The Politics of Narcissism, Dehumanization, and Dispossession: From Norway to Orlando to Britain.
Oh no, not again, and not this! Please let it not be this! But it was. And there was only one thing to do, once the immediate crisis was over. It was time to let go for a while and grieve. To cry for those gone — to feel their fear and pain as one of their few, presumed safe spaces suddenly was transformed into a place of terror and deadly hatred, to be sad for and with them and their loved ones left behind. Let myself feel love for how they and I love.
Omar Mateen’s mass shooting in Orlando, leaving 49 dead, brought me back to summer five years ago, to my home country Norway. Anders Behring Breivik shot 67 people, mostly children and young teens, gathered for political discussions at their annual youth summer camp. What explains such extreme acts of violence by people like Breivik and Mateen, when the answer in all likelihood is not mental incompetence?
As philosophers often do, to understand Breivik’s troubled mind, I sought help in ideas left us by philosophers long gone, uncovering how committing such heinous acts reveals a deep lack of a sense of self: someone’s sense of not being seen, of not existing, of not being important. Instead of daring to feel, to face this inner void, and then grow into a more stable personality, Breivik let unbounded, violent narcissism take over. He tried to force everyone else to fit his warped love of country. In his delusion he had not yet been recognized in all his greatness as the true leader of a fantastic revolutionary historical movement. Mateen’s story will likely be similar, although his story may involve more centrally struggles with his own sexuality and his ethnic-religious identity. We will have to wait on the facts of Thomas Mair’s killing of Helen “Jo” Cox, but we already know that a warped version of love of country — possibly mixed with intimacy issues — will feature prominently also in his story. And also in the mix is the sense that one’s manhood, as the seat of power and privilege, is threatened: Breivik’s planned finale was supposed to be the public beheading of Norway’s historically preeminent female Prime Minister; Mateen has a history of domestic violence against his wife, and Mair killed a female politician.
Most Norwegians, as most Americans and Britons, want to think of these incidents as isolated events, events that are unrelated to current destructive political movements in our countries. I believe this is wrong; the violence is intimately linked to a growing political culture embracing a vicious form of nationalism and isolationism.
In Breivik’s troubled mind, he was fighting evil by killing young, politically active people committed to respect for diversity in general and explicitly including Muslims in particular. In Mateen’s equally disturbed mind, he was fighting evil by killing gays. In Mair’s deeply confused mind, he was fighting evil by killing one of the democratically elected Members of Parliament. The ability of all three to rationalize the dehumanization of their victims wouldn’t be possible, I believe, except against a background of deep, growing racism, sexism, and homophobia in our societies, resulting in the targeting and scapegoating of particular vulnerable social identities: racial, ethnic, and sexual identities.
Our social (including our national) identities centrally concern ways in which we love, feel safe, grounded — as who we are and as part of a world we trust as good (despite evidence to the contrary). People like Breivik, Mateen, and Mair radically don’t feel that they belong or exist anywhere comfortably — with themselves, in intimate relations, in their community, in their country. They cannot identify and feel at home, which yields their extremely aggressive, narcissistic behavior. Their violence is aimed at cleansing society of what they mistakenly believe to be the causes of their discomfort, which is fueled by a growing acceptance and expression of hatred and bigotry in much public political speech and action.
By ridding our societies of racism, sexism, and homophobia, those who hate will no longer be able to incite unstable people like Breivik, Mateen, and Mair to act out their own discomfort by committing horrid acts of terror and feeling powerful and important, as juggernauts of historical greatness, by doing so. Taking on the fight against current political appeals to dehumanization in the name of dispossession, love of homeland and of God is necessary to stop the current waves of hatred and destruction. In Norway, the outward expressions of racism in politics disappeared for only one year after Breivik’s terrorist attacks returning in full force thereafter. Refugees and Muslims are dehumanized both implicitly and explicitly as the political rhetoric in Norway now embraces the language of dispossession (of having what is yours taken away). Britain’s decision by public referendum to leave the European Union stretches the imagination, except in light of the same language: refugees and immigrants are dispossessing the British of what is theirs. In the United States, Donald Trump’s campaign is carried out, largely, in the name of dispossession; it’s about “taking America back,” “making it great again” by closing it off from immigrants and refugees. In all countries, a similar hatred and dehumanization of LGBTQI people is prominent both in politics and within most religious institutions.
