Saturday, August 04, 2007

Narcissism is a bigger threat than TB

By Randye Hoder

Andrew Speaker is home again.

The international TB-carrier was released last week from a Denver hospital, where he was quarantined, and allowed to return to Atlanta after health officials deemed that he was no longer contagious.

"I know there's a light at the end of the tunnel now," he said, shortly after undergoing surgery to lessen the amount of bacteria in his body.

If only it were so simple. Speaker's real malady -- his acute narcissism -- isn't something that you can fix with a scalpel blade or a dose of drugs. Indeed, the 31-year-old personal injury attorney's reckless behavior and his subsequent failure to take responsibility for his actions serve as the ultimate example of how our culture has become plagued by a corrosive selfishness at the expense of the common good and common sense.

Research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, has shown that excessive self-admiration, vanity and a feeling of entitlement are on the upswing. Specifically, Twenge and her colleagues studied standardized questionnaire results filled out by 16,000 college students between 1982 and 2006, which asked for responses to various statements including: "I can live my life any way I want to."

The bottom line: Narcissism, they found, is significantly higher in recent generations than in older ones.

"Andrew Speaker is a prototype of his generation -- a generation that has been raised to look out for No. 1," said Twenge, the author of "Generation Me." "This is classic narcissistic behavior, not really considering or caring how your actions affect other people."

Although many of the details surrounding this public health scandal remain murky, this much is clear: In order to celebrate his long-planned wedding and honeymoon, Speaker flew from North America to Europe and back again on six commercial airplanes knowing that he had a serious communicable disease; that the risk of infecting others was low, but not zero; and that public health officials were imploring him not to travel on a commercial jetliner.

Then, after discovering that the Centers for Disease Control was mistaken and that he didn't have the deadliest type of tuberculosis -- only a highly drug-resistant form -- Speaker had the chutzpah to chide health authorities for destroying "an entire family's reputation, ability to make a living and good name."

Does anyone else out there hear a lawsuit coming? What we haven't heard, tellingly, is any expression of relief that none of the hundreds of airliner passengers potentially infected by Speaker's irresponsible conduct are likely to die from this episode.

Obviously, we need to be careful about branding an entire age group, but there does seem to be something going on here.

We've spent the last three decades raising our children to believe it's all about them -- and, by extension, not about anybody else. They've been steeped in empty praise and rewarded for the most basic of accomplishments. They've received stickers for going to the potty and trophies merely for being on the team. In my own community, video montages at bar and bat mitzvahs pay homage to the life of a 13-year-old as if he or she were a Nobel Prize winner.

Once these kids grow up and get out in the real world, the notion that they're the center of the universe doesn't suddenly disappear. I listened recently to a report on National Public Radio about how companies are hiring consultants to teach managers to heap praise onto a generation of employees who feel like they deserve to be stroked all the time.

It's a long way from getting a gold sticker for going potty to boarding a series of airliners when you know you have TB. But, really, someone such as Speaker shouldn't shock us. Parents, schools and society -- in the name of raising self-esteem -- have succeeded mainly in heightening self-centeredness.

Randye Hoder is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine, The Wall Street Journal and others.