his own blogs, Outside the Asylum and The Impractical Catholic.

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  • Howard

    It’s interesting how much this has turned into an exercise for the thought police. Although intention can certainly be sinful, and it can distinguish between, for example, murder and manslaughter, the rule used to be that what a person does is more important that what he thinks or how he feels.

  • adam aquinas

    Narcissus looked into a pond and imagined that he saw his beauty (his truth) and he stared at it unable to let go of his image and his desire. Of course, he died looking at himself….a life really not worthy of life. He died in despair because all he could see is himself, his “truths: and his beliefs.

    Narcissism, of course, is the plague to humankind and the fear of the other is the food of narcissism. Yes, I have read that the Koran and the Hadith contain many calls to violence against infidels and the Bible certainly in the OT contains a clear warrant for genocide. Neither is better. The Koran calls for the beheading of infidels, the Bible calls for stoning, the Roman pagan religions called for crucifixtion. Others call for casting out of their religions, etc. Jesus came with a remedy for narcissism and it is simple and involves hurting no one, but trusting in the universe to take care us….like the sparrows of the field who fret not for tomorrow.

    In Matthew 25…The goats and the sheep, there is a clear message of eradicating narcissism … It is simple but yet calls upon us to renounce fear, possessions, and give to the poor….hard but straightforward. The RCC had it right for moments in The Pact of the Catacombs in Domitilla, then something mysterious happened to the pact….a quick return to narcissism, sadly.

    http://www.traditioninaction.org/ProgressivistDoc/A_036_CatacombPact.htm

    What happened?

  • james

    If sand were as rare as diamonds an engagement ring would be made of glass. Narcissism is a direct
    result of population density. It’s a saturation problem: asphalt, tall buildings, cars literally everywhere,
    homes stacked like cord wood,mega multi media beamed, streaming even denser than everywhere, light, sound and eye pollution everywhere, news, events, happenings everywhere, choice virtually an unlimited. commodity Narcissism is a result of humanity (ego) being drowned in its own fluids. The more people, 7 bil and counting the more diminished the spirit. Imagine 7 billion buffalo wandering around bellowing, defecating, rutting, fighting, grazing, ect and you get a proper perspective. Even the stars which light the universe in untold numbers have so much space between them they retain an identity of color, age, form, intensity and an ability to use their gravity to form planets. Not so humanity.

  • In most of what the writer says, he’s right and the self-absorption is not good for this country. At the very least, debate, discussion, compromise, even simply defining the problems realistically are all but impossible.

    For instance the Syrian refugees. How do we even decide what is a narcissistic response? I have no problems bringing in the Christians. They are being slaughtered by muslims in that area. I do have a big problem bringing in muslim refugees. Given what I know of islam, the Koran, and the hadith, I view my reservations as self-defense: making sure my family and country are safe. I feel there are more than enough muslim countries that can take in the muslim refugees. And I would have no problems giving material aid to help those countries care for these people. Yet others would label my beliefs on this narcissistic.

    I guess the starting point would be getting people to learn to engage in adult, rational, and civil discourse so problems can be discussed honestly and solutions found. If we can’t even discuss the problems without yelling insults, getting “triggered” or demanding safe spaces, we’re in a lot of trouble as a nation and will end up with even worse problems down the line.

    • Rationalist1

      Do you know any Muslims? What are they like? Do you find them a threat to your family?

    • I know 1 Muslim family who had the corner store. They are very nice. They would not be considered “good” Muslims by isis. The parents are naturalized citizens, their girls all borne here. The oldest does not practice, the 2 youngest kind of do. Heck they sold ham sandwiches and made them themselves. They just wore gloves.

      There is a large mosque near my town and we’ve never had problems. I’d say the great majority are either naturalized citizens or born here. So, no, I don’t see that family as a threat, but that’s mainly cuz they really don’t follow all the Koran and seemed to ignore Mohammed completely.

