The Narcotic of Narcissism

If you want to know what’s wrong with the West, a good way to begin is simply to watch a bit of so-called Reality TV. A few episodes of Big Brother would suffice. We appear to be raising a generation of young people who seem to think the world revolves around them. We have seen the proliferation of hedonism, egotism, self-centeredness and narcissism. We have become obsessed with ourselves, and seem to think that everyone else should be as well.

If you try to tell one of these young narcissists that “It’s not about me,” that life is more than their narrow little world, they look at you with a quizzical expression on their face. They have for so long been raised on a diet of lessons in self-esteem, therapy, victimisation, Political Correctness, welfare-ism and MTV that they have lost their moral centre of gravity. They have lost all perspective. They think everything centres on them, their needs, their wants, their feelings, their sense of self-worth.

But life does not quite work that way. For most of human history notions such as personal responsibility, hard work, self-sacrifice and consideration for the social good were more highly valued. The emphasis was clearly not on how I feel, how I look, what kind of tan I have, how thin I am, how well-dressed I am, and so on.

But today the curse of narcissism has taken deep root. It is a sort of narcotic, where we live for the next hairdo, tanning session, and wax job. Paris Hilton has become the epitome of this disease. And it shows no signs of going away. No wonder why so many people hate the West. Its many virtues have been lost in a sea of narcissism and selfishness.

Of course I am not alone in these concerns. Nor are they recent ones. Back in 1966 Philip Rieff wrote The Triumph of the Therapeutic in which he chronicled the tendency to turn all our problems and social ills into therapy sessions. Faith and self-reliance gave way to a new religion, focusing on self, and self-satisfaction. “Religious man was born to be saved, psychological man is born to be pleased,” said Rieff.

And in 1978 the late Christopher Lasch wrote an important volume called The Culture of Narcissism. In it he lamented the movement away from community and family toward the self and narcissism. He reiterated some of the themes of Rieff: “The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden era, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.”

More recently Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel wrote an important book entitled One Nation Under Therapy (2005). The authors show how we have become a generation of therapy junkies, full of fragile egos and crippled emotions. Instead of self-reliance, personal responsibility and fortitude we have become a nation of victims and psychological basket cases. “What healthy children need most,” they argue, “is guidance on how to be civil and ethical – not how to be self-obsessed”.

And this obsession with self is of course happily being fed by the pharmaceutical industry, pumping millions of Prozac, Ritalin, or numerous other mood-altering drugs into our young people every year.

While these authors may be dismissed as more or less conservative social commentators, their concerns have been substantiated by a comprehensive new study by five American psychologists. Their study of 16,475 American college students who completed an evaluation called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1982 and 2006 found that they are more narcissistic and self-centered than their predecessors.

David Crary picks up the story in (February 27, 2007): “‘We need to stop endlessly repeating “You’re special” and having children repeat that back,’ said the study’s lead author, professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. ‘Kids are self-centered enough already’.”

According to the researchers, NPI scores have risen steadily since the current test was introduced in 1982. “Narcissism can have benefits, said study coauthor W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia, suggesting it could be useful in meeting new people ‘or auditioning on American Idol. Unfortunately, narcissism can also have very negative consequences for society, including the breakdown of close relationships with others’, he said.”

Other problems are associated with narcissism: “The study asserts that narcissists ‘are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors’.”

“Twenge, the author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before, said narcissists tend to lack empathy, react aggressively to criticism and favor self-promotion over helping others. The researchers traced the phenomenon back to what they called the ‘self-esteem movement’ that emerged in the 1980s, asserting that the effort to build self-confidence had gone too far.”

Of course neither I nor the authors mentioned believe that there is no place for counselling, therapy, psychology, and so on. However it has become a religious obsession. The truth is, most of our problems at heart are spiritual and moral. But in a secular world that says only matter matters, it is hard to offer real cures for the soul when it is no longer believed in.

But surely the rejection of Christianity with its emphasis on service to others, personal responsibility and dying to self has led to this increase in selfishness, hedonism and narcissism, and the therapeutic culture we are now immersed in.

