Thursday, January 15, 2015

I am special. Therefore I kill what irks me.

This is another "best of SHAMblog"...but as (tragically) relevant as ever.
So I did a nationwide satellite-radio hook-up Wednesday night on the subject of the narcissism that fuels, or surely catalyzes, these violent outbursts we've been seeing in recent years. If you think about it, self-love has to play a key role in pushing people to act out in violent ways, especially in cases where they jeopardize the lives of not just their nominal targets but innocent bystanders as well. Yeah, part of it is guns, and part of it is the inflamed rhetoric, and part of it, perhaps, is the social maladroitness of a generation of kids for whom a booty-call sent via text-message qualifies as "intimacy." But ask yourself: Even with the availability of guns, and even with the strident, bellicose oratory one encounters in so many areas of postmodern life ... At the end of the day, what kind of person takes it upon himself to become The Solution, elevating his own need for emotional relief above everyone else's, even to the extent of assassinating a duly elected public official? This is a person who is saying, in effect, "I don't care how the electorate voted. They got it wrong. And I'm going to make it right." What kind of person does that?

Almost by definition, the answer is ... a narcissist. A person with a messianic view of his role in the social scheme.

Studies show that we in America have recently succeeded at producing several of the most narcissistic generations in (measurable) history. Psychology professor Robert Millman of Cornell Medical College put it this way in discussing the over-the-top, in-your-face antics of today's Hollywood elite: "The lack of empathy is eerie. They think they're right and that the desk clerk or whoever just didn't understand how important their needs were." As paraphrased in the article linked immediately above, Millman went on to explain that "narcissism leads to depression, isolation, rage and envy." But such problems clearly don't begin and end in Hollywood. I'm not going to rehash all of my feelings on self-esteem-based education here; anyone who's interested in catching up can browse the blog or simply read Chapter 10 in SHAM, which is devoted in its entirety to self-esteem and, in particular, its counterintuitive downside. (Plus, now we have the law of attraction, cornerstone concept of The Secret and derivative works, indoctrinating adults to believe that the beneficent Universe basically exists to meet your needs.)

Suffice it to say that when you train legions of our young people to think that they're Special! and Wonderful! and The Most Important Person on Earth! ... should we really be that surprised when some of the more unbalanced ones grow up and start to behave like it?


Mike Cane said...

Excellent. That's an aspect I hadn't considered before.

Tyro said...

I'd never considered this before, I'll have to muse on it for a while to see what drops out. In the meantime, thank you for a thought-provoking, insightful post.

Cal said...

I wonder if some of what you are referring to in the article is being transferred to other countries. Specifically, I am talking about China. I know I read over the past year about disturbed men shooting up schools and killing children and teachers. Some think China's "one child" policy is fueling some of this anger, as it has skewed the gender ratio there. There are many more single men than single women available. And a lot of this is happening even though the government there still censors a lot of media. But I believe it may be a by-product of China becoming more Westernized.

I also wonder if it's the pressure people are under in this country these days leads to this. These kids are tested, seemingly, every day of their lives. And there is such a big deal for parents of means to get their children into the best public and prep schools; not to mention elite colleges. And not to mention the tenuousness of staying gainfully employed (for most people) these days.

Some have said that guns were apart of many homes in the first half of the past century. But you never really heard of mass random shootings (at least I can't think of one) back then. I'm not referring to mafia-related killings. The first one I'm aware of was the shooting at the University of Texas in 1965.

RevRon's Rants said...

For several years, I've been a member of an online hunting forum here in Texas, and I can assure you that the narcissism and ensuing willingness to have individual opinion override democratic elections isn't limited to they younger generation, New Wage, or Hollywood types. There are plenty of folks on the forum who positively drool over themselves just considering the possibility of a violent reversal in governance. And yeah, it is worrisome to realize that they virtually all have a cache of weapons.

I went to the forum this morning, just to see what they had to say about Obama's speech last night (though I pretty well knew what I'd find). What I read was the last straw for me; I'll not be going back. If I want a dose of ignorance and blind hatred, I'll watch the Hitler (History) Channel or go to one of the bars in the area that caters to "individuals."

Whatever other elements these different demographics might have in common, the one common element I've seen is that they're pretty universally pathetic, clinging to hate as if it were the very air they breathe.

Steve Salerno said...

Very busy today, but just a quick comment to Ron: That is a very sad scenario you describe. Today, too, I heard a comment (relayed to me third-hand) about Obama's speech last night, and even if one wants to concede that the president didn't deliver the most epochal speech in history, there is no way it should've inspired the hatred and ugliness embodied in the comment to which I refer. It's hard to fathom that level of ignorance.

Dimension Skipper said...

...Millman went on to explain that "narcissism leads to depression, isolation, rage and envy."