      But people coming from lands where observance of all that’s in the Koran and the example of Mohammed is taken very seriously do NOT have my trust. They have no roots in this country, no stake in it NOT being a caliphate.

    • Rationalist1

      How is that different from the fact that Christians don’t follow all of the Bible. For instance they follow the Ten Commandments but leave out the proscribed punishments for breaking them.

      I don’t know anyone from Syria but I do know several familys from Iran. They are Muslim but fled Iran because they didn’t share the extremism of their country’s leaders. That’s what’s happening in Syria ( see http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/26/opinion/donald-trump-meet-a-syrian-refugee-named-heba.html?ref=opinion&_r=0 for example).

      In many ways these people are like Northern Ireland Catholics (before the Good Friday Accord) . Most were peaceful like you and me but in that group were some radicals who were using their religion to justify killing to obtain their ends. Did we tar all Catholics with being extremists? No, and we didn’t stop immigration from Ireland or say only Protestants could immigrate. This is the same situation here.

    • The major difference between Christianity and Islam is their respective leaders.

      Christians have Christ and anyone who looks to Christ knows if they are doing what is pleasing to Him or not (even if they don’t want to admit it). Any Christian who kills another, other than in self-defense of self, family, or country (as a person in the military), know they are sinning as Jesus did not do that.

      Mohammed, however did. He killed people who wouldn’t convert to islam. He enslaved non muslims and told others it was ok to do that. Muslims’ example of how to live the muslim life was a violent man who also had a 9 year old wife when he was in his 60s, who told his followers both in the Koran and in his example that it was ok to kill “infidels”.

      So when muslims “get religion” they get violent cuz that’s what’s in the Koran and in Mohammed’s example.

      As for the Irish, those Catholics knew they were wrong to kill like they did. And when the Irish came over here they were very much discriminated against. The Protestants didn’t trust or like them at all. Heck, the hysteria over JFK turning the U.S. over to the Pope was quite rampant when he ran for president.

      Also, the Irish situation was a very limited one, political in nature, having to do with atrocities committed against them by the English Protestants. And the beef stayed between those 2 parties. Irish over here didn’t have any quarrel with Protestants over here. The muslims who are killing non muslims are NOT limiting themselves to just one country. That is because the dictate of Islam is to make ALL the world submit to islam or die or be enslaved. That’s in the Koran. Hence the fact that muslim fundees, no matter where they are, commit the same atrocities and have the same violent rhetoric.

    • Rationalist1

      I know many very religions Muslims and they are no violent. I;m sure you do too. In Christianity we have a very large number (including at least one presidential candidate) who subscribed to “end of the world” theology where all will be converted or saved and that the end of the world in imminent. Now I know the Catholic Church does not subscribe to that theology but would it be fair to attribute that to Christians.

    • First you bypassed my point that the model each religion has are vastly different. The example Muslims have of faithfully is Mohammed who did and exhorted his followers to do, exactly what isis is doing. Jesus NEVER did that and that difference cannot be brushed aside.

      ALL Christians, including Catholics believe there will be an end of human history, a final judgement, and the kingdom of God, with no evil anymore. Muslims also believe in such a thing as well. So I don’t see your point in bringing it up.

    • Rationalist1

      Because some Christians believe that a violent Armageddon is imminent where believers will be swept up into heaven and those remaining will either be converted or be killed. Now there’s violence for you from the Christian New Testament.

      As to ISIS, not all Muslims accept that, just like not all Christians except killing or converting all non believers at in a Apocalypse. Most Muslims are peaceful. If you want to continue to mischaracterize them that’s your choice. But it’s, quite frankly, not what the Pope says.

    • Once again you have refused to address Mohammed’s example and he IS the example for ALL Muslims. They cannot get around this. It’s in their profession of faith.

      As for the end of the world: that is brought about by GOD, not man. The subjugation of all peoples to islam is brought about by MEN as commanded in the Koran and by Mohammed. Big difference.

      As for the pope, his opinion isn’t scripture, isn’t dogma, so I and any sane Catholic can disagree with him. And we do, for the very reasons I’ve cited.

