Incivility and the Rise of Narcissism
Carter argues, “If America is to be civilized in the twenty-first century, it must begin by civilizing its children, teaching them about the necessary balance between instinct and desire, on the one hand; and doing what is morally required, on the other.”7 Prof Carter is making a moral argument here—which I do not dispute.
As a psychiatrist, however, I am also interested in the psychological development of the child, and why some children seem to develop along a trajectory that leads to intense narcissism8—the fertile soil, in my view, upon which incivility thrives.
Indeed, there is good evidence that narcissism has been increasing among our young people in recent decades9—a factor that cannot be overlooked as we view incivility on the college campus. Leaving aside various technical and psychoanalytic definitions of the term,8 we can think of narcissism, broadly, as the attitude that proclaims, “I should be able to do whatever the hell I please, and if other people don’t like it, that’s just too bad!”
In their book, “The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement,”9 Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D and W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D, argue that several social and cultural trends have contributed to “the relentless rise of narcissism in our culture.”
They point to “the movement toward self-esteem” that began in the late 1960s and the movement away from “community-oriented thinking” that began in the 1970s. They also point to “. . . the new parenting culture that has fueled the narcissism epidemic.”
In effect, the authors argue that there has been a shift away from limit-setting, and toward allowing the child to get whatever he or she wants. Moreover, recent spikes in school-related violence suggest a further ominous development: when an excessive focus on one’s own wishes merges with rage and resentment—often in the context of bullying by peers—violence may follow.10
I reject any blanket condemnation of the recent student protesters, who have been the object of a good deal of name-calling in the general media. But a minority of students have exhibited the sort of angry and entitled self-regard2 that seems to proclaim, “My university’s fundamental duty is to safeguard me from any upsetting stuff, and to make sure I am happy and comfortable—and if the powers-that-be don’t do that, I have every right to show disrespect to my teachers and faculty.”
That said, having spent most of my professional life in academia, I can testify that narcissistic self-regard is also found within some college and medical school faculties—many of whose members came of age in the 1960s and 70s and were exposed to the very social and cultural trends identified by Twenge and Campbell.9
And, yes—that exposure applies to the present writer, who often finds it necessary to keep his own sense of self-regard and entitlement in check.