As Boris Johnson has extended the lockdown for a further three weeks, nobody wishes to come to terms with the fact that this shutdown will continue, in some form, for the foreseeable future. This is a paradigm-shifting event that will cause a profound change in the psychology of our society. Fundamentally, what we will value and how we will live our lives will change. One likely transformation is that our society will come out of it more narcissistic and self-obsessed. The demonstrations of appreciation for each other and for our key workers are mostly self-congratulatory.
A narcissist is someone who has a great sense of self-importance and entitlement, a tendency to use others and belittle them without remorse and is constantly in need of admiration and recognition.
When looking at archetypal narcissists in media, one can discover the factors that cause people to pick up these characteristics. A perfect example of a narcissist is Grindah from the TV series People Just Do Nothing. He believes his pirate radio station ‘Kurupt FM’, in a housing estate in Brentford, is larger and more influential than it really is and views himself to be of great importance. He constantly gloats at any success he receives and credits it solely to himself. When other characters achieve something of worth, he either demeans it or attributes it to something that he did. He will get the other members to work on his projects while showing no recognition or gratitude for their work.
Similarly, Joe Exotic from Tiger King also demonstrates the characteristics of a narcissist. He constantly needs attention, which is why he creates his own online series, makes music videos and tries running for president. He uses others for personal gain, demonstrated by how he stole money for his presidential campaign.
What both these narcissistic characters have in common is that they both live in small isolated worlds; but, worlds in which they have tremendous power and high status. Grindah, in his narrow world of Kurupt FM, interacts with few people outside of it. Within his world, however, he can make his partners do whatever he likes, while they are constantly competing for his recognition and validation. Equally, Joe Exotic rarely leaves the tiger enclosure and lives solely within the compounds of his property. Within his compound, he can do whatever he likes, such as shooting and setting up explosions, which he would be unable to do in wider society. Furthermore, his relationship with others in the enclosure is not that of co-equals but that of a hierarchy; one in which he is at the top. He has superiority because he is everyone’s employer, which gives him the power to control everyone. It is not surprising, that these characters, living in small, isolated worlds, but worlds in which they are held in higher esteem to everyone else and where the people around them can be used to serve their interests, became narcissists.
Since lockdown, we have not just segregated from the outside world but also the tangible one; replacing our time in the real world with the cyber world. But this cyber world that we are steadily spending greater amounts of our time in, is analogous to the worlds of Grindah and Joe Exotic. Cyberspace is a mirror that reflects ourselves back onto us. In cyberspace, the world is centred around ourselves and is tailored to our desires in order to keep us using it. By liking, sharing and clicking, we are inputting information about our preferences and values which media sites can reflect back through the things they recommend. Ironically, when it recommends things to us, it calls it “discovery” in order to satisfy our subconscious desire to feel we have worked for something. In reality, it has merely processed all our preferences and compared them to people with similar preferences. Based on the preferences of others it makes predictions as to what we may like. Such a world will make ourselves narcissists because, like Joe Exotic and Grindah, we are living in an isolated world without authentic human interaction and only interacting with technologies which centre around our needs and functions solely to satisfy our desires.
This narcissistic society will have detrimental effects on our politics. A more isolated and self-obsessed society will ignore, miss or be apathetic to problems within it. One can see this in the works of Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher in the early 20th century. Heidegger was preoccupied with the issues of what it meant to be an existing thing and how to live a more authentic life. He preferred to isolate himself from the rest of society and live alone in the mountains where he believed he could think more deeply. Despite the fact that his philosophy had no inklings of Nazi ideology and that he had a number of friendships with Jews including a deeply romantic relationship with the intellectual Hannah Arendt, his isolation and concern with himself made him apathetic to the Nazi takeover.
This lockdown will likely create more Heideggers. Our preoccupation with cultivating a unique and authentic self for the isolated digital arena that centres around us and our interests will lead us to being blinded by our self-obsession. As a result, we may lack the concern or the self-criticism to notice the ways in which we are participants in the perpetuation and preservation of injustice.