The Dangers of Collective Narcissism

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Caste" by Isabel Wilkerson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is collective narcissism? How does it manifest in a society and what are its political implications?

Collective narcissism is a belief that one’s own group is special and superior. One of the most pronounced examples of collective narcissism is how it manifested in the caste system of Nazi Germany: regular people celebrated their leader in spite of the atrocities he inflicted on Jews.

Read more about collective narcissism and its social consequences.

What Is Collective Narcissism?

Society likes to believe that a few bad apples are responsible for systemic oppression in the world, but the truth is that no one person or faction of people is to blame. A caste system cannot exist without the backing of a group mentality. And everyone has an obligation to address the evils they see and attempt to fix them. The era of Nazi Germany highlights the power of this group mentality to allow the persecution of the subordinate caste. 

A film shown in a Berlin museum captures a parade-like atmosphere the day Hitler returned from the invasion of Paris. The crowds were packed tight around his balcony, and women screamed and carried on in a way reminiscent of the Beatles invasion in America decades later. 

Many of these people were ostensibly good people, but they willingly bought into the rhetoric that the Jews were subhuman because of whatever past grievances, large or small, they had that fit the script. Generations of these grievances built to a fervor that allowed them to disconnect from reality and believe their leaders were in the right. But individual grievances alone could not create the wave of blind animosity capable of ignoring 6 million murders. Their experiences became part of  a communal animosity that grew big enough to crush an entire population. 

This unifying of experiences against a perceived offender is a form of collective narcissism. Narcissism describes the way in which one inflates their sense of self and entitlement to suppress deep-seated insecurities. In a caste system, collective narcissism establishes the dominant caste as the sun that all the other castes revolve around. The dominant caste makes themselves the standard of beauty and their way of life the standard of normalcy. They view the world only from this perspective, and they expect others to do the same. 

Few people can get over this narcissism enough to view the world from another’s perspective. Awareness requires effort, and when your group defines the standard of life, that effort feels unnecessary. And when individuals can frame their lives as a representation of the proper functioning of a nation, they become giants. Their identities become the national identity, and they lose the distinction between their survival and the nation’s survival. 

Equating individual survival with national survival creates a fascist political system, which leads to extreme racialism. Each member brings the threads of their opinions and experiences to weave a national narrative, and this flawed patchwork of beliefs becomes the blanket that comforts all of them. All this group needs is a leader to represent the group interest and vow to protect it. This leader declares any slight against one of them from the lower caste is a slight against the nation, and their followers activate to defend the country they love. 

This type of group self-aggrandizement causes dominant individuals to believe that they are the authority on everything related to their country. They feel superior in their knowledge of all subjects, even those the subordinate caste has more experience with. Terms such as “mansplaining” or “whitesplaining” represent this presumed authority to explain a subordinate person’s circumstances to them, as though that person isn’t capable of determining how they feel about their life experiences.  

The Appeasement of White Guilt

The relationship between the dominant caste and subordinate caste in America could be described as a sort of Stockholm Syndrome. Although scholars have never agreed on a succinct definition of this term, it typically refers to how a captive will bond and empathize with their captors as a survival mechanism. The subordinate caste, therefore, willingly buys into the justifications given by the dominant caste for their treatment and adjusts their own behaviors accordingly. 

Adjusting behaviors is second nature for people living on the margins of society. They must learn the codes, protocols, standards, and signals of the dominant caste to survive. Their extreme powers of perception must function at all times so they can navigate life without repercussions. They make adjustments in every facet of life, such as avoiding eye contact with authority figures, moving aside to let a dominant person pass, or dressing up for normal tasks, like grocery shopping or doctor’s visits, to appear less threatening or be taken seriously. 

But the biggest adjustment expected from the subordinate caste is to provide forgiveness to dominant members for their infractions against them. The subordinate caste is expected to rise above their trauma and anger and absolve the dominant caste for their actions, thereby absolving them of the sins of the past. 

