Darkness (in)Visible, or On Dangers of Narcissistic Blindness
The worst U.S. mass shooting in the 21st century. Unimaginable and ungraspable — but sadly familiar already.
Ever sadder, there will be more, with greater numbers of victims, because this bloody contest is one about numbers. The next wannabe-martyr strives to outdo the last one in the scope of damage inflicted, to underscore the specialness of his grievance and assure his unique place in the roster of men like him.
Looking for the reasons, along with the requisite finger-pointing, has commenced, as it always does after these regular now events. We are hurt and heartbroken, and we want to understand — but never enough to change. This horrific massacre will soon become part of our constantly updated dreadful historical record, but we will continue straight to the next one, and the next, because we must. Our narcissistic blindness, which always makes us project blame on outside forces and see ourselves as blameless, demands that.
We ask “why?” but we don’t want to know true answers as they would challenge our worldview and our existence, even though such challenge is overdue now, since our persistence in going about life the usual way is what has created the deadly problem on our hands. But we cannot see what ails us, because this blindness is a feature of the defect that’s written into our society and our psyche, shaping both in predicable ways to enable its perpetuation. Like cancer, this malignant defect will eventually destroy its helpless host unless urgent and radical means are implemented to stop its virulent spread. We would have to first acknowledge, however, that we are sick and properly diagnose our malady.
Among the reasons listed for the massacre are homophobia, terrorism, Islamic radicalization, self-loathing, toxic masculinity, our gun culture, security failures, and just plain hate, the last one coming closest to the truth, although we don’t want to examine it too closely. All these reasons are correct to various degrees, and they are connected through a thread that we are not able and/or willing to see.
As it is always the case, mental instability of the shooter is being blamed as a matter of course and mental illness is brought up, along with the reasonably-sounding and necessary matter of keeping guns from the mentally ill. But we never talk about what mental illness is, how to identify it, whether it is really dangerous, and what to do about it. That’s because we use the mental illness crutch / excuse just as we use the other ones, to push the issue away and remove ourselves from the responsibility for it, because once we name it that, it becomes the experts’ job to deal with it. This too is part of our narcissistic blindness, which makes us believe that “they” are unlike “us,” and that we are better, and certainly not responsible.
It is correct to assume that a person who does such evil is mentally disturbed, although their problem is not mental illness.
People who are mentally ill — those suffering from psychoses and mood disorders — are usually not violent, which means that our attempts at blaming the problem on mental illness are unfair to the mentally ill and to ourselves, since we remain in the dark about the causes of such violence and ways to prevent it.
Sure enough, there were no signs of mental illness in this shooter’s life, even though he was seriously disturbed and that disturbance manifested early in his life in aggressive behaviors directed at others. However, we rarely name that disturbance and educate people about it. Not surprisingly perhaps, as, at the core, it is the very same character defect that affects the less outwardly and violently destructive men (and women) who occupy positions of power and prominence, and influence the whole society and culture at large; and one that shapes our lives in multiple and all-encompassing but no longer noticeable ways. Like fish to water, we are blind to its presence and influences.
That defect is narcissism in its many gradations, the most of extreme of which wipes out a conscience and thus ties in with psychopathy and often sadism. It manifests early on in life and its core symptoms are related to the impairment of conscience, most notably lack of empathy and compassion; lack of the capacity to experience guilt; impulsivity; aggression — emotional and physical; arrogance; and an elevated view of one’s own attributes and importance. A narcissist knows he is special, better than others, and his behavior reflects that. His sense of entitlement, unchecked by feedback from reality — a sign of narcissistic blindness that is a feature of the disorder — grows along with his anger at the world for not recognizing and accommodating his specialness through entirely deserved, in his mind, fame, power, and adulation.
Depending on the severity of narcissistic disturbance and the narcissist’s individual strengths and weaknesses, social milieu, and life opportunities, he may with time become a small town mayor, a real estate developer turned presidential candidate, a Fortune 500 CEO, or a mass shooter.