Perhaps. But is narcissism the only thing that leads to those? Are there no conceivable instances where one or more of those conditions¹ is understandable given some set of personal and probably often unforeseen or uncontrollable circumstances? And is it at all possible that narcissism derives from, rather than leads to, those conditions?

¹ (I'm assuming "loneliness" as a synonym for "isolation" here, but to me "isolation" implies some degree of intention whereas "loneliness" does not.)

Can we really therefore say either:

A) Anyone who suffers from one or more of those conditions is a narcissist, or...

B) All violent offenders/mass murderers are narcissists?

I'm not disagreeing that many such offenders may indeed have strong narcissistic tendencies (although I have no idea really), but even so I don't know that it's necessarily a safe—or even likely safe—assumption.

I'm not sure you're even trying to apply that assumption with 100% blanket coverage either, but it comes across to me as strongly implied so as to be deemed at least probable. I could be wrong and/or misreading something.

Note that I'm trying to think in non-celeb average joe terms here, people that folks randomly cross paths with every day on the street.

Also note that I did not have time to check out any of the links, so I'm just commenting on the basis of what's actually posted here.

It's early, but my initial reaction is that this is one of those things where I can see the reasoning, but I can't necessarily jump immediately on board as I feel it's just got to be a whole lot more complex than the portrait being painted. I see it more as there's not just a straight line between cause and effect points, but there are many, many intermediate points and therefore factorial ways to interconnect them along the way, possibly even circling and doubling back among them before eventually arriving at the determined² conclusion. (Not unlike my own typical rambling sort of comments!)

In short... yes, food for thought, but still thinking. Perhaps that's enough.

² (Topical pun very much intended for this venue.)

Steve Salerno said...

DimSkip: I'm saying that curiously omitted from the national debate is the one element that--in any eventual epitaph for these troubled times--may be given the greatest anthropological weight: narcissism. We've blamed just about everything else but. I'd like to see narcissism get its "proper credit," if you will, only because it's more evidence of the damage done by the supposedly benign self-help movement.

RevRon's Rants said...

Just dropped in on the blog of a one-time contributor to SHAMblog (whom I won't name) to see if his reaction to the memorial held any surprises. It didn't.

It is really ironic to me how, when presented with an opportunity to act maturely and compassionately, some people always manage to snatch ignorance from the jaws of common sense. Were this phenomenon not limited to the unbalanced and/or ignorant few, I'd figure that the cheese had slid off the whole country's cracker.

As to whether or not all murderers are narcissists, I wouldn't go so far as to diagnose them as such, but it is pretty difficult to imagine someone taking another's life - barring a defensive act or one borne of extreme passion* - who did not have at the very least some strong narcissistic tendencies.

* - And I don't mean a passion that can be justified after the fact; more an emotional response to a traumatic situation.

Tyro said...


I did me some ruminating and found a couple things I've seen which might - or might not - be what you're getting at. I guess I realized that I'm not entirely sure I understand your point, hope you can steer me straight.

My first thought was that Americans, for better or worse, seem to cultivate a mythology of rugged individualism. It's in the founding myths, all the Westerns, most of the iconic movie figures, the stories told about famous actors, business people and sports stars. It's gotten so that for a generation poor people with little hope of advancement will support social policies which will directly hurt them because the policies are "socialist" and they know they must be "individualist" or "capitalist". It seems pathological and dogmatic and I haven't seen it in any other Western country that I've visited.

The other thing that also seems very American is a streak of dogmatic anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism which claims (falsely I think) that everyone's opinion should be equal. Just because Joe Harvard there has book learnin and some degrees don't mean that his views on anything are any better than mine, not even on the stuff he's studied and I learned about from Crackerjack boxes.

Are either of these what you're calling "narcissism?

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro, I think either/both of those might have something to do with it, but chiefly I'd refer you back to my reply to DimSkip, and clarify that I'm speaking more of the DSM definition of narcissistic personality disorder: in lay terms, it's initially characterized by an inflated sense of self and one's role in the workings of the world, often followed by an off-the-charts sense of outrage when the person is forced to confront his or her impotence (relative to that initial self-image). That is what I think we've been breeding in American public schools for 30 years with all that "you're the most special person on earth!" crap.

Tyro said...

Isn't that sort of educational philosophy pretty common in the West, so wouldn't we expect to see the same sorts of reactions at the same rates if this was a significant factor?

Does anyone know how we can get this data to check? I'm going off impressions and I know how unreliable that is.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Loughner might be suffering one of the severe mental disorders, such as schizophrenia or psychosis, and if he's out of touch with reality, in ways. What causes these disorders? What can be done about them? I'd like to know more about Loughner, his mind, his history. From what little I've read, his mind seemed quite distorted and out of order, and his behavior odd.


Steve Salerno said...

