A Narcissistic Culture

Narcissism: inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity. Synonyms: self-centeredness, smugness, egocentrism.

I’m a worrier. It is an unfortunate part of my nature that I’ve worked hard to overcome in recent years. I’ve had some success but when I awaken at 3:00 am thanks to a 64 year old bladder I often have trouble going back to sleep because the wheels start turning. I worry.

Thanks to a trait I inherited from my Mom I also want to understand and explain the things about which I worry. Mom and I drove my Dad crazy when we would try to understand why someone took a certain action or behaved a certain way, why people believed the things they believed, the nature of ultimate reality, or when we pondered other similarly mundane topics.

The thing I worry about most these days is the world my generation is leaving our children and grandchildren, and I also want to understand our willingness to do so. Why is it that we are willing to leave behind a country and planet suffering from pollution and environmental degradation, from hunger, from inadequate medical care for those who cannot afford it, and from extreme poverty when we have the resources to address these and other problems? How can we focus on so many less pressing matters when our children’s future is at stake? I don’t have an answer but I do have some ideas.

Back in the late 1970’s historian and informed commentator Christopher Lasch published¬†The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. Lasch argued that American society has essentially become self-absorbed and has progressively turned away from more important values. He said this self-absorption is based on fear (of old age and death, of failure, of being weak, of inadequacy) and that fear has caused us to focus on consumption as a substitute for authenticity. GIVE ME MORE STUFF!! I NEED A BIGGER/NEWER/SHINIER TRUCK AND A BIG SCREEN TV!!

Although Lasch used broad and sometimes unsupported claims to make his arguments, I think he reached powerful conclusions that may be more relevant today than when he offered them in 1979. Most of my students are required to read excerpts from his work during their time with me (or were before I stopped teaching full time).

After a careful analysis of various social factors Lasch concluded that Americans:

  • Care more about appearances than about virtues such as character.
  • Constantly need approval by our fellow citizens. We “cannot live without an admiring audience”, according to Lasch.
  • Have a fear of long-term relationships with other people or with institutions such as the church, schools, civic organizations, and families.
  • Admire celebrities and those we consider better than ourselves or who have obtained more money or stuff than we ourselves have. We attach ourselves to “those who radiate celebrity, power, and charisma”.
  • Are more interested in being “consumers” than being self-reflective.
  • Have no interest in knowing about or understanding the past so we don’t care about the future.

He argues that the contemporary individual is “superficially relaxed and tolerant” and “demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire”. We want more material stuff and other things that in truth only briefly satisfy our desires.

All of this:

  • Leads us to think we can control nature.
  • Leads us to seek great wealth whether or not we need it.
  • Causes politics to become even less authentic with political institutions failing to respond to the desires of the voters. It becomes what The American Conservative calls “politics as celebrity theater”.
  • Leads us to focus on pleasure as “life’s only business” and deny rational thought or “reason” to guide our lives.
  • Causes us to rely on “experts” or other professionals rather than educating ourselves.

Sorry. That was a lot of information and I’m obviously skipping a bunch. Lasch offers much more and, at times, begins to sound like a grumpy old man. But was he right? Are we driven by greed? Have we lost our core principles? Are we a frivolous and fickle society impressed by celebrity? Can we no longer think for ourselves?

Did he offer ideas to which we should pay attention?

In my opinion…yes. The cultural narcissism Lasch described in 1979 largely describes contemporary society’s willingness to live only for today rather than considering what is best for future generations. How else can we explain our willingness to ignore the needs of our own children or the country and planet we love?

We honor celebrities who add nothing to society other than playing roles in movies, playing sports, or attaining wealth rather than honoring the men and women who serve as first responders, scientists, teachers, or those who serve in the military. We cannot wait until the next cool device is released so we can purchase it but shortly thereafter we start thinking about another cool device. Many of us work our lives away in jobs we hate just so we can be wealthier. We worry about the brand of clothes we wear. We abandon marriages and lovers with relative ease. We care nothing for America’s past. We destroy nature in our attempt to control it. We choose a celebrity billionaire reality TV star as a party’s candidate for president over men and women who had political experience and who offered concrete ideas about moving America forward. And, according to most polls, we let others think for us rather than taking the time to understand complex issues ourselves.

I obviously know that these are broad, sweeping statements and that they don’t all apply to everyone individually, but I do believe they largely describe American society as a whole. Our constant need for instant gratification, for the next new “thing”, and for satisfying pleasures in general, fuel the economy but minimize character and other personal and social values which should be more important.

I believe this behavior is the definition of cultural narcissism.

Now I sound like a grumpy old man.

I worry.