The banality of narcissism.

Scrutinizing culture.
Sept. 22 2010 4:10 PM

The Banality of Narcissism

The class war over cultural diagnosis.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

The great schism in American culture, the most deeply rooted civil war, is not the rift between the two major political parties but a battle at the center of our other two-party system, the two parties of societal self-diagnosis: the Party of Narcissism (PON) and the Party of Low Self-Esteem (PLSE).

The PON attributes all ills—personal, political, and cultural—to (a very vaguely defined) "narcissism" and its consequences, which include materialism, celebrity worship, and the rise of the memoir. The PLSE attributes all ills—personal, political, and cultural—to "low self-esteem" and its consequences: materialism, celebrity worship, and the rise of the memoir.

There are problems with both "parties," unfortunately. Using "narcissism" as an all-purpose explainer of personal and cultural ills has become a sophisticated-sounding substitute for saying something meaningful. The word has become almost as banal as "the banality of evil"—using it requires no actual thought. And the low self-esteem explanation—or, more often, exculpation—for misdeeds and misfortunes has become a near-parody of itself, as most New Age "spiritual" guides such as The Secret and its new sequel, The Power, argue for virtually unlimited (and unearned) self-esteem.

Almost every cultural essay you read these days originates in one or the other worldview. We, as individuals, as a culture, as a nation, as a species, think too much of ourselves (PON) or too little (PLSE). The tide of battle between the PON and PLSE washes endlessly back and forth, but what prompts these observations was the appearance, on Labor Day weekend, in the usually sophisticated Financial Times, ofa breathless two-page tribute to the explanatory power of "narcissistic personality disorder"—a rubric from the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that has been around for decades—as if it were a remarkable new discovery about human nature.

The FT story did at least have the virtue of making apparent to me the problem that neither party has been able to solve, the crucial "goldilocks question"—how much self-esteem is too much, how much is not enough, and how much is just the right amount.

And who will tell us? If only there were an objective standard that would make esteem levels as easy to measure as blood pressure. Perhaps it's a ratio, whereby O.W. (Objective Worth, whatever that is) is divided by SSW (Subjective Sense of Worth) and a percentage (like body mass!) is established for every individual so that he or she can make an informed decision about whether to seek professional help.

What's more, in the combat of cultural diagnoses, these competing constructs are often poorly defined, even by supposed "scientists." The report from a York University study I saw posted on Facebook about Facebook claimed: "Facebook provides an ideal setting for narcissists to monitor what they look like and how many friends they have. People who constantly check Facebook may be lacking in self-esteem ..."

So, wait. Narcissists lack self-esteem? I thought they had too much self-esteem. And people with low self-esteem are really narcissists because they get spurious self-esteem according to the number of "friends" they have? Even researchers can't keep these terms straight.

I've tried to follow the yin-yang shifts of this schism over the decades. Of course, it's a dialectic that has persisted for centuries of American history, ever since Cotton Mather called for rooting out pride (aka self-esteem) from the most pious Puritan minds by means of rigorous introspection, only to be followed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who almost deified the spiritual nobility of the self and the esteem in which it should be held. But the battle has sharpened in recent years to the point of cultural civil war.

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For instance, I recall reading Christopher Lasch's scathing critique of what he called "the culture of narcissism" in an early-'80s book of the same title. Lasch's book was, I believe, a reaction to the self-esteem boosting mania described in Tom Wolfe's "Me Decade" portrait of the '70s, and I remember thinking how smart Lasch was. Yes, narcissism, I thought—that's the problem! It boosted my self-esteem that I was able to realize the utter justness of this diagnosis.

Then, in the middle of the '80s, I read a remarkably persuasive critique of Lasch's thesis that changed my thinking completely. It was a somewhat overlooked essay by the late philosopher Robert Solomon, also the author of the much admired study of The Passions. In the essay, sadly not available on Google, Solomon portrayed Lasch as indulging in a puritanical witch hunt against the benevolent human desire to lead a more, rather than less, gratified life; to be admired rather than scorned; to develop one's own personality, however idiosyncratic and inappropriately flashy it might seem to the sourpuss Lasch. Solomon painted Lasch as a modern Cotton Mather preaching stultifying dullness rather than individual self-fulfillment and condemning just about any path in life other than becoming a stern, narcissist-hating social critic. In other words, Solomon argued, what's so bad about wanting to enrich one's own experience, enjoy life, and have a good time? Solomon's essay made me think of Twelfth Night, with Lasch as the puritanical Malvolio counterpoised to the inebriated but life-affirming Sir Toby Belch, who cries out against Malvolio's strictures, "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" 

Solomon also offered an interesting defense of the "narcissist's" introspection: It's not all pathological self-absorption. At least some of it could be looked upon as cultivating a thoughtful interior life. Shortly after I read Solomon, I read Harvard philosopher Elaine Scarry's wonderfully revelatory and daring riff in The Body in Pain about materialism, often demonized by the anti-narcissists as a way of showing off one's special self-worth. One could frown at the values espoused in Madonna's "Material Girl" for instance, but one could also recognize that diamonds can be valued for their beauty as well as their cash value.

Scarry contends that gazing at beautiful works of art or the intricacies of lace, that sort of thing, is an appreciation of the potential of the material world to confront us with the glory of consciousness. The love of material things should not be automatically demonized or disdained as mere "materialism" by the PON. 

But then in the '90s, I began to see that, taken too far, the anti-anti-narcissist position could put you in the camp of the cult of self-esteem, somewhere on the road to accepting Tony Robbins as your higher power. This was the era of school systems instituting self-esteem-boosting programs for their students. The theory was that dysfunctional later development was derived from an early lack of self-esteem. This decade also saw new wave of self-help and self-fulfillment preachers and preachments. Oprah!

The embarrassments of the New Age positive-thinking gospel made me glad that, in some respects, I was already an anti-anti-anti-narcissist: I'd begun writing about New Age folly in the '80s, including attacks on phenomena such as the cult of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and the way her "five stages" of grieving turned death into an uplifting final exercise in self-esteem. I also knocked the way the cancer cure clinics of Tijuana, Mexico, had adopted New Age rhetoric to market their age-old quackery. I had become wary of the PLSE but not quite ready to return to the puritanical strictures of the PON.

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