Admitting and changing our racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes is hard because of the way in which our core social identities — our religious identities, our national identities, our sexual identities — are deeply personal in nature and because of the way in which social privilege works.
No matter how hard we try, still we cannot step into another’s shoes: If you’re straight, you really can’t access what it feels like to be gay. A Christian can’t feel what it’s like to be Jewish or Muslim. Americans don’t know what it feels like to be Norwegian or British. And vice versa. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it does make it harder for each to realize that one’s own way is not the only way to be morally good, to be emotionally healthy, to be religious, to be nationally identified, or to be loving of oneself and others. This makes us emotionally liable to be manipulated by people who hate; in situations in which change is happening, it is easy to become fearful — and a perceived threat to our identity, whether as a Briton, an American, a Norwegian, is a perfect means for boosting this fear into an irrational protectionism.
Social privilege presents added difficulties. Hillary Clinton, for example, knows intimately how hard it is to travel in a sexist world. President Obama knows extremely well how hard it is to travel in a racist world. Yet both had to apologize for failing to realize their participation in LGBTQI oppression: Clinton now sees her failure to support the fight of those infected by HIV. Obama now speaks clearly of not appreciating why same-sex couples have a right to marry: why love is love. Clinton’s and Obama’s straight privilege made them insensitive to the suffering of the LBGTQI community; they just couldn’t hear it, couldn’t feel the deep frustration and despair to which they were attuned when it came from straight people.
And many politicians (of all stripes, all countries), let alone the leaders of almost all powerful religious institutions, are far behind Clinton and Obama. Rejecting any notion that they are doing anything wrong by denying LGBTQI equal standing and respect for who they are, they still don’t hear them. Similarly, our politicians fail to see their dehumanization of refugees when they translate their pleas for help and a better life into prospects for terrorism. But they must begin to hear, and we must all bear some responsibility for holding them accountable that they do so. Being political and religious leaders of powerful societal institutions is to have a special responsibility with regard to our projects of living together respectfully. Not hearing some people’s suffering as suffering is not to listen properly. It leaves all of us who have these identities more vulnerable to violence: we are left on our own — women, gays, trans, Muslims, Jewish, black — to go about our everyday lives always having to make sure we are safe, looking over our shoulders to make sure that we won’t be raped, that we won’t be beaten senseless, won’t be killed. It is time for all of us to stand up for what is good, what is right.
A better future requires us all to be open to uncover our own racism, homophobia and privilege, to own our resulting mistakes in the past, and so to learn to live better, more truthfully, more rationally, and in ways more consistent with our shared humanity. Without racism, sexism, and homophobia, those who hate can no longer incite unstable and fearful people, who feel dispossessed of a homeland, of a religion, of themselves, to commit acts of hatred and violence against innocents. And without hatred and fear mongering in our political discourse, closing borders and building walls to feel safe will no longer appear desirable: better, more rational options will be the only options. We all need to step up and work together to solve the problems we all share — as Norwegians, Americans, Britons, Muslims, Jews, Christians, African American, Latino/Latina, LGBTQI and straight, left-and rightwing politicians — which are the current waves of hatred and destruction in our communities and countries, all undertaken in the name of love of God and country.
 Thanks to Maria Gillombardo, Sayed Kashua, Alice MacLachlan, Patricia Marino, Barbara Sattler, Cathrine Theodorsen, Shelley Weinberg, and Ekow Yankah for helping me think through and write this reflection.