The presence of narcissists permeates our society like secondhand smoke, poisoning public discourse. Wherever you turned —newspapers, websites, podcasts, social media or cable TV — their behavior dominated the headlines in 2022, becoming ever morenormalized and even celebrated. Though in far different fields, men like Ye (formerly known as Kanye West), Elon Musk, Donald Trump, Johnny Depp and Sam Bankman-Fried will forever be linked by this ignominious characteristic.
True narcissists self-centeredly disregard the needs of others and care little for pesky matters like consequences.
Why have they gained so much power and influence? Why are so many people in thrall every time they open their mouths or fire offtweets? Are they the problem or a symptom of something bigger than their own egos?
The truth is that our society breeds narcissists. We put them on pedestals and get a strong hit of vicarious pleasure whenthey act out.
A privileged son of two Stanford law professors, Bankman-Fried disarmed with his unruly mop and “schlubby” T-shirt-and-shorts uniform. While seemingly not vain like Ye or Depp or openly thuggish like Trump and Musk, he nonetheless exhibitstraits that point to something sinister behind the “just-a-regular-dude” persona.
Bankman-Fried epitomizes the narcissistic altruist. He claimed all his actions were designed to help others. That helped divertattention from his antisocial antics. Psychologists label this the “White Knight narcissist,” a person who hides selfish agendas behind florid displays of do-goodery. Here is a man who loses no opportunityto proclaim the philosophy of “effective altruism,” which holds that he must earn as much money as possible to save the future ofhumanity — yet screwed over the charities he promised money.
Effective altruism is what happens when you take utilitarianism — the theory that actions are right if they benefit the majority —and hand it off to pretentious tech bros. (Musk is also reportedly a fan.) Described as an “ideology of hubris,” it’s really just a vapid belief that rich guys know best and that money can magically translate into salvation.
Like all his narcissistic brethren, Bankman-Fried likes to gulp down his own Kool-Aid, deluding himself that he’s one of the goodguys, but forgetting to actually treat people with basic respect. “The altruistic thing to do is to take chances,” Bankman-Fried once said, leaving out the part about taking them with other people’smoney.
This is narcissism at scale. But where do we go from here? To try to transform these vile statements into action — or persuadesomeone else to.
That’s what the House Jan. 6 committee spent 18 months explaining Trump did with the insurrection. Just a few days ago, oneman attacked another in New York’s Central Park, shouting “Kanye 2024!” Police are investigating it as a potential antisemitic hatecrime. Encouraged by their narcissist-heroes, maybe someone hunts Dr. Anthony Fauci down in real life instead of trolling him. Or killstheir partner instead of joking about it with a buddy. (One out of 3 women in the U.S. experiences violence from a domesticpartner.)
This is all insanely dangerous — to say the least. But how did we get there?
Being the winner becomes all-important. In college, young men find fraternities that link manliness to degrading women, out-drinkingpeers and egging one another on. Social media reinforces the me-me-me instinct: my aspirations, my clothes, my vacation, my life. See me!Emulate Me! The more extreme you are, the more attention you get.
Boys (and girls) grow up idolizing movie stars, rap gods and politicians who gleefully validate their worst instincts. They entera workforce in which they regularly see the boss putting profits over every human value. All the while, the fear of being losers in acutthroat capitalist system haunts them. If they manage to attain power, some turn into men who, as economist Robert Reich describes Trump and Musk, “wield sledgehammers to protect their fragile egos” and live to “exercise raw power overpeople.” If not, they may take out their grievances on the women, groups and ethnicities believed to have stolen their power.
Unfortunately, until we address roots causes, there will always be another blustering bully, another Trump, another Ye.
2022 ended with this rogues’ gallery (dishonorable mention goes to Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Silicon Valley swindler Elizabeth Holmes and, if we’re going global, Russian President Vladimir Putin). But as a new one begins, maybe it’s time to consider how to promote pride in characteristics and values that are sociallybeneficial — like honesty, helping others and strength through self-restraint. We can remind ourselves that democracy depends on thesharing of power and resources, on the sense of a common fate.
Remember, a society with more equality is a society with less narcissism. Perhaps building one of those is the best 2023 New Year’sresolution of all.