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Proud to be a Part of the “Me” Generation: Narcissism versus the Virtue of Selfishness

Proud to be a Part of the “Me” Generation: Narcissism versus the Virtue of Selfishness

Many social critics and researchers have labeled generation Y as self-absorbed, entitled, selfish, or narcissistic technological zombies. However, narcissism is a pathology; selfishness is a virtue. Both can make you extremely successful in a competitive society. However, the latter is deeply rooted in valuing independence, creativity, and self-esteem to promote one’s exceptional qualities and talents, rather than the former; that is driven by delusions of grandeur and a false sense of entitlement. The staples of confidence for many are still rooted in the tendency to compare one’s success to the relative success of others. Your neighbor is either your competitor or your ally and your ability to negotiate your personal power is either made or broken by this basic principle of comparison. This, for me, is a symptom of a neo-liberal capitalist framework that weaponized a prevalent and global feeling of lack and status anxiety for the sake of profit. This is the Western reality we are living in and efforts to replace a grandiose sense of entitlement with a real sense of self-esteem have been all surface and no depth.

Every individual on this earth lives in some genre of a hierarchical system; whether it be a direct or representative democracy, a constitutional monarchy, communism, or in a dictatorship. Every job and every title, whether self-made or not, codifies to the world what leg of the hierarchical ladder you may stand on and this is reinforced by cultural and social norms. You’d be lying to yourself if you avowed that acquiring some sense of power in your personal or professional lives is not an everyday occurrence. Every relationship has a power dynamic whether it’s explicit or covert.

When you reflect on your role or position in society, where do you see yourself on the board? Are you a pawn, a rook, a knight, a king or a queen? How one perceives themselves and is in turn perceived matters; To what extent do perceptions add to or take away from finding personal happiness and self-esteem? This is the more important question I’d like to tackle here.

Image credit: Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany — Narcissus by Caravaggio, 1597–1599, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica

Image credit: Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany — Narcissus by Caravaggio, 1597–1599, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica

Narcissism, or a deep sense of self-entitlement, is built on insecurity. Narcissists desire to “Portray a grandiose image of themselves to conceal their feelings from the external world. Particularly, feelings that signal vulnerability” adds researchers in a recent issue of Psychophysiology, a scientific journal. A sense of grandiosity in both children and adults go from degrees of modesty to an overbearing need for praise. Grandiose manifestations exhibit themselves in several manifestations such as boastfulness, aggression, passive aggression, moodiness, and fears of being evaluated in a negative light. They also agitate feelings of depression and addictive impulses. “Much like [the parable of Narcissus, narcissists] wrap up their image and views around themselves [based on the aforementioned principles of grandiosity and entitlement]” (Nikolic, 2018). My experience with narcissism is very personal because I was reared by the hands of one. Narcissists build a lot of resentment, repression, and codependency within their intimate relationships. In fact, narcissists feed off it. Narcissistic abuse leaves long-lasting internal scars that are difficult to remedy for its victims. Many social and psychoanalyst critics since the late 70s have insisted our nation’s youth are encircled in a cultural pool of narcissism. Recent research has attributed a lot of this distress to social media.Talking about the psychological effects of social media sounds like such a broken record, but subsequently, “Excessive use of social media-meaning posting of images and selfies- is linked to an increase of narcissism… Researchers from Swansea University and Milan University this year examined [ this personality change] in 74 individuals aged 18 to 34 over a four-month period.” Over the course of the study, there was an average 25% increase in narcissist traits. Swansea University’s, Phillip Reed, stated that, “The predominant usage of social media for the participants was visual, mainly through Facebook, suggests the growth of this personality problem.”