In a secular world, therapy has replaced salvation. After all, if there is no longer such a thing as sin, then all we can do is tinker around with people’s self-esteem and self-image. But those have taken a beating in a goo-to-you world of materialism and purposelessness. No wonder shrinks are working overtime.

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11 Replies to “The Narcotic of Narcissism”

  1. Unfortunately rather than challenge this obsession with self-esteem, the contemporary church has instead embraced and promoted it and along the way invented such heresies as the ‘self esteem gospel’, ‘prosperity gospel’ and the ‘seeker sensitive gospel’.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  2. Bill,

    I agree with you on this matter, but I’m intrigued that your views seem at odds with your espousal of right-wing politics, a key driver of which is self-interest.

    Daniel Farrelly, Sydney

  3. Thanks Daniel

    Self-interest is certainly a component of libertarianism and much of free-market economics, but not necessarily of political and social conservatism. I am not a libertarian, but a cultural and social conservative. I am more-or-less a supporter of the free market, but not a gung-ho economic libertarian. I am certainly not an anarchist. So what I wrote here pretty well fits with my overall political views.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. Daniel Farrelly has it backwards. As the Christian faith teaches, man is naturally selfish, and its teachings are a corrective to this self love. For example, Jesus’ second commandment, “love your neighbour as yourself” takes self-love as a given, and thus needs this corrective.

    Economic conservatives recognize man’s innate selfishness (whether they attribute it to sin or not) , and regard the free market as the best way to channel this, by pitting different selfish desires against each other. Thus in a genuinely free market, one’s selfish interests are served by pleasing others. That’s why most of the richest people in the world have supplied goods to huge numbers of people at affordable prices (e.g. Ford’s cheap cars, Gates’ cheap computers, the cheap goods of Woolworhts and WalMart). An unselfish person will likewise try to please others, but only a free market provides the incentive for a selfish person to do so.

    Conversely, much leftist politics deny Jesus’ teaching that evil is sourced in human hearts, and instead blame it on “institutions”. But since leftism ignores innate selfishness, it is doomed to failure. E.g. in a centrally planned economy so beloved of leftists, when the planners set the price lower than the market price, then selfish people will consume more and supply less, resulting in shortages.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  5. Jonathan,

    Centrally-planned economies disappeared 15 years ago, and your theories about “leftists” sound like they are out of the 70s. The reality is that governments of today differ very little in their policy objectives from those of their opponents, i.e. they are all neo-centrists, and all implement policies that are a mix of traditional left- and right-wing thought.

    I doubt that “economic conservatism” even exists any more, assuming we agree that the term implies free-market liberalism, fiscal conservatism, social (“religious”) conservatism, strong militarism and environmental scepticism. The US of a few years ago might have espoused all of those ideologies, and indeed the Bush administration was re-elected on such a platform. But since then we’ve seen some major corporate failures, the Iraq disaster, out of control government spending, and a reversal of thinking on the environment. The religious conservatives who voted for Bush almost solely on “family values” were let down badly when the administration failed to deliver on abortion and homosexuality. In combination, these factors led to the mid-term electoral rebuff of the Republicans, and we could well see a similar situation in Australia later this year.

    Christians have a dilemma when it comes to politics. Claims have been made elsewhere in Bill’s pages that Christians are mostly right-wing, while “anti-Christians” (presumably atheists, humanists and people of other faiths) are tagged as “lefties”. I am not aware of any evidence to support that dichotomy, and indeed there is no obvious reason for this to be so. Evangelical Christians might well be attracted to the social conservatism of the right, but there is no reason to necessarily link social conservatism with fiscal conservatism for example, especially when you consider Christianity’s historically strong involvement with social
    justice. Similarly, economic liberalism has delivered a string of disasters arising from corporate greed and environmental vandalism. It is issues such as these that temper laissez-faire idealism and produce the centrist philosophy that dominates political thought today.

    Furthermore, there is no evidence to show that Christians generally are any more socially conservative than the population at large. Opinion polls and surveys consistently demonstrate that about 70-80% of the population has liberal views on homosexuality and abortion, and that proportion differs little when religious belief is taken into account.

