Empathy Is Not Enough

At the Festival of Dangerous Ideas this weekend I listened to an interesting talk on the Narcissism Epidemic by writer and social commentator Anne Manne. The idea of narcissism traces back at least to Greek mythology. Today, the term refers to a spectrum of personality characteristics that can be summarised as an imbalance between self and others. Narcissism is characterised by, among other things:

  • Grandiosity
  • Entitlement
  • Willingness to use others, and above all,
  • Lack of empathy.

There has been a sharp rise in measures of narcissism in college students over the past 30 years. While social media has increased the prominence of self-centered, attention-seeking and trollish behaviour, I agree with Manne in that technology is more of an enabler of narcissism, rather than an underlying cause.

The more plausible explanation for the “narcissism epidemic” is that it is a natural product our time, namely, a social-political-economic system that is individualistic, materialistic and achievement-oriented. Psychologists nailed it with the term self-actualisation. Be the best person that you can be. Who can argue with that?

Self-sufficiency. Self-efficacy. Self-determination. Self-improvement. Self-worth. Self-dignity. Self-respect. Self-love. Self-worth. Self-esteem. Self-understanding. Self-concept. It’s all positively self-evident.

The exaltation of self occurs across the political spectrum. Manne brought up the ideology of Ayn Rand (who wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness), which has been taken up enthusiastically by the political right in the United States. We can also see this with the current Australian government, most notably in its disturbingly inequitable budget and its rhetoric of “lifters not leaners”.*

Is the political left any better? I find that it is a mixed bag. The inherent dignity of human beings is a worthy cause to rally around. It has done so much in the past century to make society a more inclusive place. And yet I wonder how many have critically examined the notion of “I should be able to do whatever I want, and if it doesn’t affect you, then butt out” — as if we live in neat little bubbles and always know what’s best for ourselves. There is also an increasing self-righteousness that goes against the spirit of tolerance and respect that is needed for a civil, pluralistic society.

Several people asked at the end of the talk how do we address the narcissism epidemic. Manne said that the antidote to narcissism is empathy. We need to foster it — in the home, in schools, in workplaces, in the public arena. To me the answer is nice but so woefully insufficient, in the face of our self-actualisation-driven society. “Emotional literacy” is all well and good, but where does the motivation come from to empathise — not just in isolated spurts, but in a sustained manner?

This is one of the reasons I am attracted to the Christian gospel. Its message of grace means that we no longer have to live for ourselves. We are free to practice self-forgetfulness.


* I noticed that the audience gave enthusiastic rounds of applause when Manne repudiated the rhetoric of “lifters not leaners”, and murmured approvingly about the need for political leadership. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority of these well-off, middle-to-upper class people voted for the LNP. At the end of the day, we get the government we deserve.


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