Thinking about the education problems in this country, reading about Bernie Sanders switching from being an Independent to a Democrat for a presidential run, watching John Oliver expertly deconstruct our current system of standardized testing, and speaking to clients about boundaries, I suppose it was inevitable that eventually I’d pick out the common theme among all those things as they ran through my mind. As someone who became disillusioned with a great many accepted realities, including (but not limited to) those listed above, I’m reminded of a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Spiritual Laws” essay): “…they bow the head, excuse themselves with prolix reasons, and accumulate appearances, because the substance is not.”
Often when I tell people that I am a life coach, they say something like, “Oh! I didn’t know you were certified for that.” And then I’m forced to tell them, “I’m not. No one has to be. That’s why I’m a life coach instead of some other legal name for it.” I hear the same things about being an author—people assume I was published through a traditional publishing house. And again with being a meditation instructor. In fact, at discussion panels, I only claim to have a “background” in many things, and yet people still think that means degrees, certifications, or any number of qualifications—all except for actually knowing the material and/or how to effectively communicate it.
It’s not that I object to qualifications and certifications and all that. The idea behind them is that they are supposed to reflect a consensus agreement of a basic level of competency. We still have to see what our own judgment tells us, but it is nice to know the objective consensus. No, the problem I have is with the execution rather than the idea. We have an atmosphere of badly written standard tests that no one is able to officially review, grade inflation in the pursuit of funding and job retention, No Child Left Behind, underpaid teachers with no disciplinary authority, overwhelming higher education student debt, unequal testing standards, and university programs that deliberately try to “weed out” students in high intensity “test and forget” environments rather than doing what the massive student debts are paying them to do and genuinely teach with the aim of student absorption and retention. In that kind of atmosphere, “objective consensus” no longer seems to have much to do with qualifications, and we no longer really know what certification means.
But it’s not an isolated issue. Rather it is what happens when narcissism addresses issues of education. What happens when narcissism addresses diet plans? Agricultural policy? Environmental standards? Diplomacy? Law enforcement? Healthcare? Loving relationships? Economics?
With diet plans, we get loads of pills that help people shed initial water weight or manipulate digestive interactions so no one has to really do work, pants that push all the fat down to make us seem fitter, and fitness clubs that recommend endless cardio workouts that prolong membership dues without giving best results. With agriculture, we get food that grows fast and matures on demand, depleting soil nutrients and thus food nutrients, maximizing weight for sale, large-scale air and water pollution, and a whole lot of dead bees. Of course that pollution rolls into environmental policy, for which we have “acceptable pollution levels,” and rather than trying to stay well back from that line and care about our impact on ecosystems, we push that line and violate it if we think we can get away with it or maximize profits. Maybe there will be fines, but that’s just a tithe compared to the profits to be had in the end. Diplomacy, well, as long as we get what we want, we’ll be civil to everyone’s face while we spy on them, trash talk them, and carry out our own agenda no matter what is best for everyone. Edward Snowden showed proof enough of that, whatever else he did. We’re seeing how corruptible law enforcement is, though I feel silly saying “corruptible” in the case of some institutions that seem to start out corrupt. When police abuse their authority and then cover for each other to avoid responsibility, riots ensue. With healthcare, unnecessary procedures, overbilling, insurance battles and irreconcilable debt seem to rule the day. In loving relationships, we often decide to lie to each other and manipulate the truth to seem better than we are, fool people into dating us or sleeping with us, or generally control the perceptions of others more than fearlessly improving ourselves. And the economics of tax loopholes, wage gaps, outsourcing, monopolizing, layoff-then-rehire-for-cheap recession tactics, predatory lending, bailout entitlement and endless regulatory infractions that again see only the occasional “cost of doing business” level of fine with no jail time are not doing the world any favors.
What does this all have to do with narcissism? To expand on this oft-used word of mine, narcissism is not just about “being selfish.” Narcissism is always concerned with image and never with quality. To narcissism, appearances are everything. If narcissistic behavior is perceived, the observation is met with excuses mixed with explosive rage, and improvement efforts focus on better ways to not get caught or noticed. The image is what is improved, never the quality. I’m not saying image is unimportant, or even that lying is always the worst course of action, but the fixation on image a hallmark of narcissism. Manipulation of surfaces while leaving substance to atrophy is how it functions. That is how we can see increases in educational spending and decreases in educational standards. It’s how the economy appears to recover, but people have fallen even further behind with wages and debt. It never occurs to narcissism to improve behavior. Even when directly challenged to do so, all it hears is “improve your image,” which also entails improving on the ability to obscure its behavior and motives. To narcissists, “being considerate of others” means shielding others from the painful knowledge of the narcissists’ inconsideration.
This is why I don’t feel that all these issues that cycle through the media are solved by one kind of legislation or another. Legislation is the surface of societal behavior. When we are not narcissistic, we use surfaces to express a general motive, sentiment, intention, and even morality. When we forget, the legislation is there to remind us. But for narcissists, surfaces are there to hide behind. More and better surfaces (including legislation), no matter who creates them and who else they serve, always additionally serve narcissism. The problem is not political; it is moral. The problem exists wherever narcissism thrives, not just in the United States. There is a reason why the conservativism we see goes deeper and deeper into intractability and hate speech than ever before, and there is a reason why the liberalism we see becomes more absolutistic, reactionary, and hateful as well. Narcissism has been infecting it all for a long time, and our political, religious, and social identities are all surfaces trumped by our own psychology. The more we see polarization, the more we see complacency and a resistance to inner growth, and bigger and spikier shields arise to keep at bay any influence that might encourage or demand genuine growth, qualitative distinctions, and real substance.
Emerson (my emphasis and brackets):
“Virtue is the adherence in action [surface] to the nature [substance] of things, and the nature of things makes it prevalent. It consists in a perpetual substitution of being for seeming… The lesson which these observations convey is, Be, and not seem. Let us acquiesce. Let us take our bloated nothingness out of the path of the divine circuits.”
Being faced down by the scary surfaces that narcissists hide behind should not scare us into hiding behind our own and acting the same way. And strategies of “changing corruption from inside the system” (I’m looking at you, Bernie Sanders) never work where narcissism is involved, because you cannot, as a separate person, get inside someone else’s bubble of one, and one is the only number narcissism recognizes. Otherwise we should all be arguing that the best resistance strategy for all of Nazi-occupied Europe would have been to join the SS.
These trends will not cease until we decide to be obstacles to narcissism rather than just trying to create obstacles to it. Create an obstacle and narcissism will find a way to hide behind it. Be an obstacle, and narcissism will not hide behind you—it cannot do so without letting you inside the bubble, and that defeats the whole point of hiding behind things.