The Ascendance of Tribal Narcissism
The socially-enforced personality disorder tearing society apart
“Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”
Narcissism is one of those funny words that has a thorough and fulsome technical definition as well as a more vague, intuitive layman definition. To the average person, narcissist is (more or less) the word that describes a person who is self-centered and vain. This doesn’t contradict technical definition per se. Moreso, it simplifies it.
In psychology, narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by a pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy.1 This definition, abstracted to the level of population, is a remarkably useful model for understanding the profound tribal fracturing society is suffering today. To that end, the DSM guidance for diagnosing narcissistic personality disorder is by observing at least five of the following:
Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements, expects to be recognized as superior without actually completing the achievements)
Is preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, brilliance, beauty, or perfect love.
Believes that they are "special" and can only be understood by or should only associate with other special people (or institutions).
Requires excessive admiration.
Has a sense of entitlement, such as an unreasonable expectation of favorable treatment or compliance with his or her expectations).
Is exploitative and takes advantage of others to achieve their own ends.
Lacks empathy and is unwilling to identify with the needs of others.
Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of them.
Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors and attitudes2
Narcissism Writ Large
If an individual can be narcissistic, can a group be? At the very least, there’s value in engaging with the metaphor. We do this will all sorts of human traits. Groups can be generous, kind, creative, superficial, selfish, antagonistic, etc. And these group traits seem to be more than just a collection of individuals exhibiting the same personal trait. Some groups foster charity, but not every group member need be naturally charitable. Others foster high productivity while undoubtedly having some natural slackers. There’s something special about the social dynamics of a group that can spawn emergent traits, embodied in the group itself.
So too with narcissism. A group of people can emergently be infatuated with itself and derisive of any outside groups or individuals that don’t sufficiently feed into its grandiosity and self-importance, even if many (or most) of its members aren’t themselves narcissists. In fact, a remarkable amount of the social behaviors observably emergent in modern political tribes is in line with the DSM factors for narcissistic personality disorder. In other words, we have a ‘tribal narcissism’ problem. To wit:
Grandiosity: Partisans increasingly believe the country has “lost its way” (conservatives) or is “irredeemably immoral” (progressives) and that only the enlightened “red pilled” (conservatives) or “woke” (progressives) can save all of society from the existential threat. If the tribe does not win the culture war, their thinking goes, we will all collapse into dystopian ruin.
Fantastic thinking: The vocal activist class uses “enlightened centrist” as a pejorative. They do not see compromise as a legitimate political strategy, even though any lasting change in a large, diverse democracy requires it. Instead, they are convinced their exact, idealized policy proscriptions are possible and are indeed the only legitimate solution. Activist conservatives and progressives alike envision a utopia of their ideological making, and won’t accept the need to diverge from that vision.
Exclusive Association: More and more, association with people guilty of Wrong Think is discouraged, even punished. The in-group forces consensus, and members fall in line (or are treated harshly). Disagreement is incredibly uncomfortable. Reasoning is seen as a tool for equivocating “enlightened centrists.” And so anyone who disagrees with obviously correct ideas that are obviously necessary to save the world should be avoided.
Require Admiration: Performative public agreement with the tribe’s ideas is integral to good standing. Certain people or groups of people are elevated canonized, such as police, soldiers, and ‘job-creators,’ (conservatives) or racial minorities, LGBTQIA+, and ‘allies’ (progressives). Not only is criticism of the canonized forbidden, there is an affirmative expectation of vocalizing praise and admiration.
Entitlement and Expectations of Favoritism: Activists on both sides are obsessed with pointing out the other side’s hypocrisy. Their own hypocrisy is beyond scrutiny, however, and is in fact justified. Society, in turn, is obligated to contort to their utopian vision automatically—anyone who requires persuading, after all, is one of the bad people. Existing laws, constitutional principles, and other guard rails that get in the way of the tribe’s goals are denounced and loyal tribalists call for their abolition.
Exploitative: Everything is instrumental, and anything that isn’t instrumental is expendable.
