It is a commonplace that our universities suffer from a lack of intellectual diversity. From that it would seem that the remedy would be an increase in intellectual diversity. The problem is that the root of the issue is ultimately emotional, not intellectual. We’re no longer educating our children to outgrow what Freud called “primary narcissim,” but rather to take it as the norm. And you can’t run a university—or a country—around grown-ups who’ve been taught to expect the world to be their mothers.
According to psychoanalytic theory, we begin our lives in a state of deepest attachment to mother, who loves us, and is the world to us. The result is that we feel ourselves to be the center of a loving world—Freud’s primary narcissism. Ordinarily, people outgrow this stage and come to recognize that there is a world outside themselves that, far from loving them, for the most part does not give a damn.
However, in our time, for reasons that I explore elsewhere, primary narcissism has come to establish people’s concept of themselves. I call this the “pristine self.”
In saying this, I do not mean that people experience the world as revolving around them with love, but rather that they think it should, and that, when it does not, they feel deprived and, to use the common term, “marginalized.” Their response is resentment, which comes to structure their lives.
Consider the all-too-common accusation of “racism.” That accusation doesn’t refer any longer to falsifiable, objective facts. It functions as an explanation for the lack of the love and importance to which the accusers’ feel entitled, and which they attribute to their membership in a specific group. Since the world really is indifferent to them, and indeed, sometimes even does not like them, the accusers see racism all around them—or sexism, Islamophobia, or whatever the case may be. All these terms serve to articulate the disappointment and anger such people must feel toward the world.
An illustration may be useful here. Many will know about the Halloween events that took place in 2015 at Yale University, in which many students were incensed that an instructor in child development named Erica Christakis took issue with an email from an administrative group calling on students to avoid being offensive in their choice of Halloween costumes. The key event was a confrontation between a group of students and Nicholas Christakis, Erica’s husband, professor of sociology, and master of Silliman College. Videos are available from FIRE. On the last and most famous of them, an enraged black student cursed Professor Christakis and said he should be fired for offering the view that his job is to foster the university as an intellectual community, whereas she told him that his job was to make it a home or, in other words, a place where she would be the center of a loving world.
But an even more illuminating exchange took place earlier in the confrontation, when a student was upset that Christakis did not know her name:
Student A: (inaudible) I live here. I eat in the dining halls for all three meals, and you should know my name. My name is Michaela, but people have called me other names. People have called me Jeralynn, people have called me Malika, people have called me Nina …
Christakis: I have 500 names to learn … Michaela, you have to understand it has nothing to do with your race, my difficulty learning names …
Student A: Well, but that's how it seems.
The unfalsifiable, essentially emotional “that’s how it seems” is the reaction of a person who is using race as an explanation for why Christakis doesn’t love her and recognize her importance, and who believes that, if she were white, he would.
Whites, heterosexuals, and men aren’t allowed to invoke racism and its cognates. The pristine self does not recognize the existence of an indifferent external world. If one does not find the world revolving around one with love, somebody bad must be to blame. But the whites, and especially their heterosexual males, are uniquely seen as having been at the center of love. Their badness means that they have gotten there by stealing the love that should have gone to others. They gained it through their power; otherwise, the others would have it still. The charges of racism, sexism, Islamophobia, etc., express hatred toward them for that theft—and represent the rage of narcissists, who must hate someone, or give up their narcissism.
Whites, heterosexuals, and men, and especially white, heterosexual men, are serving as scapegoats—and the scapegoat is essential for the functioning of this psychosocial dynamic. The scapegoat serves within the group as a member or a faction to whom other members of the group can attribute blame for anything that goes wrong in their lives. The scapegoat’s role is to internalize these attributions of badness and to feel them as guilt. The only way he can gain acceptance is to acknowledge his unacceptability. This is called acknowledging his “white privilege.” If he should assert that he did not steal the love, but in some way his group collectively earned it, that is called “white supremacy,” and is sufficient grounds for expulsion.
When narcissism is taken as normal, someone will be cast as the scapegoat. Identity politics has assigned the scapegoat role to whites, heterosexuals, and men. We still need to pay attention to the way political ideology selects scapegoats—but we have to realize that it’s narcissism that makes the selection of scapegoats necessary in the first place.
When Christopher Lasch wrote The Culture of Narcissism, he was just scratching the surface. The pristine self is incompatible with social structure. A functioning society depends on people channeling their affections and their labor beyond a narrow devotion to making sure they feel loved all the time—it depends on its members ceasing to demand that the world treat them in a way suitable to infancy, and growing up.
The politically correct suppression of intellectual diversity is dangerous, of course. But the narcissism that requires political correctness as psychological crutch is more dangerous still.
Howard S. Schwartz is an Emeritus Professor of Organizational Behavior at Oakland University. His publications include Narcissistic Process and Corporate Decay: The Theory of the Organization Ideal and Political Correctness and the Destruction of Social Order: Chronicling the Rise of the Pristine Self. He blogs at The March of the Virgin.
Image Credit: Public Domain