The new epidemic

Epidemic: Affecting or tending to affect a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community, or region at the same time. Merriam Webster Dictionary

Merriam Webster narrows it down to disease in the full definition of the word, but I’m thinking of the wider definition now. The word epidemic is often used figuratively and synonymously with words like catching, contagious and infectious. I think it’s an apt description, in combination with narcissism, for the development we have gone through in recent decades. It’s mostly about us these days, even when we seemingly move the focus away from ourselves.

There was a long period when I was yearning for some sort of TV-normality, but it never happened, and I have more or less accepted the fact that TV will never be the same. The norm is reality shows and desperately trying to get some attemtion. Everybody is a celebrity these days. I’m not sure whether we created the shows, or whether they created us, but these TV programs show some of the narcissism that characterizes us today.

I’m not talking about the same narcissism that psychiatrists and psychologists describe because there probably aren’t that many that truly admire themselves. We still have a few traits that could be called narcissistic, and it is entirely possible that we are heading towards the curse that befell Narcissus. This figure from Greek mythology was described as very beautiful, but when he didn’t reciprocate the feelings the nymph Ekho had for him, he was forced to fall in love with his own reflection, and die. There are several versions of the story, but the point is that he could only consider himself, and that made him unable to separate between good and evil, selfishness and generosity, self-discipline and self-destruction etc. The best example today might be Donald Trump. His strongest attributes seem to be a total lack of empathy, as well as overestimating his own skills and popularity. It doesn’t matter what people say because their criticism just couldn’t be correct.

I’m not sure anyone is unaffected, and we can see this epidemic even in what should be selfless acts. I don’t have many heroes anymore, so it’s especially sad when one of them diess I sometimes get the impression that it’s more important to some people to show that they care than to actually care. When David Bowie died it didn’t take long for every celebrity on the list to tell us how much David Bowie meant to them. It’s sort of expected, and I have no doubt that quite a few people did the same when Harper Lee, Umberto Eco and Alan Rickman died recently too. I’m sure some of them were sincere, but not all of them.

Maybe this behaviour has something to do with community spirit and solidarity. A death probably affects us much stronger if a lot of people around us express the same feelings. That quickly turns into a contest where the winner is the most empathetic. Maybe that’s what happened when Hillary Clinton tried to say something nice about Nancy Reagan a few days ago. The first lady during most of the 1980’s died recently, and Hillary Clinton praised her for the job she and Ronald Reagan did in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The truth is that the authorities became aware of the threat in 1981, the year Reagan moved into The White House, but it took him six years to mention it in a speech.

I have a feeling President Barack Obama is getting tired of posing for selfies. This one is with Bill Nye, left and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Photo by Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons
I have a feeling Obama is getting tired of posing for selfies. Everyone wants to say they have met the president. This one is with Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
Photo by Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons

We have been showing a more altruistic side of ourselves in recent years, but maybe this also shows a need for exposure? Many of us have been very eager to show support for Paris after a couple of terrorist attacks. It was terrible when 130 people were killed in November 2015, or when 12 people died in the Charlie Hebdo attack. The Charlie Hebdo-victims seem to have been particularly important to us. It was personal. We were suddenly all French, and everyone wanted to join the two million people and fourty world leaders that marched in the streets of Paris. This was our big Je suis Charlie-moment, and many showed their support by changing their profile photo on facebook.

The Turkish capital Ankara has been hit hard by terrorism in recent months. Two bombs killed 102 people in October last year and just a couple of weeks ago 37 people were killed in another attack. Maybe some people don’t know how much sympathy to show for a country that is partly European and partly Asian, but I haven’t seen a very strong Je suis-moment for Ankara. This is after all a country that means something to many Europeans, as many of us go there for holidays. Maybe this is showing something genuine about us. We are very eager to help the refugees, even though we know that this is going to cost us (we have to pay in the form of higher tax and reduced benefits). We are doing this because we think it’ll make us look good. I think we would give Turkey a Je suis-moment too if we thought it would give us social benefits. It’s not likely to produce a lot of facebook-likes.

What will the future look like if we really do have narsissistic traits? It could be a brutal awakening because in some ways we are living in a bubble where nothing is real. It’s a common scenario in science fiction that the hero ends up in a different reality, where everything seems real, but it could be an illusion. The characters could have a good life there for a while, but it’s not real, and frequently it’s nothing more than a prison. This other reality could be a parallel universe or it could be an illusion caused by drugs.The point is that the characters have to interpret what they are seeing and determine what is real. That’s how they can find their way back to their own world. We may have to use the same strategy. What is important to us? What is real and what is an illusion? Maybe the best solution isn’t to think like a businessman or politician and grab whatever we can get our hands on. Many people don’t care about the environment, economy, war, rights among groups they are not a part of, or disease as long as it doesn’t affect them directly. I’m not sure why, but we are the sometimes people.

There’s a powerful peer pressure today, and there isn’t much room for those who think differently. Yes, I know we talk about a lot about thinking outside the box, people of all cultures living next to each other, encouraging creative people with new ideas to make a profit, accepting neurodiversity etc. That’s not what happens in real life. You’d think there was room for individualism in a culture that focuses so much on narcissism, but other people only mean sonething in this society if they make our own life better. The problem of assessing what is real and what is an illusion is that many prefer the latter.

After I posted this on my Norwegian blog several suicide bombers killed a lot of people in Brussels. That is of course tragic, but once again it’s easier to care about ourselves. The former French colony The Ivory Coast was attacked just a few days earlier, as The Washington Post reported, but there’s been literally hundreds of attacks just since the attack in Paris in November last year. In addition to the most obvious countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria) there’s been Mali (November 2015), Tunis (November 2015), Indonesia (January 2016), Burkina Faso (January 2016) and Somalia (January 2016). We have many opportunities to care, and we did when refugees and migrants came here. Now we can have a competition where everyone can easily see what we are doing. That has made a difference for the Syrians that can actually get out of the refugee camps or their country.



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