National Catholic Register

Commentary

Narcissism, Sin and the Cellphone-Internet Culture

BY Benjamin Wiker

February 10-23, 2013 Issue | Posted 2/9/13 at 7:26 AM

 

I am all too familiar with real narcissism. We toss about the word "narcissist" to describe someone who’s overly friendly with her mirror or who salts his sentences with "I" more than is usual or who walks with a strut.

By calling them narcissistic, we might mean no more than to use a synonym for "mildly vain" or "pretentious" or "egotistical," and even here we do not intend to make a serious charge against their characters, but only make a remark about the surface, about a momentary slip of good taste, an irritating quirk.

But anyone who has dealt with a real narcissist will not use the term casually.

A real narcissist is someone whose egotism is so deep that other people are not real. They are simply one set of objects among many others in the world that he manipulates, things that are there for his pleasure and convenience, like chairs, toasters, knives and shoes.

To be on the other end of a narcissist is to cease being a person. As an object, you are only of significance insofar as you cause the narcissist pleasure or pain, advance him or hinder him, amuse him or bother him.

It never occurs to a narcissist that the human-looking thing in his field of vision and action actually experiences the same full reality of being a thinking, willing, feeling person. In psychologists’ terms, a narcissist completely lacks empathy.

When a narcissist hits someone, he feels only the pain in his own hand. When he humiliates someone, he feels only his own satisfaction. When he runs over someone, he feels only the bump. When someone gives him pleasure, that someone is a something to whose real existence he is entirely oblivious.

In short, a narcissist is someone who is so entirely self-absorbed that he has lost — or never had — the ability to love.

You cannot love a hammer or a pencil sharpener or computer. They are just instruments to be manipulated. You can only love another person, because love means the recognition that this person is just as real as I am, truly experiences the world as a separate being who shares with me the same ability to think, to will, to feel pain, to feel pleasure, who shares with me the same astounding capacity to make plans of his own, to feel as happy as I do when these quite separate plans are fulfilled and as sad as I do when they are frustrated.

To love is to desire the happiness of the other person as real, whatever the effect it may have on you, whether it gives you pleasure or causes your suffering.

A narcissist cannot love because there is only one person in the world. He is entirely self-absorbed because, in his world, there are no other selves, no other "I’s" — but only "its."

In not being able to love, he is unable to fulfill the great commandment: to love God and one’s neighbor as one’s self. In the narcissistic universe, there is only one person to love. The narcissist acts like a lonely god in a universe of pawns, forever trying to direct everyone’s worship and attention to himself.

That is why narcissists exhibit particular character traits. They typically have a grandiose sense of self-importance, require excessive admiration, engage in fantasies about their abilities and achievements, feel an overwhelming sense of entitlement, are arrogant and exploitive and, again, entirely lack empathy.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is classified by psychologists as one of the worst maladies. A narcissist is a step away from a sociopath, who entirely lacks any moral conscience. You cannot have a conscience if you lack any recognition that there is anyone else out there.

For a sociopath, the people he might blow up, strangle or rape are no more real than objects on a video-game screen.

I could sum narcissism up most tidily by saying that, in being the opposite of love, it is the essence of sin.

And that brings us to consider a horrible incident involving high-school students in Steubenville, Ohio, of a drunken girl being bounced or carried from teenage party to teenage party, molested in various ways, appearing in various stages of undress, as slurring, giggling teens snapped pictures on their cellphones and tweeted about it.

She was not a person, but a thing. She was an image on a screen, another reality show — except that she wasn’t real. She was not someone, but merely something to have fun with, to laugh and tweet about. What is it about the cellphone culture of teens that made such abominable depersonalization possible?

The "American Freshman Survey," which has monitored the attitudes of college entrants for about half a century, has found that more and more exhibit the traits associated with Narcissistic Personality Disorder: an inflated view of their own abilities, a real sense of entitlement and social-media enhanced self-absorption.

One news report of this study has an apt picture of three teenage girls making pouty faces into a cellphone camera. They will, no doubt, immediately post the snapshot on their Facebook pages, along with the most up-to-date news about — of course — themselves.

As with the celebrity pseudo-divas, barely clad, lining the side of the article, these teens live for exposure, for adulation, for the continual celebration of "me."

Like the original Narcissus entranced by his own face seen in the reflection of a still pond, they are obsessed with staring at their own Facebook. Their window to the world is a mirror, but a mirror of a different kind, one that allows them to capture and create a world in their own image on a screen and endlessly manipulate and enhance it — a world of pictures, but not persons.

This seems to go even beyond narcissism. Even their own personality has been removed from their person and migrated to the Internet, there to exist as self-created avatars on Facebook. And if "I" am an avatar, an e-personality, existing in cyberspace, well then … just how real can anyone else be?

As a sign that we’re taking narcissism a step further, there is, online, something called "Second Life," a virtual-reality website that fuses Facebook with video gaming. Participants can create a new life online, another "me" or self entirely free from the restrictions of the reality of one’s actual self.

It is a narcissist’s dream world, where he can make himself as handsome and smart as he wants with a manipulative mouse — or she as clever, shapely and alluring — and interact with other custom-made e-narcissists in a world where you are what you’re not, and you can remove everything that bothers you with a click.

In his excellent Virtually You, Elias Aboujaoude, a psychiatrist at Stanford who deals with people obsessed with the Internet, describes one young man so immersed in "Second Life" and his cyber girlfriend, Sasha, that he entirely ignored his real-life girlfriend. His girlfriend gave him an ultimatum: Choose her or me. He chose Sasha.

The irony is that, at the other end of the mouse on Sasha’s side, it could have been — rather than a buxom, sculpted blond — a 400-pound, 70-year-old devotee of Harlequin romances. Or even a man.

And then there was the Korean couple, so obsessed with raising their computer-generated offspring Anima that they let their own real child starve, according to a March 2010 report in London’s Telegraph.

I believe that it is time that we must ask the hard question. Is it possible that we have created a medium of communication — or a web of media — so powerful that it severely disorders its users? A medium that turns us and everyone else into images, objects on a screen rather than persons?

In short, have we created a machine that can turn us into narcissists?

Author and speaker Benjamin Wiker, Ph.D., has published nine books, with his newest,

Worshipping the State, coming out soon.

His website is BenjaminWiker.com.