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February 07th 2016 print

Murray Walters

Two-Faced Narcissism

In addition to their other perks and privileges, our political class and its Twitter camp followers enjoy the right to spray their virtue at will upon the public stage. And why shouldn't they put their goodness on display? It is always someone else expected to pick up the tab

two facesListening to the disappointments of your workaday narcissists throws up a few common utterances. The following phrases capture the nub of the problem:

“Well, after all I did for…” 

“I’m very sensitive and I get hurt very easily”

“I feel like I’m always give, give, giving…”;

and much more like this, inevitably:

“I was always, repeat always, there for Julie but she was just never there for me.”

For older readers, this apparent confusion about collecting Julie from life’s bus stop has nothing to do with a faulty GPS or daylight saving. “There“, is a mythical emotional “space”, as the current parlance would describe it(for space think Fairyland, not Star Trek), where a sort of psychic symbiosis is the panacea for all of life’s troubles. The twin vanities of the narcissist are contained within these trite banalities: self-righteousness and the regret that others are failing their moral obligation to fuel the self-proclaimed victim’s ego, to do as wished and re-pay the aggrieved individual’s generosity with the full measure of interest demanded.

If narcissism is the fantasy of becoming ‘big’ to cope with the reality of being ‘small’ in the scale of the world, the invention of social media has plonked obscenely large helpings of ‘big’ social issues on the bain marie of our self esteem. For instance, only a matter of twenty years ago, the closest you could get to the modern phenomenon of ‘virtue signaling’, which teachers once knew simply as showing off, was the chance to read aloud to Grade 5 classmates your social studies project on Truganini or the crown of thorns starfish. But now, with one fell tweet, the entire world can hear how desperately you would like to see the Crown of Thorns stopped from puncturing the hulls of the refugee boats, not to mention flying Truganini from Manus Island for a medically safe abortion.

But wait, there’s more. We are now beset by a large audience of knuckle-draggers. Think of them as the descendants of those ADHD-afflicted Grade Fivers who played with their hands, rulers or lunch boxes while the class Goody Two Shoes displayed her concern for innocent coral polyps and injustices done to poor Truganini. They don’t much care about these things themselves, you see, but identifying with the herd is important, meaning they can be counted upon to mouth or, these days, Tweet the approved and expected endorsements.  Behold, the narcissist being feted by fellow narcissists eager to plant their own little flags on virtue’s plot!

As far as narcissists go, politicians take the cake. Witness Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ simply beautiful letter to the Prime Minister on Friday asking him not to harden his heart against refugee children.

It’s wrong. Medical professionals tell us this. Humanitarian agencies tell us this. Our values tell us this too. Sending these children and their families to Nauru is not the Australian way.

And this:

A sense of compassion is not only in the best interests of these children and their families. It is also in the best interest of our status and a fair and decent nation.

Andrews told us all about this via Twitter: “I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister today. #LetThemStay”. Just that and no more — a few pithy characters to mirror the elegant simplicity of his goodness. How splendid that even in modern Australia we can still witness such a contest between good and evil: one cruel leader hardens his heart, another would throw open the boundless coffers of someone else’s treasury, in this case Canberra’s. While Andrews’ achievements in office have been negligible — with the exception of paying a billion-plus dollars not to build a freeway tunnel my Melbourne friends say is desperately needed — nobody can doubt his narcissism. It is of truly biblical proportions.

This is the same man whose father’s chemo therapy was the focus of an election ads. “The health budget isn’t just numbers, it’s real lives” he reminded one and all before concluding the ad with the earnest advice that his life is devoted first and always to the good of others. “I’ll always be about putting people first,” he vowed, pointing Moses-style at the camera. One can only imagine (and shudder) at the quality of Andrews’ Grade Five efforts.

For the modern narcissist, refugees are the gift that just keeps on giving. In an age where nobody does much smiting of innocents (except for the nothing-to-do-with-Islam Islamic State), opportunities for the superlative differentiation of one’s enlightened self from evil brothers and sisters are thin on the ground. It seemed so easy in those halcyon Grade Five days to imagine you, personally, would never knowingly have given small pox or syphilis to an immune-naive native, released a cane toad into the bush or sentenced some starving tatterdemalion to transportation for stealing a loaf of bread. Virtue comes easy when there is no need to prove itself.

Premier Andrews can perhaps be forgiven because he is a politician and cannot be expected to tell you what he will not do. Those of his ilk will never say, “We can do this much to help refugees but no more.” Nor will they say, “These people can be admitted, but those people cannot remain. This terrible problem needs a coherent policy response. And because I am a man of integrity, I will put the rejects on the plane myself.”

What a man of Andrews’ mien will do, however, with the glib insouciance of the narcissist, is ejaculate his loving kindness onto social media’s virtual pages. All ejaculations have a refractory period. Just how long before the next one is anyone’s guess.