The malignantly narcissistic disturbance of mass shooters has been well documented and described in the psychological literature and the media, but for some reason it is rarely, if ever, mentioned in discussions after each massacre; just as the presidential candidate’s profoundly narcissistic character defect and its ramifications are not openly discussed; and just as we don’t talk about the dangers of narcissism affecting our politicians, religious leaders, beloved heroes and public figures, and our entire culture. Yes, we sometimes note it in passing, but we do not stop to discuss what it really means. It is the last taboo in a society that has proudly disposed of its taboos.
Narcissism has become so normalized that we no longer notice it. The analyses of American narcissistic culture were performed, repeatedly and at length; but they were then put aside and largely forgotten, leaving little influence on society whose narcissism continues to grow, along with the necessary blindness that enables its spread. The normalization of narcissism was probably best reflected in the proposals of the DSM-V writers to remove Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a diagnostic category, given the ubiquitousness of narcissism as a character trait in the American population. At the end it was decided that NPD should stay in after all. For now.
And that’s a good thing, all things considered, as we have already disposed with a conscience as a requirement for mental health by removing psychopathy as a psychiatric disorder in 1980, just in time for the “greed is good” era. At least we are still acknowledging, by keeping Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a diagnosable condition, that deficits of conscience combined with high self-regard are not normal or healthy. Our society, however, disagrees as evidenced by our culture that is inhabited and run by narcissists and psychopaths in nearly every aspect of it, from households to politics. They are the dangerous types who should be prohibited access to lethal weapons and any forms of power; unfortunately, as a society we not only do not recognize their pathology as dangerous, we promote them and reward them with privileges, which include an unfettered access to all kinds of deadly weapons of their choice.
Although their deficit of conscience makes them inherently destructive, not all narcissists and psychopaths are physically violent. All mass killers, however, are driven by narcissistic rage. Whatever the ideological rationalizations, political or religious, attached to mass shootings or large scale (and not) acts of terror perpetrated by psychopathic individuals, underneath them there is always a sense of entitlement and seething, vengeful anger that comes from its perpetual frustration. Narcissistic entitlement and rage manifest in a belief that “I am special and deserve to be recognized as such, and if the world fails to deliver this well-deserved recognition, I will force it to do so by any means at my disposal.”
And as those means are always very limited — because, among other things, we no longer teach our young, as mostly we don’t know ourselves, what really matters in life and how to go about creating it (and no, it is not outward achievements and fame) — what remains is naked aggression that serves as an outlet for a lifetime, brief as it usually is, of growing confusion and unbearable frustration of one’s grandiose expectations.
We all want to matter and belong, and to find meaning in our lives this way. William James said that,
No more fiendish punishment could be devised, were such a thing physically possible, than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by all the members thereof.
When we develop normally, we learn, or should, to live with a high degree of social invisibility and most of all unspecialness supported by humility, empathy, and compassion — each of us is but a speck among billions, as significant– and not — as every other one, mattering most to our families and friends, but perhaps not extraordinary much in the grand scheme of things. In a narcissistic world where social bonds are frayed or non-existent for many, however, we no longer teach humility, empathy, and compassion; instead, we have turned the desire to be seen into a central priority and a substitute for human bonds.
The explosion of social media driven by our collective need to make ourselves seen is one of many examples of our narcissistic culture. We upload our existence, in two-dimensional images and words, into cyberspace while neglecting to build its three-dimensional version, connected with other physical beings. But in a society where everyone is trying to get noticed, no one has time to pay attention to another. Thus we become a new species, of social media savvy loners, whose individual invisibility becomes even more acute as the vastness of human indifference is magnified in the silence of social cyber sphere. The invisibility becomes nearly absolute and thus fiendishly unbearable for a narcissist for whom a desire to be noticed for his specialness becomes the life’s mission.
The first images we got of the Orlando’s shooter were his selfies, a documented correlate of narcissism and psychopathy in men. The pictures show a young man experimenting with different moods and roles, from playful to increasingly more despondent and dark. The last ones have an eerie similarity with other mass shooters, whose young faces started to express their grim and vengeful determination as time went by. The growing darkness showed, but nobody paid attention. We are not supposed to see.
