Our political discourse is increasingly dominated by psychological vocabulary. From safe spaces to triggering, public life is made sense of through the application of ideas that originated within psychological thought and practice. Moreover, from the rise of the psychologist/self-help guru Jordan Peterson to the interest in evolutionary psychology shown by conservative writers, it is not just on the left that psychological vocabulary is in vogue. One psychological concept that finds perhaps equal application on both left and right is the idea of narcissism. Parents, bosses, lovers, celebrities, social justice warriors and Donald Trump have all been understood through the prism of this term.
The narcissistic turn in public political discourse is not new. In 1979, Christopher Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. Lasch applies the notion of narcissism—which had, following Freud’s 1914 essay On Narcissism, previously been used mainly in clinical settings to treat individuals—to society at large. Lasch argues that one can understand trends in the family, workplace and politics by considering the narcissist as a major personality type, complementing other personality types such as the efficient manager, caring wife, and so on. Behind many sociological developments, Lasch argues, lie the demands and expectations of the narcissist.
Lasch’s book hit a nerve. Lasch famously travelled to Camp David on the invitation of President Carter to discuss the themes of the book, and these themes reportedly influenced Carter’s crisis of confidence speech. Over the following years, Lasch’s book would be reread, used and abused by both left wing and conservative critics. The actual arguments of the book were often overlooked in favor of crude simplifications. On the left, the culture of narcissism came to designate a society overtaken by rampaging egoists, Ayn Rand’s selfish individuals. On the right, the concept was used to imply that people had abandoned the essential ties of family and community in favor of individual rights. In reality, the variety and depth of Lasch’s insights cannot be subsumed within any crude left/right dichotomy.
The insight at the heart of Lasch’s work is that narcissism isn’t the same as egoism. On the contrary, narcissism is the result of experiencing ourselves as fragile: weak, atomized and alone, without the usual supports or barriers that help us navigate the world. When the self—that is, the sense of who I am—is experienced as fragile, the person affected becomes increasingly preoccupied with establishing him- or herself as someone uniquely important.
This insight—that many cultural forms are best understood as a narcissistic response to the experience of existential vulnerability—can be helpfully applied to today’s political world.
Many people argue that our socio-economic situation is such that we are made vulnerable by the system. There’s some truth to this. However, in many cases it is our culture, values and ideals—not our economic system—that renders us vulnerable.
Let me give three examples. The first is the common injunction not to question/ignore my identity— whether this injunction comes from a member of an oppressed minority, a men’s rights activist or a reactionary nationalist. The second is the idea of gaslighting. The third is the rise of what I’m going to call casualness in contemporary forms of dating and intimacy.
Don’t Question My Identity
This is a familiar refrain in identity politics. It is a demand for respect, a way, often, of silencing criticism, and above all a demand for recognition: I believe myself to be this, and you must not question it. In the UK, a number of activists have been responding to the government’s proposed Gender Recognition Act, which would allow gender self-identification. Many argue that trans people have a right to be recognized for who they are. We are told that to put obstacles in the path of their self-identification is to question their identity and even their right to exist.
The phrase right to exist suggests that we are dealing with genocidal attempts to remove a segment of the population. But the reality is more mundane. What is really meant is: don’t question. Trans lives are not up for debate, as a common slogan puts it: to question something politically is seen as questioning someone’s personhood.
Of course, it is not just on the left that such attitudes prevail. The infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville can be understood as a group of people seeking validation for their identity (as white nationalists).
Lasch’s point about fragility gives us a deeper insight into what is happening here. There’s something about the experience of selfhood today that makes people feel so fragile and uncertain that they can’t distinguish between two kinds of criticism: criticism of your ideas and the criticism of you as a person. The distinction between public political argument and personal moral value doesn’t seem to hold for them. The narcissism reflects this blurring of the public–private distinction. When people feel that their identities are fragile, they tend to respond by making everything center around them.
Like much of our recent political vocabulary, this is a psychological term. It involves making someone question whether their version of events, their perceived reality, is true, in order to exert power over them. The term gained currency as a way of understanding why people in abusive or controlling relationships stay with their partners: they stay because they have been made to distrust their sense of how things really are (they seem to hate me, but maybe I’m wrong and it’s me that’s lacking—maybe I’m just unlovable). The term is now applied to politics: for example, the Trump administration is said to be gaslighting the American people by denying facts and making people question established reality.
Thus, an ordinary human experience—having people question your account of things—is compared to being in an abusive relationship. This has profound implications. One of the most basic facts about the social world—that we see, think and understand things differently because we each occupy a unique position and hold a unique point of view—is hence re-understood as an imposition by people who want to terrorize one and invalidate one’s individuality. To have someone question your understanding of the world and assert their own views instead is portrayed as an attack on your basic sense of reality.
To avoid gaslighting in this wider sense, one would have to avoid challenging anyone else’s sense of how things are; to avoid contesting his or her version of reality. The demand that others avoid challenging the ideas on which one’s conception of political reality rests is a narcissistic demand: recognize my reality as the only important one, complete in itself. Only a fragile self—unsure of itself and unstable in its relation to others and to the world—could view the questioning scrutiny of the Other as an attack on its whole reality.
Contemporary Relationships and Casual Intimacy
On the surface of things, the most obviously narcissistic element of modern dating is the sheer publicness of it all: people live-tweet tinder dates and broadcast their heartaches. But, more profoundly, there is the affected performance of a kind of casualness, an attempt to broadcast just how un-attached one is.
People talk of not wanting to get involved, of looking for just good sex, nothing more, and there are dating advice articles telling people how to hack their body to make sure they don’t fall in love with someone they have casual sex with (by avoiding hugging, kissing, eye contact), or to help them get over exes more readily.
This approach to dating and relationships is obviously narcissistic: it amounts to an attempt to avoid the other, to remain in control of the self, a self that is teetering, always in danger of falling away from you and into love with someone else.
Many of those who proclaim their unwillingness to get involved are also quick to broadcast their hurt the next morning. This isn’t a coincidence: the inability to form authentic relationships with others and the liability to feel hurt by the actions of others spring from the same place: a fragility of the self. The narcissism of the contemporary approach to dating is really a defense mechanism against being hurt.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can, and ought, to confront the world with a different spirit. There are genuine challenges and uncertainties in our social world, but we have to refuse to be cowed by them. Otherwise, this fragility will make narcissists of us all.