Friday, March 3, 2017

Is narcissism really THE problem?

Up until a week ago, I would have said it was.

I've tended to buy into the claim that narcissism is the major problem in our culture but I've always had problems spelling it out. A while back, Amy asked me to spell out what I understood to be narcissism and why it was a social problem. Not for the first time, I found that what seemed clear when I didn't have to explain it, suddenly became murky when I did.

And then I saw a reworking of Waterhouse's painting of Echo and Narcissus. If you don't feel like going to the link, instead of staring down into the water, Narcissus is staring down into a smartphone whose screen is labelled "Instagram".  I saw it on Facebook and it struck me as shallow and stupid.

And then I had to figure out why I felt that way.

The painting has two figures: Echo and Narcissus. Who are we in this interaction? I'm sure we all agree that we're not Narcissus. So we're Echo then? What's she like?

I keep seeing these babe pictures on Facebook. Some woman desperate for attention posts a picture of herself in a bathing suit. We all see through the tricks she has used to make herself look better than she really does and yet all her friends click on "like". A few even write comments. And we privately call her a narcissist.

It strikes me as more like Echo and her problem is echoism, to coin a term. The person who does this desperately needs others to validate her worth. (In mythology, Echo distracted Hera with her lively chatter until Zeus and the nymphs he had been philandering with got away. Hera punished her by rendering her only capable of answering back the concluding words of what others had said to her. Those are the two poles of echoism: chattering to distract others so they don't figure out what we really are up to and feeding back what others give us.)

The true narcissist is the one who comments on her post, "Looking good".

Did you catch it? If you say, "Looking good", the flip side of that is an implication that she doesn't always look this good. The echoist reading that comment will feel happy then empty and will have to go back to the narcissist for more. When she does, the narcissist will make her earn it. The narcissist would be relatively harmless if we didn't have these weaknesses.

I think we have more to fear from the echoism than narcissism for the echoist enables the narcissist.

I had to deal with a narcissist for years. By herself, she was pathetic but her power and reach came from the forces she could draw on. She could draw on echoists, some of whom were in her own family, by simply threatening to withdraw her love, and they'd be her stormtroopers.

Today, the Prime Minister of Canada is a narcissist—a painfully shallow boy. The same was true of Obama. Neither is particularly intelligent in the normal sense of the term. What they have going for them is that they are geniuses at exploiting the weakness and insecurity of others. "Because it's 2015!" is a stupid and empty thing to say but Justin Trudeau could count on a whole lot of people cheering him for doing so because it made them feel like insiders. He knows that people will check their brains at the door for the chance to feel they are on the ride side of the joke.

There is no obvious cure for this problem. On one level it seems obvious: we need to be strong and stand up for ourselves but try spelling out what you mean by that and you run into trouble. Shouldn't you be standing up for others? Do you really want to find the meaning to your life inside yourself? Whatever that means.

In the story Ovid tells and Waterhouse painted (image above courtesy of Wikipedia), there are only two people. If Echo does not seek to fulfill her desperate need for love from Narcissus, the only person she has left to go to is herself. That isn't as crazy as it might seem. A well-regulated self love is essential to a virtuous life. But what regulates it? If the only measure of what is well-regulated is our own feedback, then we cease being Echo only to become Narcissus.

Social science only gets us so far. We need to be able to reference moral realities and not just psychological states or interpersonal relationships to get out of this trap.

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