8/17/2010

Pedantic Semantic: Or, I do not think this word means what you think it does

Semantic: "of, pertaining to, or arising from the different meanings of words or other symbols: semantic change; semantic confusion."


Pedantic: "overly concerned with minute details or formalisms, esp. in teaching."

As an English instructor, I get that language usage changes over time, that words shift meanings. I may not like it much. Seriously, ask me how I feel about people calling lecterns  podiums? It really bugs the crap out of me! What about how the abbreviated until, 'til, has become till? Accepted usage and all, I get, but a lot of the shift in word usage comes about through the sloppiness of people who don't use the words correctly in the first place, until all those who are pedantic about the use of words throw their hands up in the air in aggrieved surrender that some things like till and podium, we're stuck with until the next generation comes along and renders that all mute (hah, no it doesn't!----moot! damnit!).


So when someone uses narcissist to describe Brian Deer because he has a website with, gasp, 36 photos of himself over the course of his life, of course, I'm pretty sure it's (a) because someone peed in his cheerios again and (b) because he doesn't understand narcissism. I get it; it's like using schizoid or schizophrenic in describing something when one really means split personality or dissociative personality. It's a stupid but popular mistake and it's made frequently. Self-absorbed; if you wanted to say Deer was self-absorbed, you could more correctly define his photo page as such. However, I believe, if you haven't been on facebook before or flickr or other social media, you might not realize that 36 photos over the COURSE of a lifetime that goes beyond 36 years doesn't even qualify for self-absorbed. Nor does having a website, either. And Deer's website is hardly  "a cesspool of self-adulation."


No, 36 photos doesn't even qualify as self-absorbed. There are folks on facebook who take multiple self-pictures of themselves and post them all and do it every day, day after day, and I'm not even going to say that's self-absorbed. They're just sharing, and that (as long as they are dressed!) is fine. After all, time is fleeting, and all that. They'll have a lovely photographic record of each day of their life, won't they?


You can see, then, when one doesn't have an axe to grind on top of an intense hate for a person, that 36 photos doesn't even qualify as self-absorbed. 


Narcissism is being used inappropriately here by Crosby as a toss-off adjective about a man who spent a decade trying to expose the shenanigans of one's hero (explain to me again how the folks who swear to god that 12.5 mcg of thimerosal caused their child's autism think Wakefield, who blamed the MMR, manage to fall over him? Why aren't they in love with RFK junior? Oh, that's right. Wakefield is dreamier than RFK jr. And Wakefield did go apeshit over the monkeys in the end, didn't he?).


I know the folks over there are often woefully insensitive to those with disabilities and with DSM identified disorders like narcissistic personality disorder, for example. As an aside, I find it fascinating that there are so many neurotypicals who display an appalling lack of empathy and theory of mind...


Perhaps (hah as if they would), the folks over there with nothing better to do than label Deer a narcissist, ought to look carefully at the DSM criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. Perhaps it would help with their empathy and at least incline them to use words properly. Oh I know, trot out a dictionary definition, why don't you, and say that Deer's 36 photos constitute  "inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity." If  you do, see my paragraphs above. Oh, and look up inordinate and excessive. Displaying photos of oneself over time does not demonstrate vanity, either: "excessive pride in one's appearance, qualities, abilities, achievements, etc.; character or quality of being vain; conceit." Photos alone cannot demonstrate vanity. We have no way to assess his internal state to see if there was a feeling of pride, and whether it was excessive. Nor would vanity in any way take away from the strength of Deer's evidence.


Psychology Today describes Narcissistic Personality Disorder as follows:
"Narcissistic Personality Disorder involves arrogant behavior, a lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration-all of which must be consistently evident at work and in relationships. People who are narcissistic are frequently described as cocky, self-centered, manipulative, and demanding. Narcissists may concentrate on unlikely personal outcomes (e.g., fame) and may be convinced that they deserve special treatment." 
I'm not sure that describes how disruptive, how difficult, and how taxing it can be to have this disorder, or to be the folks who interact with someone who has it.


Of course, most DSM diagnoses have subthreshold conditions, too, and NPD is no exception: "Narcissism is a less extreme version of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Narcissism involves cockiness, manipulativeness, selfishness, power motives, and vanity-a love of mirrors. Related personality traits include: Psychopathy, Machiavellianism." Sedikides et al. (2004) note that subclinical narcissism is "multifaceted construct consisting of seven components: autonomy, entitlement, exhibitionism, exploitation, self-sufficiency, superiority,and vanity."


Not that I'm suggesting by any means that anyone involved in selling woo might have these traits. No...of course not. Sophia Dembling notes that "People with true NPD are rare and frightening creatures to be avoided if at all possible. But like all personality traits, narcissism exists on a continuum, and there is such thing as "normal" narcissism." 