Like Donald Trump, another man with a similar character defect, the Orlando shooter had a history of aggressive behavior dating to childhood, at one point threatening to kill his classmates. As an adult, he beat his wife “because the laundry wasn’t finished,” further evidencing his narcissistic entitlement and co-existent tendency to objectification and dehumanization of others. Misogyny is so strongly associated with narcissistic psychopathy that it could, and should, be considered its diagnostic feature. But we not only do not talk about it, we don’t even notice it. The connection between the two must remain invisible.
He often spoke about his desire to kill people and sought employment that accorded him power over others and opportunities to use violence if necessary (and also if not): he was a security guard and aspired to be a cop, one of top occupations favored by conscienceless psychopaths. He was not very religious, judging by the recollections of those who knew him personally, so it is probably fair to assume that his dallying with Islam was halfhearted at best, and his pledge of allegiance to ISIS most likely a last-minute effort at adding some “elevated” meaning to his murderous rage.
How the killer turned this way we cannot tell for certain; both nature and nurture are implicated in the specific psychopathology of mass and serial killers. The nurture part involves child abuse and mistreatment, a practice that, despite significant progress in the area, is still shrouded in the secrecy maintained by narcissistic blindness. We loathe talking about it but we must, because, as Alice Miller reminded us,
Those children who are beaten will in turn give beatings, those who are intimidated will be intimidating, those who are humiliated will impose humiliation, and those whose souls are murdered will murder.
The statements from the killer’s father, a man with his own dreams of glory obscuring reality at hand and distorting relationships with others as they always do, are stunning in their unawareness:
He was well behaved. His appearance was perfect.
He had a child and a wife and was very dignified, meaning he had respect for his parents. I don’t know what caused him to shoot last night.
This, as he re-affirmed his contempt for homosexuals.
The stress on a child’s perfect appearance and respect for narcissistic parents (father), and mistaking obedience for dignity, are signs of narcissistic parenting that focuses on externalities to the detriment of the child’s emotional life. And this particular child’s life was marked for years by aggressive behaviors and disregard for others; but the father, in a classic example of narcissistic blindness, does not want to, cannot, acknowledge it, because that would require an admission of culpability and guilt, something narcissists are congenitally incapable of doing.
We don’t know whether the shooter’s parents were physically abusive (although in one report a witness recalls the father hitting his young son in public and there is a police report of domestic violence in the home), but the hints of narcissistic abuse described by Alice Miller are aplenty in the father’s statements and behavior. It is the kind of abuse that underlies our culture of violence , but we have so normalized as part of child rearing that we do not see it as harmful. The glaring deficits or even a total lack of conscience, in a parent and, not surprisingly, in a child, become unnoticeable unless something drastic happens. Only then we stop and ask why, and we wonder, because no one could have known. We are not supposed to know.
The father’s behavior is one example of how our narcissistic blindness demands that we remain oblivious to the harbingers of narcissistic rage and the darkness of our shadow it manifests. Another comes from the behavior of the shooter’s wife, who went with him to buy ammo and scout the place of his massacre, knowing, though not really, what he planned to do. She received his texts and texted back in the middle of mayhem, as if oblivious to or unaware of what was happening. Hard as it may be to imagine, it is possible she indeed was. Those who live with a narcissist are prone to fall for his reality distortions and may have difficulties after a while telling truth from fiction, even as it pertains to their own perceptions, feelings, and thoughts.
Narcissistic rage is blind to better execute the aggrieved narcissist’s revenge. It is enabled by the unempathetic, narcissistic split that erects a firm barrier between a grandiose self and the contempt-worthy not-quite-human others. Dehumanization is inherent in it, as both its result and a cause. The worthless non- or barely humans, who have ignored, rejected, failed to acknowledge the greatness, or otherwise wronged the aggrieved narcissist can and will be destroyed with sadistic pleasure that comes from finally giving them the punishment they deserve.
The shooter laughed while firing into people. A consummate narcissist, he stopped mid-mayhem to contact a TV station to make sure that his evil deeds received appropriate coverage. Then he commenced murdering, only to stop again at some point to text his wife and see whether she saw any signs that he’s getting the recognition he deserves.
