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We must all seek to over-ride the narcissistic imperative

By James Cumes - posted Tuesday, 22 October 2002

At this stage, when there is confusion between the majesty of the human achievement and the apparent corruption of his spirit, much the most important question is whether man can ensure his own survival, rather than be doomed to extinction through the imperatives of his narcissistic drives. We believe he can manage them but he needs first to recognise them clearly and then work so that all communities join in a cooperative endeavour to manage and control them.

Only in that way can we survive; but we must act quickly before irreversible catastrophe beats us to the finish line. September 11 demonstrated again how deep are the narcissistic drives and the fierceness of the hatreds they can engender. Men - and women - will sacrifice their lives to revenge what they believe has been a hurt or neglect of beliefs or institutions with which they have merged their identity. Suicide bombings in Israel further evidence the sacrifice that the individual, driven by his narcissistic imperative, is prepared to make in support of the cause to which he and she have transferred their identity - and their destiny.

The proliferation of sophisticated weapons and delivery systems around the world makes narcissistic transference especially dangerous. The power of these weapons and delivery systems does not diminish the force of the narcissistic imperative. On the contrary, it feeds the desire of the individual to apply that power in defence or advancement of the cause, the country, the tribe, the race, the religion, the institution with which he and she narcissistically identify.


There is an analogy between the individual who goes on a shooting rampage because of hurt pride and the group which embarks on terrorism because they conceive themselves to have been neglected, undervalued or derided and their aspirations denied

We must therefore start with the acknowledgement that we are all, in important measure, narcissistically disposed. We must acknowledge that, while there is positive potential, in terms of ambition, energy, drive, creativity, from the narcissistic imperative, there is also a menacing downside.

That downside derives from feelings of neglect, envy and, especially, hurt pride. Those feelings gather strength over time and through association among those who experience the hurt or injury in common. They reach a point in fury at which they explode. The individual might hit back with a maniacal shooting or bombing assault on his fellows. The group might retaliate with planned terrorist strikes of increasing power, intensity and frequency. All rationality is lost. The ultimate narcissistic act might become a final act of self-destruction, taking both the narcissistic self and the narcissistic "other" into oblivion.

The remedy is to recognise the process and strike "pre-emptively" against it. That pre-emptive strike should not be an attempt to destroy the threat by war and violence - although defensive measures involving some expression of force may be necessary.

The remedy will be to act quickly and effectively to ensure that the causes of envy, hatred, hurt pride are reduced or, ideally, eliminated. In what we might call micro-institutions - individual schools, workplaces and the like - individual sensitivities should be respected, "bullying" condemned and individual identity honoured by acceptance into "status" environments. In macro-institutions - governments, multilateral agencies and the like - we need to be careful that national pride, religious devotion and the like are not hurt. We need to establish ways of treating all people as our partners, as members of a human "cooperative," as equals at least in prospect.

We need to give people a genuine prospect that poverty will be modified or eliminated and that advances in material blessings, in health and education, in length and enjoyment of life, will be more fairly shared by all people, of all continents and regions, of all races and religious faiths.


Where causes of narcissistic revolt and the threat of terrorism appear, the response should not be simplistically to denounce the rebels or the terrorists - although their acts might be unequivocally condemned - but to seek to identify and remedy the causes. The "pre-emptive strike" should be to identify the causes in good time and to set in place national and international measures which will assist or ensure cooperative action within the world community to give a better, more satisfying life to all who occupy our planet.

In short, we must recognise that we are all, in more or lesser degree, driven by a narcissistic imperative. That imperative is not characteristic of deviants and criminals only but of all of us. Our task is to manage it before, as it destroyed Narcissus himself, it might now destroy us all.

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About the Author

James Cumes is a former Australian ambassador and author of America's Suicidal Statecraft: The Self-Destruction of a Superpower (2006).

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