Modern freedoms are remarkable; it’s unlikely that there’s ever been a time in which individuals in the first world have had so much latitude. We have access to more than ever before: information, employment, education, luxuries, food, and choice. Alongside this growth in freedom is also a remarkable rise in representation; we have increasing acceptance and inclusion of those who have previously been lambasted, excluded, and derided. There is, however, a dark side to the rise in individual recognition: the growing emphasis on our perceived importance.
The myth of Narcissus, the beautiful young man who fell in love with his own reflection, has given us the term ‘narcissist‘: “the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egoistic admiration of one’s own attributes”. As a healthy trait, some self-admiration and confidence can be extremely helpful. Those who believe in their abilities and trust in their competence tend to do better in the face of difficulty than those who consistently doubt themselves. Nevertheless, on a spectrum from healthy self-belief to pathological self-worship, anything beyond robust confidence tends to result in a distinct decline in satisfaction, and an upsurge in emotionally centred thinking. The more narcissistic, the greater the belief that “I” should get what I want, when I want it, and screw anyone who gets in my way. In other words, narcissism is pretty much the opposite of compassion.
It’s difficult to sustain a stable self-concept in a sea of competition. Growing up, we’re given little or no choice over our environment, parents, genetics, schooling, peers, or experiences, and each of these affects us to a greater or lesser degree. Those who escape their childhood and teens relatively unscathed can be counted as lucky; many find themselves in adulthood with a range of embedded issues, often to do with their incomplete or overdeveloped sense of self. Because we’re not actively encouraged to do much in order to work through these issues, most of us will react to our lives (over and over again) by repeating the same set of mistakes. Instead of recognising and learning from our screw-ups, we’re more likely to have a strong emotional reaction whenever we feel wronged, slighted, or ignored, and chances are that we’ll act on that feeling in a way that makes us feel better (at least in the short-term). In the modern world, we’re much more likely to get away with our little rants: our freedoms bite us in the arse when we believe that our acts of spite, self-agrandisement, or pettiness are our rights. Worse, when we advertise those actions in a public forum (increasingly online) and have those behaviours reinforced by others, we find ourselves in a feedback loop of self-focused behaviour. With enough reinforcement, this behaviour can begin to bear a lot of similarity to narcissism, a sort of “rise of the professionally offended/entitled”.
Possibly the most dangerous aspects of this new narcissism is the idea that “my opinion matters!”. We feel that, because we have a soapbox, what we say if of greater importance than the viewpoints of those who disagree with us. We convince ourselves that our knowledge is unique or special and, because we like to feel connected to others, we collect in tribes who reinforce their own perceived importance. Before instant, mass-communication, this was more difficult. It took a lot more effort to be aligned with a group, or to find information that reinforced our beliefs. In the modern world, the ease of finding both information (irrespective of whether that information has any validity) and those who share our beliefs, has risen enormously. And, unfortunately, this simplicity has led to the rise of the collective nutjob: the antivaxxers, the climate change deniers, the chemtrail believers, the anti-GMO zealots, etc. Worse, it’s emboldened the genuine narcissists (the ones with narcissistic personality disorders, or full blown sociopathy) who have used the modern soapbox to manipulate the less informed to further their own agendas (read here). Here we find the Trumps, the Hansons, the Farages, and the Bernadis of the world. They’ve always been here, of course, but now they have a bigger voice, and a greater ability to sway.
In reality, your opinion really doesn’t matter. Not in the way that you feel it should, and especially when your opinion contradicts those who genuinely know better (and who have access to real, properly researched, and consistently backed-up facts). The assumption that, for example, global warming is a great conspiracy by the world’s climate scientists (and associated organisations, universities, and institutes), and that you, by dint of your magical ability to use Google, know better, is truly laughable. But (and here’s the scary bit) this sort of opinion is devoid of humour. Instead of being treated as fringe loonies with an attitude problem, these self-congratulatory tribes of modern narcissists are given a voice, because of the assumption that their opinion matters. This same assumption, that opinion is the same thing as fact, leads to the idea that it’s OK to attack another person because they are perceived as different, or that they are attacking your freedom of expression if they attempt to point out your folly.
At this point (and yes I’m certainly getting rantier than usual today), you might be thinking “so what”. So what if people want to feel better about themselves by posting selfies for likes? So what if people occupy themselves on Facebook or online forums? And honestly, for the most part, I agree: so what if people ‘like’ moronic posts by self-congratulatory celebrities? I do, however, have a major issue: the increase in the community of the self (versus genuine community), and the consequent erosion of compassion. Genuine community is inclusive. It allows for diversity of opinion, culture, and ideas. It is open and outward reaching, rather than closed and self-contained. It reacts to new information by examining it for veracity and validity, and then changing itself in the light of that new information (we call this learning, growth, knowledge, etc.). It is compassionate and tolerant of difference, and accords respect, but doesn’t promote or reinforce the proselytisation of opinion. It encourages the exploration and promotion of fact, making sure that those facts are strongly underpinned by replicable evidence. It is humble enough to recognise that an opinion is not a fact, and that facts come from research that is properly designed and free of bias. It does not attack others for disagreeing. Instead, it patiently points out that whilst you can believe anything you want, if those beliefs present harm to the community, or contradict the evidence garnered by those who genuinely know better, you might want to keep it to yourself and go and have a little lie down.
Ranting about things we feel are right certainly makes us feel good, but it seldom does good. Opinions aren’t facts, no matter how important or indignant they make us feel (read here), and celebrities really don’t have access to some secret truth that scientists/governments/organisations are conspiring to suppress. Anger and righteousness go hand in hand, and they pretty much always kill compassion and open-mindedness. Most importantly, in the words of the great (and fictional) Tyler Durden: “You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else”. If we want to be special, we should probably work at it by doing something exceptional, rather than convincing ourselves that we’re worthwhile simply because others agree with our opinions…