Ah, well there you go; there is normal narcissism. According to Cooper (2009), "there is little doubt among psychoanalysts that narcissistic development is a core feature of mental development as a whole." Is Deer displaying normal narcissism? Well, I suppose that's a matter of opinion. I'd argue, though, that if your criteria for judging him a narcissist is solely based around 36 pictures of himself over the course of his life, then you're on shaky ground.


Way shaky ground.


Glass houses and all.


As to the far more serious NPD, the Mayo Clinic explains it in this way:
"Narcissistic personality disorder crosses the border of healthy confidence and self-esteem into thinking so highly of yourself that you put yourself on a pedestal. In contrast, people who have healthy confidence and self-esteem don't value themselves more than they value others.
When you have narcissistic personality disorder, you may come across as conceited, boastful or pretentious. You often monopolize conversations. You may belittle or look down on people you perceive as inferior. You may have a sense of entitlement. And when you don't receive the special treatment to which you feel entitled, you may become very impatient or angry. You may insist on having "the best" of everything — the best car, athletic club, medical care or social circles, for instance.
But underneath all this behavior often lies a fragile self-esteem. You have trouble handling anything that may be perceived as criticism. You may have a sense of secret shame and humiliation. And in order to make yourself feel better, you may react with rage or contempt and efforts to belittle the other person to make yourself appear better." 
The specific DSM criteria  are:


"A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following: 
(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements) 
(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love 
(3) believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions) 
(4) requires excessive admiration 
(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations 
(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends 
(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others 
(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her 
(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes"
It's unfortunate that the criteria in the DSM don't provide a full portrait of what NPD is, that it is fairly rare (less than 1%) or that the person with NPD needs constant validation because of extreme insecurities about oneself. Nor are many of these criteria distinct to NPD. Diagnostic labels in the DSM are under continual flux, and are determined by committees who may not follow the wide body of science on a particular disorder, or even worse, rely on creating labels for which there is inadequate, poor, or no research. So, sometimes the DSM criteria are poor descriptors, as well.


Maybe it's overly pedantic to point out that there's nothing particularly narcissistic about Deer's photos of himself. After all, there is a normal continuum of self-absorption, and it has a healthy, protective function. We need to think highly of ourselves. We just shouldn't think so highly of ourselves that we run to the excesses of NPD. And again, photos of oneself do demonstrate one's self-esteem.


We like descriptors, all of us. We need them. We just ought to make sure we're using them with precision. And if in using a descriptor as a pejorative, we find that it points back equally well to ourselves, well, hmmmm. I guess it depends on a lot of different things as to whether we'll get that we just stepped in it. Ah well, we may not care. We may decide to defend our words and actions until the bitter end.


I wonder, though, if this is the strongest argument that can be brought against Deer, that he has a page on his website devoted to photos of himself from childhood to adulthood, why even bother? And beyond that, why bother to run it twice? 


References


Cooper, A. (2009). The narcissistic-masochistic character. Psychiatric Annals39(10), 904-912. doi:10.3928/00485718-20090924-02.




Sedikides C, Rudich EA, Gregg AP, Kumashiro M, & Rusbult C. (2004) Are normal narcissists psychologically healthy?: self-esteem matters. Journal of personality and social psychology, 87(3), 400-16. PMID: 15382988

7 comments:

lifewithasperger said...

Great post! The misuse of nonplussed drives me crazy, like podium does you. So, I feel your pain on that. :-) No one uses nonplussed properly anymore. Everyone seems to think it means unimpressed. [shrug] oh well.

Liz Ditz said...

I wonder if the second run has to do with the Penn & Teller lambasting of the anti-vaccine movement.

The only two sympathetic characters in the show are Ken Reibel & Dr.Wiznitzer

kathleen said...

HAHAHAHAHA! That was funny..well done Kim :) Oh no-I used the smiley face..I tend to use them after posting comments...which means I must have posted thousands of smiley faces all over the internet..I assure you that they are not representative of my own face. wonder what the DSM would call this?

Mom26children said...

Kim,
AoA has to find a reason to dislike Brian Deer. He "peed in their Post-Toasties"..so to speak !!!
Poor Jakie...he really does not realize he has been made their pawn...I find it quite sad !!!

Big Daddy Autism said...

I've been called a narcissist more times than I can count and I've never posted a single picture of myself on my blog. Also, the 'til / till thing drives me nuts. But the worst is when people say "We were just conversating." Aaarghh.

Clay said...

I've never counted them up, but I've posted lots of pics of myself on my blog, probably more than anyone else in our sphere. Only means that I'm "open".

What bugs me the most is people's pronunciation of many words, often using British pronunciation to sound high-falutin', I guess. Really annoying when it's folks on radio or TV, thus teaching the multitude to do the same.

David said...

The bit about "grandiose" sense of self-importance strikes me as off. From all the discussion I have seen, clinical narcissism is considered compensation for low self-esteem. The theory is, they have a felt need for praise from others because they lack a sense of self-worth.

Ironically, I pegged Wakefield as a "narcissist" some time ago.