      Now, why don’t you deal with the very real differences between Jesus and Mohammed?

    • Rationalist1

      If you believe Jesus is God, the second person in the Trinity, then God killed every child on the planet, and all adults except 8, in the great flood of Noah. Christianity has it’s bad examples as well.

    • God can do whatever He wants with His creation, including destroying it. Mohammed is NOT god. He is a mere man who claims to have gotten revelations from God, called the Koran. He then claims to have lived out those words in his life and all muslims are to follow his example.

      Jesus said He WAS God. Mohammed never did. Jesus left us an example of how He wanted us to live and it’s found in the GOSPELS, not the OT, the GOSPELS. Now, show me in the GOSPELS where Jesus commanded His people to kill anyone who wouldn’t convert; to behead anyone who wouldn’t listen to their preaching; that it was ok for old men to marry and have sex with 9 year olds.

      Then address the fact that MOHAMMED, a mere man, claims God said all of the above as either a duty of muslims or allowed to be done by muslims (marrying children) and he backed up this claim by doing those things himself. The Koran itself records 2 instances in which Mohammed kills ALL the Jews in 2 towns, men, women, and children, because they would NOT become muslims.

      Now, when a Christian “gets religion” and decides they are going to imitate Jesus the best they can, do you know what happens? That person will give more of their time, talent, and treasure doing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. They will help people out.

      When a muslim “gets religion” and decides they will obey the Koran better by following Mohammed’s example, do you know what happens? ISIS. Saudis still cutting hands off, beheading adulteresses and stoning people, Christians being murdered for not converting.

      The difference in those 2 scenarios lies in the LEADERS of the 2 religions.

    • Laurence Charles Ringo

      That’s NOT what the Inquisitors did,WelderChick…right?

    • So, let me get this straight: a poster who has no problems bringing over a bunch of muslims who come from the radicalized part of the world and who could “get religion” at any time and start imitating their prophet Mohammed, which includes killing anyone who won’t convert to Islam is arguing this against me. I’ve been hammering home the difference between Mohammed and Jesus, and this is what you come up with?

      Did you bother to read the rest of the postings between us?

      I’ll have to assume you didn’t cuz in the other posts I clearly spelled out the differences between Jesus and Mohammed and the subsequent differences in their followers, those truly following each leader’s example. I also spelled out that ANY CHRISTIAN going around murdering people in Jesus’s name is clearly not following the NT nor Jesus. That would include an Inquisitors who did that.

      But that also includes Cromwell and Queen Elizabeth. Or those Protestant English who deliberately let 1 million Irish Catholics starve to death.

      I’m defending the fact that we are allowed, as Christians, to keep our families and country safe from a group who in their words, actions, and religion have declared war on us and you want to play the Who Killed Who Game?

      You really have messed up priorities.

    • pax2u

      should Cromwell be an Irish Catholic hero?

      should Nathan Bedford Forrest be a hero to blacks?

      or the Austrian paper hanger be a hero to Jews?

    • Rationalist1

      Not sure where that came from?

    • pax2u

      do some extremists have a reason to be extreme when their rights and lives are in danger?

      was George Washington an extremist, a rebel, and to some a traitor?

    • Rationalist1

      Benedict Arnold after the revolution moved to my home town and bought some land near where my parents live. He was also in the same artillery regiment I served in (albeit quite a few years apart). No one liked him so he went to England.

    • pax2u

      my brother in law is from Oxford great guy, do not understand a word he says

    • pax2u

      were the Protestants not also extremists in Ireland, or just innocents, like the poor british in America in 1776?

  • Rationalist1

    A point of clarification. Nigerian implemented, at the urging of many American fundamentalists, a policy of imprisonment and in some cases death for homosexual activities. ( http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/22101-us-christian-right-behind-anti-gay-law-passed-in-uganda ). Pres Obama was merely joining the rest of the world in condemning such extreme measures. See also http://americamagazine.org/issue/when-law-crime