The 2016 Presidential Election, regardless of your disdain for Donald. J. Trump or Hillary Clinton, is a rare glimpse of unfettered access into the mind of the American voter.
When measured in the aggregate, the mind of the American voter becomes a complex and diverse representation of the collective American psyche. In considering that, the looming question one fears to ask after this front row seat inside the mind of American society is:
Are the leaders of a society a reflection of itself?
As an American voter, could such a mortifying discovery possibly be true?
While the question of whether or not a society’s leaders are a reflection of it, is critically important to understand, discerning whether or not such a question is true is of little importance. There are simply too many factors involved in order to accurately decide whether the nominees of the two major parties in the United States are a collective reflection of the voters they seek to lead.
However, what is true, and most uncomfortable to acknowledge, is the fact that their nominations are an accurate commentary on the current state of American culture and the growth of narcissism in society.
A reality television star as the Presidential nominee of a major US political party whose career and wealth were built upon a willingness to indiscriminately self-promote both successes and calamitous failure to a media he admittedly sought to manipulate for the intention of turning his last name into a luxury lifestyle brand, represents the stark realization that narcissism in American culture has arrived and it may be here to stay.
Donald J. Trump as the nominee of the Republican Party represents a sound metric for psychologists, sociologists and political scientists awaiting the effect on society where every millennial school child was told they too could become President. Is it a coincidence that childhood Presidential aspirations when combined with adolescent years where the widespread prevalence of internet access and social networks allowing the ability to curate a digital version of ideal self to all onlookers, lead to the rampant growth of narcissism in American culture?
When one considers it from that perspective, it seems rather inevitable Donald J. Trump would become the nominee of a major United States political party.
What is narcissism?
“Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
A narcissistic personality disorder causes problems in many areas of life, such as relationships, work, school or financial affairs. You may be generally unhappy and disappointed when you’re not given the special favors or admiration you believe you deserve. Others may not enjoy being around you, and you may find your relationships unfulfilling.” (Mayo Clinic)
What are the traits of narcissism?
“If you have narcissistic personality disorder, you may come across as conceited, boastful or pretentious. You often monopolize conversations. You may belittle or look down on people you perceive as inferior. You may feel a sense of entitlement — and when you don’t receive special treatment, you may become impatient or angry. You may insist on having “the best” of everything — for instance, the best car, athletic club or medical care.
At the same time, you have trouble handling anything that may be perceived as criticism. You may have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation. To feel better, you may react with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make yourself appear superior. Or you may feel depressed and moody because you fall short of perfection.
Many experts use the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, to diagnose mental conditions. This manual is also used by insurance companies to reimburse for treatment.
DSM-5 criteria for narcissistic personality disorder include these features:
- Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
- Exaggerating your achievements and talents
- Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
- Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
- Requiring constant admiration
- Having a sense of entitlement
- Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
- Taking advantage of others to get what you want
- Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
- Being envious of others and believing others envy you
- Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner
Although some features of narcissistic personality disorder may seem like having confidence, it’s not the same. Narcissistic personality disorder crosses the border of healthy confidence into thinking so highly of yourself that you put yourself on a pedestal and value yourself more than you value others.
When you have narcissistic personality disorder, you may not want to think that anything could be wrong — doing so wouldn’t fit with your self-image of power and perfection. People with narcissistic personality disorder are most likely to seek treatment when they develop symptoms of depression — often because of perceived criticisms or rejections.” (Mayo Clinic)
The Continuum of Narcissism
Undoubtedly, some may be reading this and begin to question if they are a narcissist. Do not worry, it is entirely healthy to feel the need for external validation. Acceptance and appreciation by others is a natural and necessary element of psychological development, so just because you may have read through the list of traits above and identified with several or many, it is highly unlikely you have Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
If you want to be sure, just try and remember a time when you felt bad for someone in your personal life while they were going through a difficult situation or period of time. The ability to empathize with others is what differentiates between someone with narcissistic traits and a personality disorder. As long as you can “feel” another person’s “feels” you are completely normal and have nothing to worry about.
How Does Social Media Perpetuate Narcissism?
Social Media, like any other form of communication, is neither a good or bad thing for society as a whole. As with all tools, it is their use which determines the beneficial or detrimental effect. Admiration, praise, recognition, and appreciation have always been a part of the human experience. However, in pre-social media society, external validation was neither immediately accessible nor quantifiable through the measuring of likes, shares, or praise via a comment or status update of another user.
In a world without social media, praise was given on a personal basis through the written or spoken word, or in a public setting through awards, banquets, or publicly available sources of media communication (newspapers, television, or radio).
In the world as it exists today, public recognition and external validation are readily available at all times. The only deterrent in today’s society being Facebook’s upload speed on a user’s latest selfie.