This chilling in its callousness behavior is a less elaborate equivalent of the mass killers’ manifestos, in which they outline their pathological worldview permeated with real and imaginary slights, grievances, and grandiose notions of their importance. This shooter was not eloquent enough to put his rage into words first, but why use words when bloody images can be instantly transmitted to captive audiences? In this day and age, the horrific manifestations of the narcissistic rage are guaranteed to be made almost instantly visible, live-streamed if needed, to the whole world, making the narcissist’s sick dream come true before his, or his survivors’, very eyes, and replaying his glory for eternity.
The same narcissistic rage, darkness made visible in ways that make it impossible for us to ignore it any longer, is what drives ISIS killers in their grotesquely sadistic acts of mayhem. The brutality of their violent deeds, put so prominently on display to shock and terrify the world, signals the extent of rage that drives it.
It is the rage that comes from a frustrated sense of entitlement of conscience-deficient men who, unable to find their rightful place in broken societies that did not have much use for them, have found a way to stop being invisible and tell the world that has ignored them, and themselves, that they matter. A jihadist proudly holding a severed head of another human being tells the world to notice and fear him, for if one were not seen before with appreciation and love, one will surely be noticed in horror and hate, even if one risks or sacrifices his life for the privilege, whether in Aleppo or Orlando. The ISIS and Taliban killers obtain status and glory through violence, not unlike members of gangs, criminal organizations, and, in somewhat more sanitized versions, militaries in normally functioning states. And, of course, mass shooters in the West.
Young people, men in particular, want to be heroes; but we, collectively speaking, have not given them good examples of what heroism, of the humane and creative kind, is and how to go about pursuing it. On the contrary: we have effectively replaced substance with image and popularity, and/or focused our attention on promoting one-sided development where achievement, measured by good grades, better schools, and best jobs has become a mark of success, decency and humanness. In an individualist and highly competitive society, where money equals everything desirable and virtuous, this inhumane standard is indeed a mark of proper adjustment. We have dispensed with a conscience and its values — love, altruism, compassion, care, equality and justice— to become better at profit-making and getting ahead, even as we don’t want to know, or even ask, where that ahead leads. And those who can’t make it in that blind race are rendered invisible by those who can. In a narcissistic society where everyone is seen as special and applauded for it, being invisible is the greatest injury to a narcissist, one that demands vengeful answering for, the more spectacularly and sadistically, the better.
Fundamentalist religions, like all radical social movements, have sublimated, or tried to, our narcissism through worship of vengeful narcissistic gods or devotion to narcissistically psychopathic leaders who demand absolute submission, which can only happen through self-abasement and dehumanization of others. The narcissistic blindness engendered by that trade-off is cemented by a belief that we are special and will be rewarded for our devotion as long as we renounce our will and humanity. This blindness is not just mandated, but brutally reinforced by the leaders or the deities’ proxies.
It is no accident that those sorts of punitive, dehumanizing belief systems lead to the most grotesque displays of gratuitous violence known to mankind today, displays that are celebrated as signs of manly achievement the way money is celebrated in the West. They also, entirely unsurprisingly, attract individuals, often intelligent, highly skilled, and well educated, with an underdeveloped or non-existent conscience. For these men (and women), a narcissistic identification with the strongman-leader / deity / belief system / movement offers an opportunity to compensate for their personal inadequacies and channel their narcissistic rage, which the strongman / ideology embodies, through somehow legitimate, as they see them, pursuits dressed in a language of grandiose — but false — ideals.
This general dynamic — of narcissistic splitting between a grandiose self (idealization) and contemptible others (devaluation), accompanied by narcissistic collusion between leaders and followers, and augmented by the narcissism of small differences that sets our group apart as better than others — is applicable to any ideology, group, or organization, including family, that’s based on centralized power that demands submission and thus dehumanization of its members. Such groups and systems are characterized by the top-to-bottom as well as horizontal abuse, which must remain invisible and unaddressed for the ideology / organization / system to survive as long as possible. Eventually they all crumble, but not as long as the protective blindness is in place, affecting most of their members.
