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The Politics of American Narcissism

November 26, AD2015 23 Comments

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 as an insurance agent and in-home caregiver, participates in his parish's Knights of Columbus council and as a Minister to the Sick, 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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