Americans view forgiveness as a staple of the black community. Their spirituality is used against them by white Americans, who see any refusal to forgive as a statement of their lack of Christian values. Through this blanket absolution, the white community can skew reality to disguise the violent and oppressive nature of their actions.

This scenario played out recently in a Dallas courtroom in 2019. The trial was for a white police officer who entered the wrong apartment, believing it to be her own, and shot and killed the black man who lived there while he watched television. The prosecutor requested 28 years—the age of the victim at the time of sentencing—but the officer received only 10 years. 

After the sentencing, the brother of the victim publicly forgave the officer for what she did. The black bailiff comforted the crying officer, and the judge, also black, came down from her bench and hugged the officer. Everyone showed compassion to this white murderer in a way that would be unthinkable if the races had been reversed. The subordinate members were expected to assuage the dominant member’s guilt as part of the caste contract. The message sent over the news channels that day essentially stated that sometimes white people kill black people, and we shouldn’t villainize them for it. 

On the other side of the state, a 21-year-old black man was castigated by a judge for being late to jury duty. The judge sentenced him to 10 days in prison and shamed him for letting everyone down. He was the only black jury member, and it was his duty to represent diversity. The fact that the jury was not diverse was not the young man’s fault, but he was responsible for appeasing that transgression with his presence. This man’s once clean record was now tarnished because of a lack of forgiveness by a dominant judge.  

Caste is a psychological lose-lose system that holds everyone involved hostage. The dominant caste cannot see past the illusion of their entitlement, and the subordinate caste cannot escape the subsequent definition of who they are and how they must behave.  

The Shockwave of Equality

The collective narcissism of the dominant group creates problems in the post-Civil Rights world. Public spaces, once protected from the pollution of the lowest caste, are now open to everyone. Many still find it shocking to encounter a subordinate member in a domain believed to belong to those of a high status. This shock often leads to dominant efforts to bring equilibrium back to the system. 

For instance, a group of older black women, some senior citizens, were taking a wine tour through Napa Valley by train. Like the other passengers socializing after a day of wine tasting, the women were enjoying themselves on the train. The train attendant asked them to stop laughing because they were making the other passengers uncomfortable. The train made an unscheduled stop, and the women were kicked off the train. When they departed, the police were waiting for them. 

In another example, a group of accomplished black golfers was playing a round at a Pennsylvania golf club. The owner called the police because other golfers complained that the black group was playing too slowly. The group explained to the police that they were following the appropriate course etiquette, and the police determined that no crime had been committed. However, the group was so shaken, they left on their own accord. 

Author Wilkerson has experienced this type of response to white shock several times on airplanes. Because she travels often for work, she has enough points to book business or first-class seats. In one instance, a flight attendant ignored her plea to help put her bag in an overhead bin despite her wrist being in a sling. He told her to keep moving toward the back, where the “coach” attendant would help her. When she explained she was seated in first class, he grew embarrassed to have his prejudice exposed and was hostile during the flight. 

In another instance, a white male passenger acted put-out when asked to remove one of his bags from the overhead bin to make room for hers. He grumbled that he shouldn’t have to suffer because they allow just anyone to get a first-class seat. Later, when she put her seat back to get some sleep, the man next to him started hitting the back of her chair. When she complained to a flight attendant, the attendant told her to stand at the front of the plane for the rest of the flight to avoid an argument. These behaviors by the dominant group are more than just insulting to the victims. They demean everyone by exposing dominant insecurities, making the silent bystanders complicit, and stripping the subordinate person of their sense of personhood. And in their most extreme form, these actions can lead to violence and death.

The Dangers of Collective Narcissism

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Isabel Wilkerson's "Caste" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Caste summary:

  • How a racial caste system exists in America today
  • How caste systems around the world are detrimental to everyone
  • How the infrastructure of the racial hierarchy can be traced back hundreds of years

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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