I refuse to completely adhere to this conclusion, since, I know from experience how pernicious narcissism is. Narcissists exist on social media, of course, and habits of narcissism can increase as our generation becomes more attached to social media, but I know enough people living behind the screen to observe the shortcomings in these conclusions. An entire generation who only post images to sustain a grandiose self-image in order to intentionally manipulate people is hyperbolic, to say the least. What I observe more than ever is a deep need to be seen and acknowledged. The emotional reality of this insecurity runs deep and dark. The market’s solution to this feeling of emotional lack was an offensive strike named social media. Essentially, it conditions people to seek happiness in highlight reels of their lives via applications and other social network outlets. The very interface and algorithm of major social media outlets like Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter use a tactic called relative positioning that weaponizes pathological envy against a variety of population groups and psychological profiles. “Social medias are constructed around envy and perfuse pathological envy by quantifying it with likes, reposts, and retweets via various ranking algorithms and then leverage envy and, even more, aggression to motivate use” says Sam Vaknin, an Isreali psychoanalyst of narcissism, in an interview. This fosters interactions that encourage bullying, stalking, black humor, and brutal honesty, and unfortunately, playing on these shortcomings within human social behaviors increases social media usage.

Frequent use of social media is an established global phenomenon that has radically changed the way we conduct our lives, but consequently, social media has an “Inherent potential to affect the psyche” responds forensic psychiatrist, Daniel Brunskill, in the Australasian Journal of Psychiatry. So what is the best way to respond to this phenomena when experts are signaling the red flags?

Having a social media presence is a highly valued activity, despite that, it is a conditioning tool; a conditioning tool that also serves an effective promotional tool. Many social media users have managed well by uploading content that ranges from videos of people eating to time-lapse art videos. Social media “influencers” gain unprecedented amounts of attention from posting useless to educational videos is no longer a moral question to be scrutinized as either good or bad since its here to stay, but rather a question of: is it a productive way to achieve personal happiness? Social media is a great tool to promote, yet, the “Psychologically significant ‘gaps’ between online image…and the offline identity” remain (Brunskill, 2013). So, I offer a radically antique philosophy that has been dusted and shelved off the back folds of my high school memories.

Image credit: Graham Hardy; First edition cover photo of Anthem by Ayn Rand

Image credit: Graham Hardy; First edition cover photo of Anthem by Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand was a Russo-American writer born in 1905. Ayn was born Alyssa Rosenblum of a middle-class Jewish family in St. Petersburg with her father, mother, and two sisters. She is notable for her thick, preachy epics, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Many Teenagers or twenty-somethings were hooked onto her preachy epics; I was one. Her short novel, Anthem, a text that wages war against collectivism by setting its story and characters in a dystopian world. In it, individualism has been eradicated and the sole purpose of the citizen’s lives is to serve the well-being of society. I was just an admirer then, but now her words are changing my life. Many of her contemporaries found her to be “self-absorbed and difficult,” and in a Playboy interview during 1964 and wrote her off as being emotionless person. This is just one of many examples where her basic ideology was miscommunicated and scrutinized for the sake of hyping up a radically alternative approach to selfishness. At my core, the philosophy that attracts me to Rand is Objectivism. Its basic principle is that selfishness is good and rational. She attests that it reflects an accordance with one’s values, preferences, and needs, as opposed to acting to please others, attain rewards or avoid punishment. “Selfishness is not a license for one to do as one pleases, nor should you expect others to sacrifice their own interests for you either; rather by emphasizing rational self-interest.” Adds Christie Maloyed in her comparative study of the popular 2001-2015 series Mad Men and Randism.

Indulgences and impulses should not be confused with this virtue of rational selfishness; it’s about productiveness and finding self-guided moral purpose in life. It's calling for a self-consciousness or self-awareness that steps away from insecurities and anxieties and steps into an “Awareness [that] involves knowledge and acceptance of one’s multifaceted and potentially contradictory self-aspects” (Brunskill, 2013).

This philosophy emphasizes selfishness as the ultimate way of achieving long-lasting self-esteem and happiness which is light-years away from the typical narcissistic examination of the “Me” generation. Fundamentally, her philosophy is having the confidence to attest, “Yes, I do love myself, but for right and rational reasons; for reasons that are divorce from ephemeral and external forms of validation or for the sake of rebasing others.”

I love being apart of the “Me” generation; I am 100 percent for the random selfies or celebrity “clap-back” compilations on Snapchat, “thirst trap” servings on Instagram, or 280 characters worth of “tea” on Twitter. All those things are entertaining, but entertaining yourself to death will sooner make you a narcissist than bring you long-lasting happiness.

“Happiness is…using your mind's fullest power, not the joy of faking reality, but of achieving values that are real” (Rand, 1957).  

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