The Power of Babble

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“All evidence suggests that narcissism is more common in recent generations,” San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge declares in her popular, incessantly quoted 2006 book, Generation Me.

And this is important why? “Narcissists are more likely to be hostile, feel anxious, compromise their health, and fight with friends and family,” Twenge states. “They don’t feel close to other people. Narcissists lash out aggressively when they are insulted or rejected.”

Narcissism that’s bred from “too much self-esteem,” she declares, leads to “more hookups and fewer boyfriend-girlfriend relationships, more gambling, more cheating, and more aggression and crime” and to “materialism.” Rising “externality” is “correlated with the impulsive actions that tend to get young people in trouble, like shoplifting, fighting, or having unprotected sex,” as well as with “powerlessness” and “a society of dropouts.”

So, if more teens check survey boxes indicating their own “narcissism” and “externality,” does that mean more youth are hostile, alienated, fighting, diseased, greedy, raping, robbing, stealing, assaulting, self-destructing, having babies, getting abortions, dropping out of school to gamble and cavort, and otherwise vegetating or rampaging?

Well, no.

Reports from the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the education field show that among teens, crime, violent deaths, self-destructive deaths and suicides, injuries, violence, early pregnancy, HIV infections and school dropouts have reached historic lows over the past several years. Graduation, college enrollment, voting and community volunteerism are at all-time highs.

Long-term surveys, such as Monitoring the Future, report that today’s teens are happier, get along better with their friends and families, fight less with parents, are less materialistic and fashion-conscious, and are more likely to aspire to leadership roles than were teens in the 1970s and ’80s, when Twenge grew up.

Even Twenge admits that “youth crime is down” and narcissism has “nothing to do” with “teen pregnancy, alcohol use, voting, [or] being close to parents.”

What does it have to do with, then? Nothing, apparently. Twenge’s nasty-sounding terms don’t describe or predict anything occurring in the real world.

Similarly, journalist Laura Sessions Stepp’s acclaimed Unhooked, published in 2007, declares that “hooking up” has become the “primary currency of social interaction” between the sexes in high school and college.

“Hooking up” sounds bad, but what is it? “It can mean anything from an innocent kiss to sexual intercourse,” Stepp writes. So 1950s Doris Day movies are orgies of hooking up? “It isn’t exactly anything,” Stepp admits.

Oh, yes it is. “Hooking up” is a derogatory-sounding contrivance that youth-bashers deploy to disparage even the most harmless (or nonexistent) relationships among young people as slutty, characterized (in Stepp’s words) by “the ability to unhook at any time,” with no emotional attachment.

But Stepp’s selected anecdotes and quips (nearly all from nine young women she selected to profile precisely because they affirm her notions) don’t show that more “hooking up” is occurring, let alone the terrible consequences she predicts, including more date rape, sexually transmitted infections, binge drinking, and depression on campuses.

In fact, the best surveys and public health measures – from Monitoring the Future and The American Freshman to CDC surveillances and the National Crime Victimization Survey – show these problems declining. Rape victimization has declined dramatically over the past 30 years among those ages 12 to 24. Rates of depression among college freshmen have fallen sharply over the past two decades. Binge drinking is somewhat rarer (and drunk driving and alcohol overdoses much rarer) now than in past generations. Consistently measured sexually transmitted infections, such as gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV, are all rarer among today’s youth than they were among their parents’ generations, which Stepp claims seldom “hooked up.”

Well, then, if practically every real-life youth trend has improved, shouldn’t we be prescribing more youthful “narcissism,” “self-esteem,” “self-centeredness” and “hooking up”?

That would be the logical conclusion, but Twenge, Stepp, their worshipful news media stenographers and fellow devotees of label-babble seem to actively resist discussing anything real. These authors’ claims to fame are founded on meaningless name-calling hurled at younger generations that are powerless to respond. This is grownup bullying, like stereotypical sixth-grade alphas calling third-grade outcasts “retards” and “psychos” in order to court popularity by distinguishing themselves from the rejects.

Today’s worst narcissism and excesses of self-esteem lie in Twenge, Stepp and similar commentators indulging their Universal Mind: the belief that one’s head contains the sum of human experience. Repeatedly, these and other authors writing about youth generalize from their own narrow stories, personal peeves and self-pleasing reminiscences to create mass stereotypes of how all young people think and act now compared with hallowed generations of the past.

These insulting stereotypes then become the bases for the authors’ profitable remedies to fix nonexistent youth crises framed in meaningless babble. Frankly, I hope young people do have a lot of self-esteem saved up. They’re going to need it.