Jean M Twenge Ph.D.

The Narcissism Epidemic

Shhh, don't tell: Individualism has its upsides

When individualism wins: The repeal of "don't ask, don't tell"

Posted Dec 22, 2010

With the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," we are witnessing the triumph of individualism.

Individualism can have very negative consequences, particularly when it crosses over into narcissism. We've witnessed self-centeredness, relationship problems, and the overconfidence that led to the economic downturn. Our culture places so much emphasis on feeling good about ourselves that it's easy to think the world revolves around us. Much of what I've written on cultural change, especially in Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic, has focused on these negative trends.

Yet the biggest cultural and generational change isn't in narcissism or self-esteem. It's in equality. The longest chapter in Generation Me is called "The Equality Revolution" because this change is so enormous. Women are now half the graduates in fields such as medicine and law. Racial prejudice is far from gone completely, but systemic discrimination is a thing of the past and minorities have broken the glass ceiling in every field imaginable (including the White House). And, more slowly, discrimination against gays and lesbians has fallen away.

Today, with gays and lesbians finally able to serve openly in the military, individualism has won. Equal rights are the upside of treating people as individuals rather than as members of a social group.

All of today's working generations have played a part in this cultural shift. Silent generation leaders began granting partner benefits to gay employees in the 1990s. Baby Boomer activists began the gay rights movement in the 1970s and continued the movement in the ensuing decades. GenX'ers fought for the acceptance of gays in the culture and brought the issues into the mainstream.

Those born after 1980, who I call Generation Me, have advanced the cause with their casual attitude that being gay is just who someone is. The young are the most supportive of gay marriage and gay issues in general, and often see prejudice against gays and lesbians as hopelessly outdated.

And it's all due to individualism -- the belief that the self is more important than social rules. In this case, the social rule -- don't be gay, and if you are, hide it -- was wrong. That's why today is a great day.

In 1997, just 13 years ago, Ellen Degeneres appeared on the cover of Time magazine next to the headline "Yep, I'm Gay." Her TV show was canceled and she endured years of hate mail. She now hosts a popular talk show and is even a model for Covergirl makeup. Her being a lesbian has become a virtual non-issue -- in less than a decade and a half.

There's still a very long way to go - among other things, gay teens face an unacceptably high level of bullying. The difference is that now, such treatment evokes an outcry. Not that long ago, it was shrugged off as just the way things were.

In observing cultural change, it's tempting to see things as all good or all bad. But every cultural system has its tradeoffs. We have more freedom and more tolerance, but also more narcissism and loneliness. It's unlikely we will be able to keep all of the good things while banishing the bad things. For example, we want the freedom to divorce even though it makes our relationships less stable. But I believe we can keep many of the benefits of individualism, such as equal rights, without crossing into narcissism. We can accept someone for who she is without telling her she can do anything she wants.

Here's one example. It's become very common for parents to tell kids "You are special," an attempt to boost self-esteem that actually references narcissism ("I think I am a special person" is an item on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory). It's probably better to tell kids "I love you," which focuses on connection instead. Specialness implies difference. When parents say it, they mean a good difference. But being special can sometimes mean a bad difference, like being told you can't serve in the military if you admit to being who you are. 

In repealing "don't ask, don't tell," we are telling gays and lesbians that we are not going to treat them as special anymore. With the repeal of this unjust law, we are saying we love them just the same, and welcome their contributions and their service to their country.

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