    All of these issues illustrate that fact that choosing one political ideology over another involves a compromise of values, i.e. there is no political ideology that one could confidently describe as either Christian or humanist by nature, and everyone has to carry some uncomfortable baggage along the way.

    Daniel Farrelly, Sydney

  6. Thanks Daniel

    Not quite. What I did suggest in a few posts was that there tends to be a connection between conservative politics and conservative theology, while there tends to be a connection between liberal politics and liberal theology.

    And I have also argued that Christianity transcends any and all political ideologies, although on some issues it might more readily align itself with one side of politics than the other. But it ultimately cannot be bound to any political party or philosophy.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Daniel says, “Furthermore, there is no evidence to show that Christians generally are any more socially conservative than the population at large. Opinion polls and surveys consistently demonstrate that about 70-80% of the population has liberal views on homosexuality and abortion, and that proportion differs little when religious belief is taken into account.”

    Unfortunately the statistics quoted are probably right but Daniel’s conclusion about what they mean is wrong. What such surveys really demonstrate is that ignorance and even apostasy is endemic amongst professing Christians these days. The precepts of Christianity are defined by the Bible, not by the opinions of a largely theologically ignorant Western Christendom.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  8. I also agree that Christianity transcends political ideologies. But leftists try to hijack Christian teachings about generosity to promote the gigantic impersonal bureaucracies they love, which entails generosity with other people’s money.

    It’s also fallacious to link corporate greed and economic vandalism with the free market. As I’ve said, selfishness is intrinsic to fallen humanity, so greed will exist regardless of how controlled the economy is. But only the free market means that the greedy still have to please others to become wealthy. And the worst environmental disasters happened in the communist world.

    DF’s citations of poll results are highly dubious. For one thing, it would depend on the wording. It’s doubtful that more than a vociferous misotheistic minority want abortion for any reason, including inability to fit into a prom dress, or gay marriage and adoption.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  9. Greetings Minister Bill Muehlenberg, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. I pray that God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. I think as Christians, not just by name, by faith, by action, we all must display Christ to those who are in darkness, these who are in darkness are alienated from the life of God. But unless we display Christ to them, not just in word, but displaying it in action, I am afraid that we may lose those obsessed by self! I am far below your literary words. Somewhat humbled by what you profess, and at times have to look up what some things say. But I thought that when Christ comes to the heart of a person, Jesus the life giver, imparts life, and the one in bondage, is set at liberty, because of the life givers sacrifice. There is hope for all who have breath. Even for those who have the label of Anarchist, which is viewed as Lawless, and akin to antichrist. There is always hope! God loves the sinner, but hates the sin, that holds them into bondage to sin and death. We as the Christian, have the greater role to play, and will be held in account higher to God. So by example and by faith, faith being an active word. or doing word, and needs to be appropriated. Consider the seed, unless the seed dies, what is contained within the shell, will not come fourth. So unless we sow the seed of God ” The WORD of GOD ” things will remain alone. Without sowing, there is no reaping! I pray God will bless you Brothers and learned men. Kind regards Ross

  10. As one of the snowflake generation, I would just like to add that social media has amplified this a hundred fold. Each service, in its own best interest, works to convince users to talk about themselves and present their lives so the platform has content; This creates pressure and peer pressure to respond and create an online self; which in turn amplifies the generational narcissism which was bad enough to begin with – talking about oneself online constantly spills offline too.

    Have some heart. It is a hard thing to sit under scripture and re-learn that you really are nothing special, and that success takes a lot of hard work and still doesn’t always happen. It is hard trying to maintain perspective when you are being undermined by TV, advertising, books and online. Faith comes by hearing the Word. I would like to suggest that if you want to help, challenge someone to bible reading (even a race through a book of the bible) or time offline to pray or talk about things that matter. The antidote to being fake online, is being real and offline – this is costly and requires you to give of yourself. We have forgotten how (if we ever knew) and need to learn from your example.

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