Twitter Doesn’t Cause Narcissism

Ross Douthat is getting a lot of good vibrations for his Anthony Weiner-inspired take on the new Culture of Narcissism which he facilely links to the rise of social media:

“According to a variety of sociologists (San Diego State’s Jean Twenge, Notre Dame’s Christian Smith, and others), younger Americans are more self-absorbed, less empathetic and hungrier for approbation than earlier generations — and these trends seem to have accelerated as Internet culture has ripened. The rituals of social media, it seems, make status-seekers and exhibitionists of us all.”

Douthat’s column mistakes the symptom for the cause. It is entirely possible that Anthony Weiner has a narcissistic personality disorder—but how would any of us know, we’re not his psychiatrists—but his behavior on Twitter is not enough evidence for a diagnosis. Weiner’s actions were bizarre, aggressive and self-defeating by any measure. But the root causes of his exhibitionism might be found in a number of different psychic places, all of which I hope Weiner will keep between himself and his therapist.

For us, there is a real danger in getting caught up with blaming social media for the supposed outbreak of Narcissism because it distracts us from the real causes. Christopher Lasch’s original formulation of the Culture of Narcissism required nothing like Facebook to make its case. And Twitter lacks any plausible role. The Narcissist lacks an inner compass and needs constant validation from others. Are RTs really enough to satisfy that gaping emotional need? Do follower counts really confer status the way a Maserati does?

What Lasch wrote in the late 1970s was that Americans were each individually beset by a number of social and economic forces that had eroded the old rugged individualism. In reaction to the collapse of industrial America, the ravages of inflation and the rise of a youth culture, Americans became more Narcissistic. They began to measure their social standing and status not by their own achievements or their position within a community or company but by the outward trappings of status. Remember, designer clothes and luxury imports of all kinds first gained cultural credibility during the same period.

I’ve tried to talk about this before but it is worth re-stating in light of Douthat’s column that what we often call Narcissism—a shameless self-centeredness—isn’t the real thing. In individual terms, the Narcissistic personality is one who cannot accept responsibility for any of his or her actions. The Narcissist’s grandiosity is a reaction to feelings of impotence and inability to recognize the valid needs of others. The irony of Narcissism is that it combines a radical individualism—when you can’t recognize the needs of others, you can hardly be said to be connected to them in any way—with an insatiable need for approval and attention.

Again, Congressman Weiner may suffer from this malady but the cause of his feelings of vulnerability and impotence isn’t the medium within which he chose to act out. Lasch used Narcissism as a metaphor to explain a new stage of social and cultural history in the United States. He was trying to call attention to the failure of Liberalism to reconcile the promise of capitalism.

If Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism was a product of confronting America’s industrial decline, our own Age of Narcissism is a product of confronting the limits of our post-industrial economy. This Age of Narcissism is provoked not only by a lack of jobs but an understanding that anyone—especially in light of the credit crisis—is vulnerable to a sudden and catastrophic turn.

Indeed, what Lasch taught us is that the most vulnerable are the ones who behave with least compunction. Of all our public figures who display an inability to take responsibility for results of their actions and seem inured to any feelings of guilt about the suffering they have caused in others, Rep. Weiner doesn’t really measure up.

If we’re looking for a representative figure for this new epidemic of Narcissism, I would suggest someone who was once considered so mighty that he could control the economy with his wisdom and foresight. I’d look for someone who could only manage to admit that he’d found a “flaw” in his worldview when confronted with the financial wreckage we continue to face. I’d look for someone who refuses to retire from public life despite advanced age and having been substantially discredited but instead goes on 60 Minutes to condescend to his critics.

Last I checked, Alan Greenspan doesn’t have accounts on Twitter or Facebook.


The Online Looking Glass
New York Times; June 12, 2011

The Economics of Narcissism
The Big Money; July 14, 2009

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