Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Incivility -- or narcissism?

Recent incidents of incivility are blatant displays of narcissism

Everyone is talking about incivility these days. Congressman Joe Wilson yells, "You lie!" during the President's address to Congress. Serena Williams volunteers to shove a ball into the body part of a (unpaid volunteer) line judge. And most egregious of all, Kanye West cuts short the acceptance speech of a young singer to declare his opinion that someone else should have won.

But it's not just incivility that's going on here - it's blatant narcissism. In each case, the uncivil person is declaring that he or she knows better than anyone else, and has the right to declare this loudly in a public forum despite strong social rules discouraging such behavior. Narcissism puts the self first before all others, and that's exactly what happened in each of these cases. Anecdotal evidence, yes, but yet more evidence that we have an epidemic of narcissistic behavior in this country that the recession has not managed to dampen.

Williams' anger at the line judge is somewhat excusable - tennis players have gotten angry with line judges for decades, and in the heat of the moment in sports rude behavior happens. Her insult was more violent and personal than many, but still somewhat in context.

Wilson and West, however, are different matters. Wilson broke a very strong social sanction that you don't catcall during a President's address to Congress. But he apparently thought it was more important that everyone know his opinion. Then he refused to apologize afterward, another sure sign of someone hyped up on his own greatness. The good news? People booed him when he shouted out, and Congress sanctioned him. At least we as a society still recognize that such behavior as reprehensible, instead of excusing it as part of "success" or "self-promotion" as narcissism often is.

West behaved the most narcissistically of all. He intruded on what should have been a moment of triumph for young singer Taylor Swift. It was so important that he express his all-important opinion that he snatched the microphone right out of her hands and took over. He not only broke one of the strongest rules we have - you don't take the floor from someone, especially at an awards show - but blithely assumed that his opinion was the only one that mattered. When West appeared on Jay Leno the next night, Leno asked West what his late mother - by all accounts a great lady - would have thought of what happened. The look on West's face said it all. He seemed to finally realize what he had done and looked ashamed. He knew that his mother would have done the adult-child equivalent of whipping his butt.

I'm glad we're having this national conversation about incivility, and condemning it. That gives me hope that we still have the right values as a country. We should recognize, though, that it's not just incivility but self-centeredness that got us here. Parents still tell kids, with the good intentions of raising their self-esteem, "you're special" and "you shouldn't care what other people think of you." Then we're shocked when they behave highly entitled and narcissistic. We shouldn't be. The root of the incivility so many are criticizing lies in the thing we thought was so good: Focusing on ourselves. Perhaps we are finally beginning to recognize that this has a downside.