Narcissism, Self-Presentation, and Doing Good

Another of the common themes in the ‘what’s this generation coming to’ discussions is that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and this is directly associated with the ‘self-esteem’ movement as well as with the phenomenon of social media and increasing consciousness about the presentation of a constructed self. There is academic research suggesting that a genuine increase is happening, and other academic research contesting these findings (I’m not in a position to evaluate either side right now, but my initial reaction is similar to this post on Language Log from a couple of days ago). I do find it noteworthy that confirmations of narcissism and self-centredness are far more likely to become popular media articles than refutations of those claims, but such is the way with popularizations of academic studies.

The thing that I find frustrating about these claims of narcissism is that it assumes there is something fundamentally different happening among the younger generation, often with new (or newish) technology being blamed for creating socially incompetent monsters. This is kind of a generational version of ethnocentrism, where people who have been raised entirely around one conceptualization of interpersonal relationships evaluate the interactions of others who have been raised in a different technological and interactional framework. Which is basically a long winded way of saying that it’s fundamentally silly to think of people who spend all their time on social media as socially incompetent.

I was thinking of a slightly different angle on this theme as I read this lovely piece by John Scalzi on an agnostic interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. This part, in particular, made me think of the generational assumption issue:

I struggle with this because one of my failings is a desire for recognition (hello, I’m a writer). I like to be seen and I like to be seen doing things of value. I like the response I get from them; I like being known as a good guy. I can even argue that there is value in me being seen doing good “out loud,” as it were.

While Scalzi highlights his role as a professional writer as indicative of a personal inclination towards seeking recognition, I don’t think the arguments he mentions are unique to writers (or artists, or politicians, or others whose vocations create a public-orientation by necessity). I especially don’t think that’s the case in a world that is, as I said above, increasingly dominated by a much more conscious construction of public self on social media. In the same breath that the older generation denounces young people for thinking too much of what they look like, they also criticize them for not thinking enough of the image they’re portraying with their Facebook and Instagram photos, the language choices in status updates and tweets, or their blog comments. The suggestion isn’t that they shouldn’t think about self-presentation, it’s that they should make sure they think properly about it.

I guess a lot of what I’m saying here comes down to a basic point that is clear from Scalzi’s use of a centuries old text criticizing a kind of behaviour that is being attributed to Kids Today. That seems to make it abundantly clear that narcissistic self-presentation is not a recent phenomenon.

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