The Life of I: The New Culture of Narcissism, Anne Manne, Melbourne University Press, 2014.
In The Life of I: The New Culture of Narcissism, Anne Manne argues that an epidemic of narcissism is having a profound effect on individuals and society. Her analysis of the causes and effects of narcissism is wide-ranging and she uses real-life examples in order to facilitate the discussion. The book begins with an in-depth look at the Norwegian mass murderer, Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in 2011. Although, initially, he was diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia, psychiatrists subsequently decided he had Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and was not mentally ill. Manne discusses both his crimes and his trial, and maintains that Breivik’s behaviour places him at the extreme end of the narcissism continuum. She then undertakes a comprehensive survey of the literature on narcissism, exploring the theories of influential psychologists and psychoanalysts, and draws the conclusion that a combination of genetic predisposition and dysfunctional parenting leads to some people developing a pathological form of the narcissistic tendency that exists in us all as children. Manne also looks at the behaviour displayed by Lance Armstrong, the once-respected cyclist who beat cancer and went on to win seven consecutive Tours de France but who finally admitted that his wins were made possible by long-standing and sustained cheating through the use of performance enhancing drugs. Manne avers that his behaviour was driven by NPD, as was Ayn Rand’s, the novelist and Objectivist philosopher whose anti-communist and pro-individualist rhetoric had a marked effect on the USA’s monetary policy under the auspices of her acolyte Alan Greenspan, who was chair of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006. Manne argues that narcissists may be found everywhere and that such people’s self-interest and sense of entitlement, coupled with their lack of empathy for others, profoundly impacts the rest of us through dysfunctional relationships and interactions, or through their harmful influence on public discourse.
For Manne, individualism and materialism enable the self-interest and greed that are becoming more prevalent in Anglo-American societies. She argues that successive generations of children are becoming more narcissistic and cites studies which show that narcissism is on the rise amongst the young. Adults do not escape criticism, however, and she points to people’s complacency in the face of obvious climate change as evidence of their narcissism, and discusses how caring roles in the community are devalued because narcissists see altruism as a bad thing. The idea of caring about the planet and other people is anathema to narcissists who are only interested in themselves and satisfying their own needs. Manne also discusses the sense of entitlement some men display in their attitude and behaviour towards women: their interest in violent pornography, their belief that they are entitled to sex and their propensity for sexual predation on women are all analysed in terms of narcissistic self-interest.
There is very good evidence that the problem of narcissism is growing worse. Changes in our culture have created an economic, social and relational world that not only supports but actually celebrates narcissism, cultivating and embedding it as a character trait.
Manne’s thesis is thought-provoking and she explores it in depth as she examines narcissism’s impact on culture and discusses how culture promotes the growth of narcissism. She identifies three main problem areas that contribute to the development of highly narcissistic individuals: dysfunctional parenting, economic rationalism, and the advent of the internet, which she sees as enabling and encouraging people to ‘perform’ their lives in the public sphere. For Manne, economic rationalism has turned people into consumers who are trapped in a cycle of work-earn-spend; they always want more and better, and are never satisfied with what they have. Reality TV makes it possible for anyone to become famous, and the internet makes it possible for everyone to be seen. In this analysis, social media is a narcissist’s paradise and provides ready access to a wide audience which allows people to have their egos stroked through ‘likes’ on Facebook and Instagram, and the accumulation of ‘friends’ and followers.
Celebrity worship and reality TV, and the ever-growing blogosphere and social media’s attempts to record our every move ensured the look-at-me-mentality. Any action, thought or picture, however banal can be recorded for posterity on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, in a new theatre of the everyday.
It could be argued that the book is perhaps too ambitious in its scope and that because Manne attempts to cover a vast array of subjects, the result is somewhat disjointed. She divides the book into two parts: the first part details the lives and circumstances of ‘infamous’ narcissists and discusses clinical understandings of narcissism, and the second part delves into the impact of narcissism on society. The beginning paragraphs of the book give no clue to the book’s structure and it is not until the second part that Manne’s political position and her areas of concern become clear. She relies heavily on research undertaken in the USA, most of it with college students as subjects. It may be contended that Australians are inherently less narcissistic than Americans, in light of our ‘tall poppy syndrome‘, our love for the underdog – which other country’s unofficial national anthem praises a sheep stealer who commits suicide to avoid being arrested – and our propensity to make fun of people who have ‘tickets on themselves‘. Manne does not offer any conclusive evidence to show that narcissism is as prevalent in Australia as it appears to be in the USA. Also, labelling people as narcissists may be more a matter of convenience than a true reflection of their state of mind. There is no clinical test for narcissism and the symptoms of NPD overlap many other psychiatric disorders, so although it might be expedient to reduce complex behaviours and label them ‘narcissistic’, those behaviours may be attributable to other causes. How did playing a violent war simulation computer game, sixteen hours a day for an entire year, affect Breivik’s state of mind, and what were the psychological effects of Rand being caught up in the Russian Revolution of 1917, when communists confiscated all her parents’ property and forced them into exile? How did Armstrong’s childhood abuse and poverty influence his decision-making and his win-at-any-cost attitude towards the ethics of competition in the gruelling but financially lucrative sport of cycling? Is it possible that their behaviour was a reaction to environmental conditions rather than the expression of a personality disorder? Manne’s discussion of this issue is not convincing, although she does point to affluence as a cause of a sense of entitlement:
[t]he evidence shows that, as people get more affluent, they can become more entitled, more grandiose, meaner and less charitable, and even more likely to cheat. Call it the asshole effect.
The Life of I: The New Culture of Narcissism is a timely book and makes for interesting reading. Anne Manne is clearly concerned about the lack of empathy and leadership displayed by governments, as is evidenced by their hard-right economic and social policies. She rightly criticises an inherent lack of compassion and care in public discourse with regard to vulnerable members in our society, and she highlights how the material wealth people strive for does not make them content. These things are all worthy of concern and discussion, but people have been saying for eons that we are all going to hell in a handcart. The real question is whether the handcart labelled ‘narcissism’ is really a greater cause for concern than the myriad other moral panics that have caused vexation throughout the ages.
What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets, inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?
— Plato (424-348 BCE)
Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.
— Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE)