The new narcissism

Narcissus is the beautiful young man in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own image.  Havelock Ellis, the British psychologist who became famous for his writings on the psychology of sex, first used the term “narcissism” to designate a condition characterized by selfobsession and an extreme thirst for attention and admiration.  Freud, who took up the word after Ellis, observed that narcissism is normal among children, but after puberty, it may be considered pathological. We might say it is also normal to find it among politicians during an electoral campaign. But, when self-promotion becomes a standard feature of a society’s public life, one must ask if it has not become a social disorder.

Let us leave aside for the moment the logic of the law that is supposed to regulate electoral campaigns.  We have seen how easy it is to go around it. The law has been interpreted to apply only to individuals and entities that have filed their official candidacy.  It does not cover those who have only signified an intention to run.  So long as they are not yet candidates, the latter can do everything that candidates are prohibited from doing, short of actual vote solicitation. The result of this has been the proliferation of all forms of political advertising long before the official campaign period has begun.  To all intents and purposes, the offense of premature campaigning has been effectively erased from the election code.

Yet our election laws have not changed much.  What seems to have changed is our general attitude toward self-promotion.  It is no longer frowned upon. The new principle appears to be: “if you have it, flaunt it; if you don’t have it, imagine you have it.”  A new narcissism seems to have replaced the ethic of quiet modesty and self-deprecation that citizens in the past looked for in their leaders.

One can only speculate on the social origins of this new narcissism. Perhaps it is a product of the cultural shift from ascribed to achieved roles, which promotes a belief in the self as something that is made rather than inherited.  It could also be a correlate of the enlarged space that advertising, alongside entertainment, has claimed for itself in the modern mass media.  Finally, one might trace this new selffixation to the value that political surveys attach to name-recall as an asset.  Whatever the roots of this phenomenon might be, the advances in communication technology – the advent of computerized tarpaulin printers, for example – have provided abundant possibilities for the production of quick and relatively inexpensive promotional materials.

All our elections since Edsa I have fed the political advertising frenzy that we are witnessing today.  Our politicians and their strategists have fallen into the belief that sheer massive advertising can make even a moron win an election.  There are stunning successes in our midst that are cited to demonstrate this.  But there are also stunning failures we can mention to dispute the claim that advertising determines the outcome of elections.  The truth of the matter is that no one can really predict how the public will react to political advertisements, or, how much and in what way they shape voting preferences.

This is not to say that advertising does not work.  Obviously it does. Otherwise, we would be left with no answer to the question that the sociologist Niklas Luhmann posed:  “How can well-to-do members of society be so stupid as to spend large amounts of money on advertising in order to confirm their belief in the stupidity of others?” Luhmann’s answer is food for thought: “It is hard not to sing the praises of folly here, but it obviously works, albeit in the form of the self-organization of folly.”  His interest, and ours too, is to understand how modern advertising works. Hopefully, if politicians had a better appreciation of how advertising today works, and how countless forms of self-promotion only evoke negative reactions from the public, they would think twice before they inflict their narcissism on the public consciousness.

Let me offer a few examples to illustrate this point.  Every time I see promotional material stapled on trees or dangerously clipped onto electric and telephone wires, I cringe.  I take a good look at the faces of these irresponsible politicians and swear never to vote for them. Whenever I pass a road or a bridge being repaired, and I see the beaming faces of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, her public works secretary, and the local politicians on the billboards – instead of the budget for this project and the starting and completion dates – my blood boils.  These politicians are using public money to promote themselves instead of empowering the public with useful information.

What is interesting about advertising is that, unlike the news, it does not hide its interest in promoting something or somebody.  People know that what they are seeing or hearing is advertising, and so they are aware that they are being persuaded or even manipulated.  What they are unconscious of, however, is how they are being influenced. And here lies precisely the power of modern advertising.  Its target audiences are made to believe they are in full control of their decision-making, when in fact they are being subtly moved to want something they may not really want.

In contrast, hard sell — especially when undertaken by politicians who tend to be universally distrusted — produces the exact opposite effect. People are turned off by their brazen self-promotion.  They quickly see through the tricks being played on them, and they are offended.

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