An abundance of supply for those seeking external validation creates a near insatiable demand for those whose self-worth is dependent upon it. When a readily available supply of validation is combined with society’s voyeuristic tendencies, the collective effect results in an inevitable collective change in what a society deems worthy of praise.
In a world where external validation is limited to those who control the means of communication, recognition is limited to the few whose achievements are deemed worthy due to their uniqueness. In a pre-social media world, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin drew the highest ratings on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. In a post-social media world, Kim Kardashian and Donald J. Trump command the highest ratings.
Did social media cause this societal shift in taste? No, it simply accelerated the shift in a rapid fashion.
Social media’s ability to provide instantaneous external validation provided the perfect tool for altering our society’s preferences in the marketplace for attention. Previously, we rewarded those who had achieved or accomplished a specific feat in their given field.
Today, we reward an individual’s ability to command the attention of others with our attention. Society at some point decided it preferred fame over field expertise and breakthrough. In doing so, it unknowingly created a self-perpetuating incentive/reward system where external validation is both the behavior and the reward.
What does such a stark realization mean for the future of society and what does this have to do with libertarianism and its growth?
The real danger of an increasingly narcissistic culture is the change in psychological composition of our society. When narcissists outnumber the empathetic, those who have an ability to bear the pain of others, and are willing sacrifice their own short-term self-interest in order to assist those they want to help, will simply reach a breaking point. At that breaking point the empathetic will cease helping in the absence of appreciation and validation
A society devoid of empathy and appreciation, is one entirely dependent on government. In the absence of charity, government administered entitlements will continue. When those in need become a mental abstraction, rather than a neighbor experiencing rough times, cynicism and resentment will result. The effects due to a lack of appreciation and validation for empathetic behavior, is already evident in our society.
Schadenfreude is the enjoyment of watching others experience pain. When a society begins enjoying the misery of others, its ability to deliver justice is compromised. Justice and revenge are inextricably linked in the mind of an individual. What makes that dangerous is the fact that we live in a democratic society where access to government, and its relatively unchecked power, are accessible to the wishes of the majority
As things stand right now, our society has yet to become vindictive or vengeful, but the tide is shifting in that direction. One merely needs to observe how revenge is replacing justice in the media. Media outlets endlessly search to expose false idols, regardless of whether or not revenge is warranted. Court rooms are being replaced with sensationalized 24 hour news cycles without a right to trial before a jury of peers.
When one stops to consider the amplifying effect herd behavior and a mob mentality have on otherwise rational individuals, it is disturbingly easy to imagine a situation where an angry mob of vengeful voters become the majority in control of administering a system of revenge, rather than justice. Justice requires empathy, where as revenge often lacks rationality or reason.
In such a disaster scenario, a government with increasingly unchecked power in virtually every area of an individual’s personal life becomes a fatal threat to any and all standing in opposition to a scorned majority thirsting for revenge and satiated by the pain of others.
Anyone familiar with the famous Stanford University “Prison Guard Experiment” or second set of Nuremberg trials will understand how rational individuals in an environment surrounded by those on “their side”, and in possession of the power and tools of enforcement, so readily abandon reason and tolerate atrocity.
The necessity of empathy during the process of determining and administering justice serves as the foundation of a free society. In a society where revenge replaces justice, a systemic collapse in institutional trust begins. It is in that exact moment that civil unrest starts. Chaos from unrest results in a society in search of security delivered by mandatory order. Individual freedoms are tossed to the wayside.
Will the selfie cause the collapse of a free society? No.
Societal values do not change overnight, and while the prevalence of narcissism is rising, those with the capacity to empathize for others still outnumber those who cannot. Will that always be the case?
One would certainly hope so, but the nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee should serve as an alarming wake up call about the current state of American society and what it values.
Empathy is the foundation of humanity. Every time you reward a new selfie with an unearned like or public compliment, you are reinforcing a societal belief that vanity is preferable to substantive achievement.
You are reinforcing the idea that an individual’s ability to command attention is more valuable than their ability to empathize. As the ability to empathize becomes less and less desirable, narcissism will be the result. The result being a society of individuals with a grandiose sense of self and corresponding entitlement.
Should that collective sense of entitlement take hold, so too will an expectation of special treatment where rules and justice need not be applied. The narcissist cannot be expected to be held accountable to the rules. Rules are for the average, not the special.
Narcissism is growing in our society and we are witnessing its corrosive effect. For Libertarians, the spread of narcissism results in a world of ever growing unrighted wrongs. A world of fewer acts of compassion and kindness for those in need. A world where in the absence of empathy, the cold and impersonal hand of government will be turned to in pleas for help.
Empathy is to liberty, as narcissism is to government. The more it is demonstrated, the more it grows. The only thing standing in the way of narcissism’s accelerating appearance in society, is our society’s willingness to empathize with one another and reward it’s demonstration with the recognition it so rightly deserves.
Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, for Libertarians and society alike, our times demand, such, a state of mind.
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