Meanwhile, this dynamic fuels all kinds of social maladies and ills, including mob actions, gang violence, and protracted conflicts and wars. It also underlies our political and economic system, where the narcissistic divisions between the elites and the invisible rest maintain the hegemony of neoliberalism, which, in a classically narcissistic fashion, drives the gap between the (grandiose) haves and the devalued have-nots to gargantuan proportions, resulting in a whole host of predictable social ills. Its source, however, must remain invisible, as narcissistic blindness demands.
In his article, Our Neoliberal Nightmare: Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Why the Wealthy Win Every Time, Anis Shivani described, insightfully though probably unwittingly, the problem of narcissism as applied to our economic and political system. He did not call it that, however — maybe because it was not the focus of his inquiry, or maybe because he could not name it. Narcissistic blindness demands that what ails us remains unnamable and thus invisible.
But he came close, noting the narcissistic features of the system, including its inherently destructive nature and the reality distortions it creates to obscure it:
Neoliberalism has been more successful than most past ideologies in redefining subjectivity, in making people alter their sense of themselves, their personhood, their identities, their hopes and expectations and dreams and idealizations.
It should be said that neoliberalism thrives on prompting crisis after crisis, and has proven more adept than previous ideologies at exploiting these crises to its benefit, which then makes the situation worse, so that each succeeding crisis only erodes the power of the working class and makes the wealthy wealthier. There is a certain self-fulfilling aura to neoliberalism, couched in the jargon of economic orthodoxy, that has remained immune from political criticism.
Neoliberalism believes that markets are self-sufficient unto themselves, that they do not need regulation, and that they are the best guarantors of human welfare.
Neoliberalism expects — and education at every level has been redesigned to promote this — that economic decision-making will be applied to all areas of life (parenthood, intimacy, sexuality, and identity in any of its forms), and that those who do not do so will be subject to discipline. Everyone must invest in their own future, and not pose a burden to the state or anyone else, otherwise they will be refused recognition as human beings.
These paragraphs are a good encapsulation of the narcissistic character of neoliberalism and the blindness it engenders in, and demands from, those immersed in it, through, among other things, abuse and conflicts, the way individual narcissistic psychopaths “naturally” do so wherever they go. We don’t have to look further than the behavior of the GOP presumptive presidential nominee.
The abuse is rooted in the inherent, in narcissism, dehumanization of people, which it then further perpetuates by its inhumane practices. It stems from the narcissistic split between the idealized, grandiose self-image of “us,” the neoliberal elites, and devalued “others,” the invisible victims of their abuses. Such narcissistic “otherization” is always a vehicle for displaced hatred, contempt, and self-justified aggression and exploitation, all of which, however, must remain unnamed and unnamable, thus perpetually invisible.
But this invisibility is never perfect and it unmasks itself in ways that reflect the extent and depth of the devastation caused by the narcissistic abuse, most notably in the narcissistic rage.
Apart from the multiple social ills created by the growing economic inequality inherent in the system, we are witnessing the seemingly incomprehensible epidemic of suicides and mass shootings, the “strange” preoccupation with death among the GOP uber-narcissist’s supporters, and the unmasking of individual fears and socialized hatreds. Those are the signs of our shadow trying to break through our blindness to make us acknowledge the darkness behind our narcissistic facades and reckon with it already. It has never been as apparent as in this era of Trumpism, when the presidential candidate’s character defect is his only qualification for office, and the narcissistic rage he evokes is what fuels his popularity.
It is no accident that the task of making the narcissistic darkness visible — should we want to see it — fell upon a man who embodies it in an archetypal manner. His unsettling and overpowering emergence on our political stage, and even more so in our collective consciousness, just like that of the most horrific, to date, mass shooting, tells us that we should begin to see already what begs to be seen.
There are some signs that we may be ready, as acknowledged by one of the professional purveyors of narcissistic unreality, Bill Pruitt, producer of “The Apprentice.” Speaking about Trump, he issued, inadvertently, a condemnation of our narcissistic blindness and a belated warning of its lethal consequences:
It’s guys like him, narcissists with dark Machiavellian traits, who dominate in our culture, on TV, and in the political realm. It can be dangerous when we confuse stories we’re told with reality. We need to wake up — and that’s from someone who helped tell these stories.
Originally published at goodmarriagecentral.wordpress.com on June 18, 2016.