Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"I am, therefore I am special." - Lest America become vulnerable to a shortage of navel-gazing self-centeredness, the LA Times has identified a Strategic Narcissism Reserve. As reported in a study entitled "Egos Inflating Over Time," it appears that our nation's teens and twenty-somethings may well constitute the most narcissistic generation in several decades.

In the study...researchers warn that a rising ego rush could cause personal and social problems for the Millennial Generation, also called Gen Y. People with an inflated sense of self tend to have less interest in emotionally intimate bonds and can lash out when rejected or insulted.
"That makes me very, very worried," said Jean Twenge, a San Diego State associate professor and lead author of the report. "I'm concerned we are heading to a society where people are going to treat each other badly, either on the street or in relationships."
A press release describing the multi-center study of 16,000 college students went on to state that:
...narcissism is significantly higher in recent generations than in older generations. Thirty percent more college students showed elevated narcissism in 2006 compared to 1982, making current college students more narcissistic than Baby Boomers and Gen Xers.
Also according to the news release, Dr. Twenge (author of "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable Than Ever Before") commented that "[f]ar from being civically oriented, young people born after 1982 are the most narcissistic generation in recent history."

But as the LA Times notes, speculation as to the cause of this marked increase in self-absorbed behavior also leans towards other factors.
Some of the increase in narcissistic attitudes was probably caused by the self-esteem programs that many elementary schools adopted 20 years ago, the study suggests. It notes that nursery schools began to have children sing songs that proclaim: "I am special, I am special. Look at me."

Those youngsters are now adolescents obsessed with websites, such as MySpace and YouTube, that "permit self-promotion far beyond that allowed by traditional media," the report says.

Other trends in American culture, including permissive parenting, increased materialism and the fascination with celebrities and reality TV shows, may also heighten self-regard, said study coauthor W. Keith Campbell, psychology professor at the University of Georgia. "It's part of a whole cultural system," he said.
As we might expect, several conservative commentators have made much of the foregoing, to the effect that liberalism is the root cause of this rise in narcissism. While I can understand this sentiment, my sense is that it is at least in part misguided. For in as much as YouTube and MySpace speak to an increased need in society for self-expression, so does the right-wing's creation of the entire talk radio enterprise and the blogosphere, both of which came about because - among other reasons - we on the right felt that our opinions needed greater exposure than they previously received. To be sure, these new forms of expression can be seen as a gift to the cause of conservatism in specific, we would be hard-pressed not to concede some element of a high-self regard in conservatives' use of the "new media."

In the case of narcissism, I suspect that it has ebbed and flowed as a prominent feature in American culture, although it is far from peculiar to America. If there is an original sin in this regard, it is not best expressed as a failure of the philosophies of the Left as it is a manifestation of, well, the "original sin" as understood in Christian theology - man's arrogance towards (and eventual separation from) the Creator. To be sure, while conservatism may be more friendly to religiosity than modern liberalism, it is in no wise in and of itself salvific. As much as we obsess on the idea of a "narcissism gap" between this and other generations, we ignore the more substantive chasm between the social ethic of our present culture and that which has been characterized elsewhere as "principled restraint."

No comments: