The disappearance of narcissism

Good news! You’re not narcissistic and neither am I. And neither is anyone else you know.

And why is that? Because the traits and the associated behaviors that characterize narcissism are now so common that they are no longer abnormal. The most you could say about a person—thinking still of narcissism as a personality trait—is that they are “unusually narcissistic.” [1]

But that’s just the beginning. How do you like this language? “You have a combination of traits that lie on a continuum or spectrum culminating in narcissism.”

“He’s on the spectrum” has become an expression that is taken to mean something among the people I hang out with because it is taken for granted that we are talking about autism. But what if we aren’t talking about autism? What about the possibility that “on the spectrum” is now a general purpose term? What if there is no way to know what “spectrum” we are talking about?

This is a whole new way of imagining clinical diagnoses. Looking back on “the old way,”—the one we are still using, more or less by default—narcissism is a trait with fuzzy boundaries, but a clear core. “Narcissism” is a diagnosis that means something. The symptoms can be these or those and they may be more or less clear and prominent, but the term still means something. In other words, at the center of all those different expressions, there is an area of commonality so clear that we give a name to it. If there is less commonality, we say that “it” (narcissism) has several subtypes.

Narcissism or Narcissistic Personality Disorder

But, as I say, that’s the old way. The new way, the popular way, utilizes a more general phenomenon I have decided to call “spectrumization.” OK, it’s not a word (yet) and it’s really ugly, but it is understandable. It uses the all-purpose Greek verb izein, “to make” and the Latin spectrum and gives us the English meaning, “to turn something into a spectrum.” Which is what we want. Is he autistic. Nope, he’s on the spectrum. Is he racist? Nope, he’s on the spectrum. Is he a pedophile? Nope, he’s on the pedophile spectrum. Spectrumization.

Next, there is the question of how to name the spectrum. The common practice—and, really, it is hard to see how it could be otherwise—is to name the spectrum by the the most prominent pole. For physical and psychological diseases and for social disorders, that’s the worst end. We all know this, but imagine that there were a scale, a spectrum, beginning with complete benignity toward all races. You wouldn’t call it a multi-racial benignity spectrum and say that someone who is at the very low end is “racist.” Of course you wouldn’t. You would call it a “racism” scale and pretend there simply isn’t anyone at the other end. That person would be a “non-racist.”

You see where this takes us, right? The most contentious conditions and behaviors are not recognizable clusters of traits, but “positions” on a spectrum and the spectrum is named by the more pejorative pole.

And not only that, but by the nature of the term, it is fixed in time. There are no terms for completely unanticipated experiences to which the newbie responds with bafflement at best and, more commonly, with anxiety and rejection. So someone who sees their first chicken beheaded has a reaction. He is somewhere on the [fill in the blank, I dare you] spectrum. The thousandth doesn’t evoke any reaction at all. But note that the name you filled in did not take this gradual desensitization into account. The name of the spectrum is frozen even if the position on the spectrum is not.

More realistically, if you respond to the first passionate gay kiss you see with “Ee-ooooo. Whoa!” are you homophobic? Well, actually, as mistaken as it is, that would be the good news. Actually, your reaction shows that you are at some point or other on the spectrum of homophobia and, due to “spectrumization,” you will never get off. You can be more or less, but you can never be “not.” Not if you are straight.

When I write a piece like this, I get accused of catastrophizing. Not at all. Here’s what I am saying. If “conditions or behaviors” (or even attitudes) are taken to be positions on a spectrum; and if the spectrum is named by the worst end’ and if it implies a settled condition, not the initial response to novelty—then, yes, this is what happens.

It’s ugly but it hasn’t happened everywhere yet and maybe we can find a way to stop it.

[1] All Things Considered, December 11, 2010 “It’s all about me; but is narcissism a disorder?”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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