The rising tide of narcissism
Anne Manne’s ‘The Life of I’ takes aim at a modern epidemic
A recent cartoon by Alan Moir depicts four people sitting around a table: a woman in a wheelchair, an elderly man, a youth and, taking up as much space as the other three put together, a large middle-aged man in an expensive-looking suit. All four have straws in their mouths, and a bucket labelled “Entitlement” sits on the table. The disabled woman’s straw doesn’t quite reach the bucket, the old man’s is kinked, and the youth has drawn the proverbial short straw; the rich man sucks through a row of straws plunged deep in the communal trough, eyes closed, a self-satisfied expression on his face. That this cartoon can be read as more than just a mordant comment on the federal budget and economic inequality would not have occurred to me had I not just finished reading Anne Manne’s insightful and provocative new book, The Life of I: The new culture of narcissism (Melbourne University Press; $32.99).
The word “narcissism” evokes the blare of self-promotion across social media platforms, the rise of the Bridezilla and a plague of celebrities we love to hate, like Kim Kardashian. It has become, writes Manne, “the go-to diagnosis for a host of modern ills. It is our modern ‘hysteria’.” Search for “narcissism” on the booklovers’ website goodreads.com and you’ll find hundreds of titles. These include Why Is It Always About You?, Will I Ever Be Good Enough: Healing the daughters of narcissistic mothers and How to Divorce a Narcissist or a Psychopath, as well as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero and American Psycho.
“Narcissist” has become a popular, casual term of abuse. Yet narcissism is a recognised personality disorder with a spectrum that includes the pathological. Manne, reviewing the work of academic researchers, psychologists and others, argues that, moral panic aside, narcissism is genuinely on the rise in Australia and elsewhere. What’s more, it is having a toxic effect on community, culture, politics, the economy and even the environment. It is implicated in myriad acts of violence from road rage and sexual assault to politically motivated mass murder. According to Manne, the prevailing ideology of neoliberalism feeds the culture of narcissism and is in turn nourished by it, with global consequences.
Manne begins The Life of I by looking at the extreme right-wing terrorist and mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik. On 22 July 2011, Breivik posted online a self-aggrandising, 1500-page manifesto that expressed a visceral hatred of progressives, Muslims, feminists and multiculturalists. He then set off a car bomb in Oslo that killed eight people, armed himself with assault weapons and massacred 69 people, mostly teenagers, at a Norwegian Labour Party youth camp on the island of Utøya. Psychiatrists eventually diagnosed Breivik as having an extreme narcissistic personality disorder.
Among the defining traits of a narcissistic personality disorder is a lack of empathy. Asked how he thought his victims felt, Breivik remarked that it had been awfully traumatic for him to see their spattered blood and brains. Another characteristic is grandiosity: Breivik posted photos of himself posing in medal-studded military garb. Then there is an obsession with personal appearance: he had remade himself through plastic surgery and bodybuilding into his Aryan ideal. The list continues: “willingness to exploit others for one’s own needs, a sense of entitlement” (in prison he has complained about the view from his cell and the temperature of his coffee), “a belief in the importance and superiority of self over others, a determination to use any means for self-aggrandisement, and a destructive rage when thwarted”.
Narcissism is not, Manne stresses, “simply selfishness or vanity”. She quotes Christopher Lasch, author of The Culture of Narcissism (1979), who later took pains to clarify that he was not speaking of simple self-absorption, but of fundamental social changes wrought by the rise of consumer capitalism. Among these were changes in childrearing practices. Nearly four decades ago, he identified the spread of traits commonly ascribed to Generation Y today: shallowness, an inability to commit, and self-preoccupation fed by a “Society of the Spectacle” in which people behaved “as if their actions were being recorded and simultaneously transmitted to an unseen audience”.
In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a young hunter so enraptured by his own beauty that he could not tear himself away from his reflection in a pond. Eventually he died there. Otto Rank, a colleague of Sigmund Freud, was the first to give the name of the young hunter to a mental illness. Freud later wrote on the subject of narcissism as well. Although he considered that women were more likely to be narcissistic than men, contemporary research shows the opposite – and more male narcissists register on the pathological end of the spectrum.
