At any given moment a whole lot of people are accusing a whole lot of other people of being narcissists. In recent years, the term for a self-destructive “personality disorder” has become the insult of choice for almost anyone doing almost anything.
The concept of narcissism as a broad cultural condition, and the word’s use as an everyday term, goes back several decades. Christopher Lasch published “The Culture of Narcissism” in 1979, three years after Tom Wolfe declared the era the “me decade.” The 1980s turned out to be even more “me” than the ’70s had been, and by the 1990s, the rise of identity politics, the birth of reality television and the proliferation of the language of self-help (remember Wendy Kaminer’s “I’m Dysfunctional. You’re Dysfunctional”?) effectively elevated self-absorption from a passing (if protracted) trend to, well, pretty much just the way things were. To accuse someone of being a narcissist was kind of like accusing them of breathing. In other words, what was the point?
But lately the word seems to be enjoying a resurgence, often among people who give the impression that they just discovered it. Professional pundits love it, as do bloggers, politicians, religious leaders, celebrity shrinks, cultural critics, Internet commenters and blowhards at parties. And why shouldn’t we? (Yes, I include myself in this mix; I am, after all, a you-know-what.) It’s the handiest weapon in our arsenal: a derogatory apercu that’s one-size-fits-all.
Democrats, Republicans, red state folks, blue state folks, baby boomers, Gen Xers, millennials: all narcissists! Parents, nonparents, vegans, meat eaters, city dwellers, rural dwellers, people who travel a lot, people who refuse to travel, writers who use the first person: all vectors in the national scourge of self-involvement. In practice, any behavior you don’t like can be dismissed as abrasively, idiotically, dangerously self-centered, with a $10, three-syllable word that has a way of making even a nincompoop feel like he’s saying something intellectual.
And there’s sure to be more where that came from. Jan. 1 marked the launch of OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, an enterprise that’s destined to be a feeding frenzy for narcissism hawks. Billed as “more than just a television network” and “a television network for people just like you,” it will feature round-the-clock programming “hand-selected” by Winfrey herself.
In a docu-series called “Finding Sarah,” the former duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, opens up about her personal battles in an effort to heal herself and help others. Another series will reveal the inner workings of the final season of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” (biggest shocker: Winfrey makes her own breakfast smoothies!). And in what is surely the network’s most meta endeavor, “Your Own Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star,” aspiring cable-show hosts are put through a series of challenges in the quest to win, well … you know.
Granted, OWN is a cable network. Its audience share will be a fraction of what Winfrey has enjoyed on network television. Still, it’s all but guaranteed to become a punching bag for anyone looking for reasons that American culture is collapsing under the weight of its own self-absorption. Never mind that most of the bloggers and commentators reveling in their new opportunities for sanctimony will secretly wish they could win their own show. The fruit will be hanging too low to resist.
Here’s the problem with the charge of narcissism. The term has been misused and overused so flagrantly that it’s now all but meaningless when it comes to labeling truly destructive tendencies. These days, you can be called a narcissist merely by having self-esteem and showing a little ambition ― in other words, for trying to survive in the world. In fact, so fluid has the definition become that narcissism’s true home for the last 44 years, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, has dropped the diagnosis from its roster.
As for anyone still itching to attribute our collective addiction to Facebook and e-mail and other self-referential forms of communication to a narcissism epidemic, I beg to differ. That stuff hasn’t made us into egomaniacs; it’s made us into boring, semi-verbal zombies who bang into each other when we exit movie theaters because we’re buried in our iPhones.
So perhaps it’s time to declare a moratorium on the indiscriminate use of this particular n-word. After all, we’re not a nation of narcissists. We’re a nation of jerks. Which also happens to be a lot easier to spell.
By Meghan Daum
Meghan Daum is an essayist and novelist in Los Angeles. ― Ed.
(Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)