Is Our Society Becoming More Narcissistic and Is That a Bad Thing?

Lee Siegel is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. He’s a senior editor at the New Republic and writes the blog On Culture over at TNR

A few weeks ago he wrote an essay in the NYTBR about the late poet and critic Paul Zweig. I don’t know much about Zweig, but I picked up on a few of Siegel’s sentences that are interesting:

Zweig registered, with creative joy, his psychic constrictions just before self-obsession became an all-pervasive cultural style. He wasn’t just one of the pioneers of contemporary memoir. He was one of its ideal practitioners…

The self-enclosure that he analyzed and navigated by — and to which Lasch unfairly sentenced him — has become a part of our lives in countless ways. "Self-love" is no longer a heresy, and narcissism is no longer a subversive position.

Is narcissism "in"? Maybe. Self-improvement/self-help stuff are selling like hotcakes. Some fraction of the 30 million bloggers out there feel like their lives are interesting enough to talk about. I spoke to an entrepreneur friend a few weeks ago who wants to write a novel about a guy who grapples with feeling like "he’s a chosen one" to do something great and special in the world.

The other day I spoke to a woman over 50 who said this is indeed generational: younger people are now told to embrace their individualism, embrace their potential to single-handedly do great things, to "have passions" (she argued that even the word "passion" is narcissistic, because it means you think you have more than a simple "interest"). I’m wary of generational arguments — old people like to pine about the good old days and young people like to think everything is up to their generation — but I appreciate her point.

A more narcissistic society is not a wholly bad thing. While some cultural critics bemoan an age where everyone is so inward looking to the detriment of her neighbors, to her community, and to humanity, I see it differently. A community of blank faces does not constitute a community. Rather, a community is composed of diverse individuals who share something in common (which may very well be their differences). But subjugate individuality to the community — or to a nation, or a corporation — and we lose texture, and the community collapses.

People first need to take care of themselves (economically, spiritually, physically) before they can help others. If this requires a dose of narcissism, then fine. Self-delusion after all is important for happiness and self-confidence (perhaps even a bit more than normal) is important for resilience and success.

Obviously we don’t want too narcissistic a society, but my point here is to complicate a matter that’s  often written off as yet sign of the moral rot of 21st century society…

3 comments on “Is Our Society Becoming More Narcissistic and Is That a Bad Thing?
  • Caring and thinking about yourself isn’t narcissism, just like confidence isn’t arrogance.

    Here’s the distinction I make:

    A confident person doesn’t care what other people think.

    An arrogant person doesn’t care how he makes other people feel.

    Caring about yourself is a critical component to happiness, but so are caring relationships with others.

  • I was just on about what I argue is the overuse of the word “passion” these days. In interviews, in explanations for behaviors and decisions, in life goals–it seems everyone is expected to elevate themselves to the level of all-consuming passion. “Passion is the new Proactive” is one way I referred to it–re: abused vocab.

  • “Take care of themself before helping others”. Been thinking about that myself lately. Same logic as on the airplane — you have to put on you own oxygen mask before you help others.

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