When did narcissism actually become a thing? Obviously self-love has always been with us but in polite circles it was considered crass, arrogant and embarrassing. Now it seems widely encouraged and rewarded. If you’re an attractive person, posting endless photos of yourself on your social media account seems certain to garner a large following; writing pithy statements about how ‘amazing’ you are is greeted with glee. People find endless ways to let everyone else know that they’re doing something REALLY GREAT. Even setting up your own ‘fan’ page for your blog or filtered photography is seen as a-ok.
Social media is an area which inspires much comment but is still relatively new in the field of academia. The smattering of research out there, however, suggests that people are indeed becoming more narcissistic and less able to empathise with others. The use of social media not only as validation for the self but as an actual driver for it is something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while and it only seems to be getting worse. It now seems beyond the pale for anyone to be critical of people’s sickly conceitedness – as the poster child for this sings, “there’s nothing wrong with loving who you are”. ‘Born This Way’ is not an urge towards self-reflection, a recognition that you have worth and responsibility. Instead it suggests that who you are right now is who you are meant to be and that is ‘perfect’. It both encourages and perfectly reflects the view that any criticism of yourself or your endeavours is both hateful and not worth paying attention to. But in reality, we’re not perfect – not at all. We all have massive and unattractive flaws; many of the most narcissistic people seem aware of that deep down and use social media to obscure the aspects they don’t like, remaking themselves through the digital eyes of others.
The first article on research linked to above notes that:
Narcissists had an inflated sense of self, lacked empathy, were vain and materialistic and had an overblown sense of entitlement.
Sound familiar? A cursory glance at your social media will probably inspire recognition of those words. More than that, it seems to be spreading ever more widely in our society and is at the root of so much. The entire, awful genre of reality television relies on it. Our modern obsession with VERY LOUDLY BEING ATHEIST is a perfect illustration of it, as is the fetishisation of ‘creativity’. This latter trend does not dwell on the transformative power of art, its ability to offer new perspectives on not only the wider world but also ourselves. No, it instead fixates on a facile, ostentatious ‘creativity’ which demands praise and validation, usually for minimal effort. We have to be seen to be photographers, writers, actors, whatever. A large part of this is the sense of entitlement mentioned above – no-one wants to think that they are ‘average’. Combine this with the lack of any sense of wider responsibility and you end up with the pervasive notion that work seen as ordinary and mundane is not worth bothering with – certainly not worth vesting any sense of your identity in. I may work in an office but I am a big deal on Instagram! To question and/or criticise this is to be negative, bitter, cynical – we must not challenge the ‘dreams of a life’ which we have constructed for ourselves. Entire social circles are founded upon this simple truth and the willingness of everyone concerned to act as a blank mirror for each other. Indeed, the song currently at number one presents this vision of a deep and pure love:
It’s like you’re my mirror
My mirror staring back at me
I couldn’t get any bigger
With anyone else beside of me
An anthem for our times! Love is not to be found in someone radically different from yourself, someone who may cause you to question aspects of your personality and even inspire an urge to change! No, love is validation and validation is love.
Listening to Morrissey’s You Are The Quarry yesterday the following lyrics jumped out at me:
Why did you stick me in
Self-deprecating bones and skin
Do you hate me? do you hate me?
Do you hate me? do you hate me?
Do you hate me?
I think it’s a sentiment which anyone who has felt held back by a lack of confidence can identify with, particularly when it seems that arrogant certitude is the way to get ahead. Yet elsewhere on the album we find Morrissey singing “even I, sick and depraved, a traveller to the grave, I would never be you” to a figure of authority and of certainty. This surely is a nod to the ultimately redeeming power of a humility and modesty which can seem crippling? In this recognition of our worse aspects, this sense that we are so imperfect in so many ways, we are almost forced into an empathy and awareness which prevents us from an arrogant, preening self-love. We can always be and do better. Indeed, we must. It is in this state that we find the urge towards the transformative, engaged creativity which is not about validating our sense of self but actively seeking discomfort: as the great Paul Robeson famously noted:
The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice.
Does that sound too narcissistic, too much like a sense of superiority over others? To borrow another quote, humility is ‘thinking of yourself less’ – we fundamentally know if we are doing things for the approval of others if we take a moment to think about it. We ‘begin by being’ rather than appearing to be.