Godwin’s Law tells us that the longer an internet discussion or meme goes on, the greater likelihood  it will end with mention of Hitler and Nazis. There is another, yet unclaimed, truism which asserts the longer a social media discussion goes on, the greater the likelihood that it will end with someone asserting they are fundamentally nicer than their interlocutors. Such is the yen and importance of the narcissistic victory.

Or take as a further example the Anglican Dean of St John’s Cathedral in Brisbane, who is offering to shelter refugees from the clutches of the pernicious Minister for Immigration. This fellow has an eye to history and, quite possibly, a church noticeboard prize. Here he is in full mirror-gazing mode:

We’re reinventing, or rediscovering, or reintroducing, the ancient concept of sanctuary as a last-ditch effort to offer some sense of hope to those who must be feeling incredibly hopeless.

Is the good cleric offering to pay, in perpetuity, the housing, education, health and other needs of these people? Were he to do so the Port-a-Loo bill alone would be staggering. Where does he propose to find the funds to underwrite such goodness in the unlikely event that hordes of refugees take his offer with other than a wheelbarrow of salt? From funds set aside to do right byf generations of boys abused in Anglican schools and other institutions? See how difficult it can be to embrace virtue when there is an actual cost attached — a cost to you, rather than someone else, at any rate.

The self-aggrandizing that is the narcissist’s stock in trade is tolerable in small doses around the barbecue; indeed, it is almost to be expected after a couple of beers. But for common or garden-variety suburban narcissists it stops there, usually cut short by an admonishing frown from the better half, or perhaps a quick and sly kick to the shins intended to alert the speaker to his or her transition from bon vivant to bore.

It is a different matter entirely when members of our political class and other seekers of the perpetual limelight proclaim their cost-free virtue in public fora and, especially, via social media.  Oh, if only Twitter provided a means to deliver those much-needed kicks under the table! Sadly, technology has not yet attained that capacity, while giving posturing politicians a taste of the slipper leads to arrest and heavy fines. So we must endure the hollow exhibitions of egomaniacal concern for others that, all things considered, are worth no more than the 140 characters in which they are showcased.

Those messages are of minimal value. Just like those who utter them.

Dr Murray Walters is a Brisbane psychiatrist

Comments [7]

  1. Jody says:

    Daniel Andrews plays a dangerous game; the high majority of the electorate supports the government’s border control initiatives. One whiff that Andrews is prepared to undermine that will definitely cost him politically. I’d mortgage my house on it!

  2. Bran Dee says:

    Nice comment Jody, as always bringing the discussion back to a practical level.

    And Murray, cracker of a sentence your ‘for the modern narcissist, refugees are the gift that keeps on giving’. The subject of refugees [don't call them migrants it would deflate the display of virtue] so provokes the moral vanity of the bleeding hearts!

    On the ‘refugee’ issue the outbursts of the NSW Premier are little better than those of the Victorian Premier. Moral vanity of the Left?

  3. Turtle of WA says:

    ‘There is another, yet unclaimed, truism which asserts the longer a social media discussion goes on, the greater the likelihood that it will end with someone asserting they are fundamentally nicer than their interlocutors.’

    I once ended an argument about climate change thus:

    Me (CAGW sceptic): Hero.
    Other guy (CAGW believer): Yep.

    Got to the bottom of that.

  4. DRW says:

    These heroes know they’ll never have to deliver so they can pramulate about displaying their shallow opportunism, sorry, compassion.

  5. Bill Martin says:

    Excellent analysis and explanation of narcissism in an entertaining article.

    Concerning the underlying subject matter – the offshore processing of illegally arrived, would-be immigrants – it is important to note and acknowledge that the program is undeniably designed to be a disincentive, even a deterrent to those who might be planning to come to our shores in the leaky boats of people smugglers. The same purpose is served by returning to Nauru the people brought to Australia for medical treatment. Were they allowed to stay, ever more of the residents of the Nauru processing facility would “require urgent medical attention” in Australia, until they were all safely and permanently here and the people smugglers could explain to their prospective clients how to circumvent Australia’s offshore processing system. Let us be perfectly frank: the primary purpose of the system is to be a deterrent and we need not apologise for that. Yes, preventing the loss of life at sea is an important aspect of it but the effective control of our borders is the overriding principle, lest we end up like Germany, Sweden and other European countries, in mortal danger of completely losing their national identity. The narcissistic compassion merchants are either woefully ignorant of this reality or they don’t much care about the future of their country. They stand condemned either way.

  6. Geoffrey Luck says:

    Narcissism and its bed-wetting companion – moral pulpitism, warns Dr Peter Catt to be careful about sanctuary offers: Julian Assange was taken in by the Ecuadorian embassy four years ago, and is still there.

  7. pgang says:

    Would anybody but a narcissist use Twitter?