Lack Empathy. Anyone who disagrees with the tribe must do so because they’re bad faith, dishonest, and have evil intentions. The idea that someone with the necessary requisite knowledge and good intentions could possibly come to a conclusion different from the tribe is seen as absurd. Different walks of life that produce different values and needs are not valid. Even the activists that emphasize empathy, “lived experience,” and “different ways of being” (progressives) consistently only do so when those different experiences and ways of being are in line with their tribe’s values and goals.
Entitlement, Envy, and Resentment. Modern politics at their core are driven by entitlement, envy, and resentment. Conservative activism is driven by the idea that small town America had prosperity taken from it (entitlement), and that prosperity was unjustly transferred to tribal enemies (envy and resentment). Progressive activism is driven by the idea that historically disadvantaged groups should be given structural advantages going forward (entitlement), and that exploitative capitalists are hoarding prosperity that should be taken from them by progressive reform (envy and resentment).
Arrogant, Haughty Attitudes: Those outside of the tribe are smeared as ‘libtards’ and ‘snowflakes’ (conservatives), ‘deplorables’ and ‘MAGAts’ (progressives), or other de-humanizing pejoratives. For individuals that come into the tribe’s crosshairs, nothing is off limits: threats of violence, threats of rape, harassment, financial ruin, doxing, etc. Tribe members are then duty-bound to vocalize support for and defense of these behaviors, because the targets are evil, sub-human, and deserve it.
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Defeating Tribal Narcissism
Treating narcissistic personality disorder is notoriously difficult, but therapists who tackle the problem do so by directly facing the patient with the cognitive distortions that underly the disease. And so the first step to defeating tribal narcissism, as cliche as it sounds, is to recognize and understanding it.
Tribal narcissism has one key attribute that personal narcissism lacks, and it’s the secret sauce that keeps it alive: tribal narcissism is encouraged and socially enforced. The dictate to forced consensus and cutting from your life those who disagree with the tribe is designed to leave you with only other tribalists who will affirm your tribal narcissism (and police you, to make sure you don’t stray from it). The result is a society of clashing narcissistic tribes, each demanding fealty. And when those tribes demand we see everything through their tribal lens, through their narcissistic mirrors, then all of society (and truth itself) becomes obfuscated in a proverbial hall of mirrors.
If we’re looking for a way out, there’s some good news. The views that hold our entire society captive today are only actually held firmly by a few vocal, fervent activists. Their support is meticulously bolstered through a combination of carrots and sticks: community and belonging (“As a fellow tribalist, you are just and good.”) as well as fearmongering and rage-bating (“Look how bad the bad guys are! They will doom us all if you don’t fall in line!”), with some motte and baileys sprinkled in to help loyal tribalists turn their eyes from the dangers of their own tribe (e.g., “Abolish the police doesn’t literally mean abolish the police” or the short list of books conservatives highlight in Congressional hearings vs. the long list of books taken out of schools by conservative state governments).
The only way out is to reject this social dynamic. Enough people must reject the idea that you are guilty by association for having friends guilty of Wrong Think. Enough people must reject the practice of loyalty oaths outright and refuse to treat people differently who don’t submit to them. Enough people must reject the idea that any one ideological side can have a total victory in a large, diverse democracy, and must acknowledge that compromise and bargains are fundamentally necessary. Enough people must refuse to keep applying double-standards where tribal allies’ actions are infinitely justifiable and tribal enemies’ actions are infinitely deplorable.
When a therapist attempts to treat a narcissist, their goal is to help the patient (1) see their own characteristics, strengths, weaknesses, and importance in a more realistic and integrated light, and (2) build empathy and interest for others above and beyond their instrumental use to the narcissist. On the tribal level, this means owning up to your tribe’s own shortcomings, blind spots, imperfections, acknowledging and rejecting the excesses on your tribal fringe, and admitting the need to compromise in a large, diverse democracy where ideological consensus can never be achieved. It also means re-humanizing the outgroup as well as seeking to understand the experiences and motivations that would lead a smart, well-intentioned person to think differently from you.
If you can read this whole article and nod your head thinking of the other side, you’re half way there. Now turn your attention on yourself. If narcissism can be simply and somewhat glibly defined as the compulsion to look in the mirror with excessive adulation, then the cure starts with turning a more critical eye toward that mirror.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental health disorders (5th ed.) ("the “DSM-5”).