Saturday, April 07, 2007

Narcissism and the End of Social Cohesion

After we've all had a good laugh about how college kids are more narcissistic than ever, we should look at how much of a real problem this is with regards to our country's future.

I was at a training recently and one of the younger social workers in the room was talking to me about the need for more certified male mentors. This came from a discussion about how when case managers gather services for families, almost all of them end up requiring some form of therapy as well as respite/mentor services. The obvious reason being that there is typically no father present or the one that is around is not functional in the home. The picture we were describing is a rather common one: boys of all races and ages growing up with no positive male role models and in turn never being taught nor having the opportunity to develop appropriate coping skills for boys.

Though the conversation zigged and zagged from one topic to another, even to the extent that we were seriously discussing what has been the long term effects (if any) that the Million Man March had on getting black men to return to their families to raise the children they brought in to this world. That's when someone at the table looked up from their lunch of chicken and rice and said rather profoundly, "You know, the men of this country may be pigs but the mothers out there aren't much better and in some cases they are worse."

This is absolutely true. Many drug-using mothers had abandoned an untold number of teenagers I treated when I worked in an inpatient drug rehabilitation facility when they were born or any number of years after. Others were not abandoned but they might have done better if they had been given up for adoption as their mothers continued to use drugs all throughout the child's life and tended to bring in men who in more cases than I care to recount, molested them.

There are a multitude of reasons why young people use drugs, become unfit parents, take unnecessary risks and even commit serious crimes. These reasons range from socio-economic to psychological. However, if there is one common thread that links the awful behavior of a low – no income crack addicted mother to a drunken irresponsible high-income frat boy is the unfortunately common trait, narcissism.

"The terms "narcissism", "narcissistic" and "narcissist" are often used as pejoratives, denoting vanity, conceit, egotism or simple selfishness. Applied to a social group, it is sometimes used to denote elitism or an indifference to the plight of others," according to Wikipedia.

You can follow the line of regression from the Post World War II era to where we are now by looking at a number of factors. After WWII we see in the US the rise of suburbs and a distinctly self-sufficient middle class. It's never been uncommon for parents to want better for their children than they themselves one experienced but now not only can parents provide a better life for their children but also, one with less and less responsibility for others. In other words, where once families had to think about each other in order to survive, slowly but surely the roles of the younger family members in which they were the caretakers of older generation were replaced by the government (social security) as well other unintended consequences of modernity.

To put it in another way, from the end of WWII until now we've had the dubious convenience of not having to care for others because the government and lord knows that else would do it for us. As more money and opportunities unfolded for the happily progressing American family, so did the devil of selfishness grow, feeding on the steadily declining idea of community. No sooner were we as a country throwing overboard the social mores that had helped civilization grow out of the darkest corners of Africa, were we giving in to behavior dictated by the basest impulses in the human psyche. It didn't happen overnight but this did happen. Sixty to seventy years ago, it was not typical for people to have children out of impulse and then not take care of them because their own needs were not being met. From a socio-anthropological point of view, we flipped as a people from one where the needs of others outweighed the needs of the one to the needs of the one are the only needs that exist (until one's conscience kicks in).

There is no question that we're more narcissistic as a society today than we ever have been. The real question is whether or not we've hit the point of no return. One has to wonder if the trend of the last 40 some odd years have gone past the point of being irreversible. Twenty years ago one could argue that so long as we walled up the poor areas of America and kept it's malevolent influence away from the proverbial children, well then, frankly who'd care if the poor burned themselves into oblivion. However, 20 years since even then, when many thought we could sweep poverty and its subsequent generation of immoral behavior under the rug, we've seen the richest and most potentially successful amongst us give rise to the same, if not worse behavior run amok throughout the country.

You may have heard that, "A new comprehensive study suggests today's college students are more narcissistic and self-centered than their predecessors.

Five psychologists who conducted the study worry the trend could be harmful to personal relationships and American society. The study suggests narcissists "are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity" and lack emotional warmth. The study also suggests narcissists are also more likely "to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors."

The study examined the responses of more than 16,000 college students nationwide who completed the Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1982 and 2006. The researchers say NPI scores have risen steadily since 1982." (Source)

So even the data suggests that the most affluent amongst us are just as selfish and ego-integrity deficient (look it up folks) as the people mostly associated with the worst in human nature. My question is that if the rich Caucasian prom queen has just as much of a chance of tossing her baby in the dumpster as a the resident inner city minority crack whore, then where is this trend leading us as a society? In other words, if all the kids of the generation which is to be the caretaker of those of us whom are say, 40 or older, only care about themselves and can't generate any decent or long lasting relationships with anybody on the planet, then how are we supposed to proceed as a society?

The simple math is this: we've abandoned, both literally and figuratively, 2 – 3 generations of children who, out of survival instinct, have learned to only fend for themselves and are not capable of caring for others thus there will be no stewards of the future left to take care of the country when the rest of us are gone.

As I asked the young lady at the training rhetorically but with a worried heart, "How does one undo 40 years of teaching people it's OK to be selfish?"

The answer to that question may hold the key to this country's future.

Posted to by Mark Radulich on 03.08.2007