Barbara: Oh, I'm quite sure he suffers from something--and we will hear chapter and verse on the subject from his defense team when he goes to trial. What I'm talking about in this post in the background climate of narcissism from which so many of these wingnuts spring.

Anonymous said...

Steve: I'm with ya on narcissism. I wonder, though, if narcissism is relevant, or plays any role at all, in psychosis. I really don't know, but I have an impression that psychosis is something else altogether. I don't know though.

Dimension Skipper said...

For a possible celeb example of the work/personal schism, here's a post from TV reviewer Alan Sepinwall reporting CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler's response when asked about Charlie Sheen (at some current major TV networks press tour thingie that's been going on this week)...

CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler is known for having one of the better deadpan senses of humor in the TV business. So when her press tour session opened with a question about "Two and a Half Men" star Charlie Sheen's latest widely-publicized shenanigans, it wasn't surprising—but was still funny—when she replied, "Boy, I really didn't expect that question this morning. So I'm really taken by surprise."

Tassler's response to the question was prepared, but it was also remarkably frank:

"On a very basic human level, (there's) concern of course. This man is a father, he has children, he has a family, so obviouslly there's concern on a personal level. But you can't look at it simplistically. Charlie's a professional, he comes to work, he does his job extremely well. As I said, it's very complicated. But we have a very good relationship with (the show's studio) Warner Bros. I have tremendous trust and respect with the way they're managing the situation. On a personal level, very concerned. On a professional level, he does his job, he does it well, the show is a hit. That's all I have to say."

And that's really what it comes down to. CBS knows its biggest star is a complete wreck of a human being, but he shows up for work, and the audience seems untroubled in the slightest, based on the lack of any significant ratings erosion. And so long as the show isn't affected, they'll let the rest slide.


I'm guessing the attitude would not be as easygoing were Sheen trying out for a new show. There's a big difference between handling personal issues when a new project is getting off the ground vs an ongoing and still successful (as far as how such things are determined) project.

Steve Salerno said...

DimSkip: I think you're on the wrong post (though if anyone shows signs of narcissism, it's Sheen), but that's OK; as you well know, there's a cosmic synchronicity that connects all SHAMblog material...

Dimension Skipper said...

Oops! You're right, of course, Steve. Apologies. I've re-submitted the prior comment under the proper post just for the sake of better relevance and comprehension.

Although this post did at least mention "...over-the-top, in-your-face antics of today's Hollywood elite..." In my haste to refer you and others to an obviously recent-post-relevant item I got the two mixed up in my head.

I was tempted to remove the comment from here, but will leave it so as not to orphan your response and, well, yes... these SHAMmy things do kind of blur and bleed into each other in all sorts of ways.

(Of course, if YOU care to delete the comment and your response and then not even approve this current comment of mine, that'd be peachy too.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

As an outsider looking in, what strikes me as interesting is the fact that Loughner is obviously suffering from an undiagnosed and untreated mental health illness, and instead of screaming and shouting about the state of mental health care in the US and how difficult it is to get treatment - people are screaming and shouting at wingnuts on either side of the political continuum.

Get a grip! How many shootings have to happen before this issue is addressed?


RevRon's Rants said...

Anon 6:31 - Narcissism is a trait (classified as a character disorder), and if treated at all, it is most typically done so within the framework of the criminal justice system or via informal peer interaction, such as group therapy. The psychotic individual may well experience grandiose thoughts and paranoia, which are exaggerated instances of narcissism. The narcissist's only real concern is the satisfaction of his/her own priorities, whereas the paranoid schizophrenic honestly believes that everything is somehow related to him or her. The biggest difference is that the narcissist can be quite functional in a social milieu (even frighteningly so), whereas the psychotic typically is not.

And despite what the horror movies and the media would have one believe, the narcissist is much more prone to engage in criminal behavior - including violent crimes - than is the psychotic.

Dimension Skipper said...

Is Howard Stern or any of his crew a potential mass murderer?

Sorry, I couldn't resist the sensationalist headline.

Here's some general info on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) test they took.

I'm not a Howard Stern fan and never listen. I can't help but wonder how seriously they may have answered the questions and I have no idea if they took the test live on-air or if it was administered earlier and the results simply disclosed on-air. Mainly I just figured this was tangentially relevant to the whole narcissism point brought up here.

Dimension Skipper said...

P.S. From the first article I linked...

On Wednesday, Howard Stern and his cohorts on his popular morning radio show discussed the results of their psychological testing (or “psych testing” as they kept referring to it on the show).

I'd quickly forgotten that opening paragraph which seems to indicate they took the test off-air and only the results were discussed on-air. I would hope they took the test seriously and used the occasion as a reasonable educational/informational tool to inform the public about such things. I would also hope the results were not yukked up too much for sheer entertainment, that there was at least an undercurrent of seriousness about the results and what they could potentially mean.