O Come, All Ye … Narcissists? Progressives Are Not Immune From Mania
It’s quite hilarious to have to actively remind myself that progressively minded people are just as susceptible to being horrible as Tea Party Republicans are. Such moments of clairvoyance are made possible for me, a self-identified “bedwetting liberal” (credit for that phrase goes to an ingenious Huffington Post commenter), only through conscious uprooting from the prophetic rhetoric so common on the left. That such a revelation comes as a shock to many progressives is emblematic of a wildly irritating phenomenon that goes largely under the radar in leftie political circles: the messiah complex.
Just to add some authority to this highly researched and technical term, here’s the Wikipedia definition for your reading pleasure:
A messiah complex (also known as the Christ complex or savior complex) is a state of mind in which an individual holds a belief that they are, or are destined to become, a savior.
While I’m no psychologist, I imagine such a “savior” may also exhibit symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, such as delusions of grandeur, megalomania (inflated self-importance), egocentrism, dislike of being incorrect, and an insatiable need for righteousness. Granted, mental health definitions have clearly been influenced by power. So has everything. Now that we’ve jumped over that spike strip, we may now conclude something about people afflicted by messiah complexes or narcissism…
They’re the worst.
We all know a fellow politico that will not concede an argument no matter how legitimate another’s point of view. Absolutists who spend more time speaking than listening or thinking exist loudly across ideologies. Absolutism occurs not when someone stakes out an uncommon or fringe political opinion, but when that person will not consider alternatives. This phenomenon is intimately related to the messiah complex. Only a savior – someone with omniscience and exclusive access to the universe’s cache of truths – could fancy themselves authoritative enough to dismiss opinions without a respectful and informed debate.
Now I return to the surprise and embarrassment I expressed at my lack of progressive self-awareness in asking this question: why do leftist political circles so often neglect human fallibility?
My answer to this question begins with Jesus, who advocated for deliverance from greed, evil, hatred, and the related horrors wrought by advanced agricultural civilizations: the fuss over the agricultural surplus, if you will. Jesus, a savior to millions today (and rightly so) equated godliness and deliverance with equality and peace, two tenets central to modern leftism. The association of godliness with political ideals can be seen from the French Revolution to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While many atheists on the left flee from religion, they adopt subtly and blatantly religious ideals.
Some embrace righteousness a bit more exuberantly than others. These we might call our messiahs. They often go undetected in leftist politics because they act almost as preachers. Though the religious veneer has been buffed off, many messiahs continue to exercise an intangible authority over leftist political discourses, illegitimate as it may be. There is an assumption that those “most far to the left” are the godliest. This assumption, I suspect, is a holdover from the days when religion and radical leftism were more tightly intertwined. Leftist politics are vulnerable to undiagnosed messiah complexes precisely because this religious history is obscured by recent secularism.
The concealed religion embedded in the rhetoric of radical circles is not always negative. After all, equality is not the worst thing to equate to righteousness. However, humans tend to use religious authority for selfish purposes, and leftist politics are no exception. People on all stars in the political constellation use this authority to make personal gains and exert power in discourses. This can morph into megalomania – the inability to accept legitimate criticism or acknowledge shortcomings.
The awkward fact is that no political position on the left is always right. Each ideology – welfare state capitalism, anarchism, socialism, communism, anarcho-feminism, libertarian socialism, etc. – has valuable insights for the future. When one discourse claims legitimacy over all others, we lose opportunities for fusion. Absolutism is not sustainable. It is the enemy of rebirths and new ideas. When narcissism is allowed to determine any group’s course, growth becomes impossible. Messiahs avoid constructive criticism to preserve their authority. What results is stunting.
Luckily, there is a manageable fix to this: active encouragement of respectful criticism. It must be acknowledged among radicals, liberals, and activists alike that no argument is beyond respectful reproach. No one should enjoy unchecked authority over the terms of political debate. That must apply to everyone. Competing ideals like equality, liberation, reconciliation, and justice benefit from humble debate. I will admit that I’m the first person who needs to listen to this advice…
We should not be afraid to respectfully question any authority, even a seemingly righteous one. An unquestioned leftism is far less unassailable than one of respectful pushback and growth. And it’s much more bearable, to boot.