Not so long ago I had to face the fact that I fathered a narcissist with a capital “N”. I am not alone. It would seem that many of us responsible for bringing children into the world over the past twenty years have raised, well, assholes.
We didn’t do this on purpose.
We had the best of intentions when we volunteered in the classroom from pre-school to eighth grade. We meant no harm when we asked our children their opinions as youngsters regarding where they wanted to go for dinner, or family vacations, or what movie they’d like to rent. We had only their fragile self-esteem in mind when we supported the trophies, ribbons and medals just for showing up. We certainly didn’t foresee the tremendous consequence of filming their every bodily function when getting them their very first smartphone all those years ago; besides they needed it so they could contact us if they missed the bus, or got lost, or needed to talk over some critical middle school decision in the making.
No, we were pure of heart in our intentions. But still, for the most part, and unbeknownst to ourselves, we raised some terrific and terrifying assholes.
The narcissism that runs rampant through that particular demographic known as the Millennials (someone born from roughly the mid-1990s to the present) really isn’t anything new. Come on, teenagers suck and they’ve always sucked. And nothing sucks more than an entitled and empowered one with a goddamn smartphone — thank you Apple. The existing opinion that their generational narcissism is worse than it has ever been is somewhat mythic in proportion. That being said, I believe that the most dire narcissistic tendencies in these young adults is notably exacerbated by the technology that surrounds us, and given this fact their narcissism and ensuing entitlement which follows become far more rampantly disturbing in our current cultural context.
Look at it this way: an asshole with a picket sign will reach far fewer people than one with a bullhorn; replace the bull horn with the World Wide Web and you’ve got an asshole with global reach, a mutant asshole. In short you’ve equipped a narcissistic leaning personality with the ability to take center stage anytime he or she wants via Twitter, Tumbler, Instagram, YouTube etc.
To be fair, we are all narcissistic to some degree. Evolutionarily speaking, we need to be otherwise we’d shrink from most forms of conflict and become extinct. What’s become dangerous however is the prevailing attitude that one’s own opinions, beliefs, assumptions and biases require — no deserve — special dispensations when confronted and challenged.
A case in point. To provide context, I teach at the college level. A colleague of mine posted a letter, two letters actually, involving a complaint against a law professor by his students (check it out here; you really should read it). The initial letter was a 3-page complaint purportedly by a “number” of first year law students — I say purportedly since the letter was sent anonymously. The complaint centered around an objection to the professor wearing a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt in class.
Now on its face the letter appears to have some merit, however it does not. Upon reading the professor’s reply you begin to realize how out of line and disrespectful the student complaint is. You begin to realize the deep petrie dish of narcissism out of which the fungus of complaint has grown. What struck me most of all was the professor’s observation that the myopic and self-centered “complaint” offered no specific remedy for the “wrong” he supposedly inflicted.
This brought to mind several student complaints I have received in recent years. In almost every case the students never suggests a remedy. Last semester two students went directly to my chair to inform her that one of my chosen texts was “too hard”. In my office, she remarked, “I’m still not sure what they expected me to do about it.”
Which led me to the conclusion that what these students wanted was for someone in authority above me to tell them that they didn’t have to do the work. Partially due to their misguided and immature narcissistic attitude, they expected my chair to read their minds, offer a solution and implement it for them.
In a more frightening case, I’ve been accused of violating individual religious beliefs by requiring that students read objectionable and profane material. The charge was levied against a collection of short stories entitled “Say You’re One of Them” by Nigerian writer Uwem Akpan. Because the first story in the book details the life of a street family in Nairobi whose 14-year old daughter prostitutes herself so they can survive, I was therefore deemed by one student as being morally, spiritually and ethically derelict for offering the story up for discussion and analysis.
Ironically, Akpan is a Jesuit priest and a pastor in his native Nigeria. I wonder how he would have felt knowing that charge was levied against myself and his work? The complaint went nowhere but nonetheless rattled me somewhat due to the fact that the student emailed my chair, a number of deans, various vice-presidents, the college president and (weirdly enough) the governor of the state. All that was needed for my career to end would have been for one of them to take the kook seriously. Thankfully that did not happen.
It would seem that data supports the fact that on college campuses those with narcissistic personalities are more likely to violate academic standards by plagiarizing and cheating. They are also more likely to make false claims against professors that they dislike or feel have treated them unfairly or impede their progress through the institution.
Admittedly, I am not a psychological professional. And by no means am I suggesting the presence of a disorder of epic magnitude. What I am suggesting is that the parenting styles we engage in, the concept of student as customer/consumer, the prevalence of social media and technology, and the persistent mantra of “you’re so very special” may be having cultural consequences.
We seem to have, in the words of Joel Stein writing for Time Magazine, a “stunted generation” in which “more people ages 18 to 29 live with their parents than with a spouse”. More college students test higher on the narcissism scale than thirty years prior, millennial believe they should be promoted every two years regardless of performance, they are fame obsessed, convinced of their inherent greatness and most believe that when facing moral questions they’ll just “know” what is right.
If we can boil narcissism down to “I am right and everyone else is wrong” then perhaps we might see some way of connecting the other personality dimensions of the narcissist — exploitativness, entitlement, exhibitionism, authority, self-sufficiency, superiority — to public displays of violence, sexual aggression against women (rape culture), students demanding “safe spaces”, etc. Much of this can be summed up as follows, “I deserve it, I want it, it is mine for the taking.” The it in this case can be just about anything — an object, a person or an idea.
In a sense we’ve forgotten our “place”. To be precise, we’ve forgotten that our place is to serve the world (and each other), the world (and others) does not exist to serve us.
Perhaps, somewhere along the way we lost sight of this.
Or perhaps we figured that this lesson would become apparent and manifest to our children once they matured so why not just spoil them a little in the meantime? They’ll learn soon enough the harsh realities of the world, why not shield them from such sufferings? After all, they’ve worked hard, they’re only kids once. They deserve it, don’t they?
But does the world deserve them?
Forget about the Zombie Apocalypse, we should worry about the Millennial Apocalypse.