The American sociologist Michael Kimmel relates this to what he calls “Guyland”, “a culture of ‘entitlement, silence and protection’ based on a shockingly strong sense of male superiority and a diminished capacity for empathy”. The events described in Night Games, Anna Krien’s 2013 book on the rape trial of an AFL player, show how the world of male sports can breed the sort of narcissistic behaviour that combines entitlement, lack of empathy, grandiosity and a sense of superiority. Another especially malignant expression of male narcissistic entitlement is revenge porn: men posting intimate photos of ex-girlfriends online, complete with derogatory comments and, often, contact details. Then, earlier this year, there was the murderous rage of Californian student Elliot Rodger, infuriated because the “beautiful blonde girls” had rejected “such a magnificent guy”. “From one perspective,” Manne contends, “all patriarchal cultures may be considered institutionalised forms of narcissism.”
The literature of the self-esteem movement speaks of “healthy narcissism”. While Manne understands what “this clumsy phrase” is trying to say about positive traits such as self-confidence, ambition and pride, she stresses that it is a “fundamental category mistake”. Narcissistic hubris is not normal pride. Narcissists are not “flawed people who just need to learn to love themselves enough”. At their core lies “an inability to love”. In case after case where pathological narcissism has been diagnosed, including those of Breivik, Rodger and a privileged young American, “Ryan”, who celebrated his admission into an Ivy League university by organising the sexual abuse of an intellectually disabled girl, some toxic mix of indulgence and deprivation has been a feature of the individual’s upbringing.
The narcissist looks at other people essentially as a source of “narcissistic supply”, or ego-stroking. Those around them are therefore dispensable. This pertains to partners as well: Manne relates the story of an Australian man who demanded a divorce after his wife developed cancer and had to have a double mastectomy. A woman without breasts, he explained, was “such a turn-off”. Self-sacrifice has no role to play in this ethos: duty, care, compassion and loyalty are for losers.
Self-esteem gurus tell people not to “settle” for anything or anyone less than perfect. There’s no one more perfect than the self, of course; Manne even quotes a song for pre-schoolers with the lyrics “I am special, I am special, look at me!” As Manne notes, the self-love preached here is not part of a broader continuum that connects the self with the rest of humanity. Manne uses the Latin word caritas, or “loving kindness”, for this moral quality that relies on empathy, the ability to understand and value the feelings of others. It engenders humility and compassion.
Where an individual lacks empathy, you are likely to find other elements of narcissistic personality disorder. Where empathy is lacking in society at large, you are likely to find racism, sexism, homophobia, and a disregard for the weak and the poor. A meta-analysis of 72 studies conducted on American students over four decades revealed that the students of the 1990s and 2000s were significantly less empathetic than those of the 1970s and ’80s. That the drop in empathy coincides with the rise of neoliberalism, Manne demonstrates, is no coincidence at all.
She does point out that the right doesn’t have a monopoly on the condition of political narcissism. Referring to the left-wing academics who supported the rule of Pol Pot in Cambodia, she writes: “Rather than submit to the humiliation of being wrong, they denied all the evidence and thereby maintained their high opinion of themselves.” They were, in other words, just like climate-change deniers today. Manne explores the link between narcissism and denialism; she also considers Keith Campbell’s influential study on the effect narcissism has on individuals’ willingness to exploit shared resources.
If the right-wing terrorist Breivik is the poster boy for part one of The Life of I (‘Narcissism and the Individual’), Ayn Rand (1905–82) is the pin-up girl for part two (‘Narcissism and Society’). Rand was the precocious child of a prosperous Russian family that was forced into poverty and exile by the communist revolution of 1917. When Rand finally escaped to the US in 1926, she “wept tears of splendour”.
She created a cult around herself and her philosophy, Objectivism. In her personal relationships, Rand was ruthlessly self-serving, erupting in vengeful rages when denied that to which she felt entitled (including lovers). As expressed through Rand’s novels like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Objectivism seeks to purge capitalism of all elements of altruism, social justice and humanitarianism. To care for the weak and the poor was to do Karl Marx’s work and to endanger capitalism itself. Rich people, society’s winners, were more deserving than the poor (society’s “refuse”). If anyone was a victim, it was the rich, beset by taxation and the envy and hatred of life’s losers. It was, Manne says, “the very first populist philosophy of narcissism”.
In the 1940s and ’50s, Rand was “dismissed as a crank”. Her promotion of selfishness over loyalty and service put her at odds with nearly all philosophical thought and religious doctrine. But with the rise of neoliberalism, her moment has come. Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, was a member of her inner circle. The Tea Party adores her. Gina Rinehart is a fan.
At the end of The Life of I, Manne tries to offer some hope that, unlike Narcissus, humanity will pull back from the edge of the water before it’s too late. But the waters are rising: the result of another sort of climate change it would be dangerously foolish to deny.