Me, me, me! Narcissism and the new politics of identity

Battle of Ideas festival 2018, Sunday 14 October, Barbican, London.


In Greek mythology, Narcissus famously becomes enraptured with his own reflection in a lake. Today, the archetypal narcissist is obsessed with their reflection in a selfie: 80million photographs are uploaded on Instagram and 1.4 billion people publish personal details on Facebook every day. In the UK in 2017, more than a million selfies were taken each day. In 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary proclaimed that ‘selfie’ was the Word of the Year, recording that its use in the English language had increased 17,000 per cent from the previous year.

In fact, it’s almost a cliché these days to talk about Generation Me, Me, Me. It is argued that millennials are uniquely self-obsessed, preening, full of self-regard and entitlement, yet at the same time ‘suffering’ from a range of psychological issues and problems with self-esteem. But it’s not just the young; we all stand accused, or rather accuse everyone else, of this self-obsession. Christopher Lasch, in his 1979 classic, The Culture of Narcissism, launched the little-used psychological term into the mainstream, but today, according to the New York Times, it has become ‘the go-to diagnosis’ for commentators. Donald Trump is now, apparently, the ‘narcissist in chief’, your boss or co-workers are likely narcissists, everyone on Tinder, and on the telly, and certainly your ex – are narcissists, while Instagram is making narcissists of us all. But don’t worry, because your narcissist parents are to blame for it all anyway.

But in the midst of this labelling, can we untangle any real trends? Certainly, the self and identity seem in flux. Intellectually, the trend is towards a relativistic focus on individual identity. ‘I identify as…’ is a key phrase of contemporary politics. For many, this is a narcissistic demand for recognition; ‘validate my identity’, such demands seem to say. But is identity politics really a narcissistic modern-day attempt at putting oneself centre stage? Was the Enlightenment elevation of the self a narcissistic precursor to today’s body-obsessed, selfie-culture?

More broadly, the seeming obsession with psychological terms to understand social problems arguably highlights further problems. When narcissism – as with depression, or any other psychological phenomenon – is the problem, the only solution seems to be therapy or mindfulness rather than a hope of broader political and collective responses to the pressures and opportunities of the twenty-first century. Moreover, the very nature of ‘self-help’ has undergone a profound shift from the nineteenth-century connotation of a robust individual to the contemporary notion of relying on the therapeutic advice of others to survive.

Are there any positive aspects in constructing Brand Me and a ‘narrative of self’ in terms of reclaiming subjective selfhood? Is narcissism too clichéd a concept to help us understand today’s crisis of identity? When it is used to malign every trend an author doesn’t like, should we abandon it for something more precise? Why has cultural narcissism become so deeply woven into the fabric of contemporary society? Ultimately, are we all self-absorbed narcissists?


Dr Graeme Archer
writer; professional statistician; winner, 2011 Orwell Prize for blogging

Dr Beth Guilding
academic, Goldsmiths, University of London; co-editor, Narrating the Passions: new perspectives from modern and contemporary literature

Caroline Macfarland
director, Common Vision (CoVi)

Jacob Reynolds
partnerships manager, Academy of Ideas; co-convenor, Living Freedom; organiser, Debating Matters

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there