Cooperative narcissism and meta-communication

I think we can describe virtually all group cohesion as “cooperative narcissism.”

Groups are pretty much all self-aggrandizing and almost all of them show callous disregard for other groups, unless they are connected in a narcissistic super-group.

Sports teams are a very basic example of narcissistic groups; players and fans revel in their selfishness and contempt for competing groups. That we generally consider those emotions to be playful and healthy demonstrates my point.

Another example might be a parent who dedicates excessive time and energy to a group outside of the family. To the extent that that parent’s participation in that group is excessive it is narcissistic. Excessive in this context would entail some degree of self-aggrandizement and callous disregard for the family. Some degree in this context is open to question but often can be decided.

Once again in this context, the family itself might be considered a narcissistic group if it demands an excessive degree of group allegiance from the parent. What excessive means here can often be reasonably decided.

The reason I raise the above topic is I think that most groups most of the time have so much difficulty with honest meta-communication they simply cannot allow it.

Groups, of course, excel at the meta-communication we call conformity. Honest meta-communication that does not support conformity, though, usually causes discord. Generally it is perceived as being disruptive, aggressive, rude, “other.” We like those who are like us and dislike those who are not.

Honest meta-communication is not only dangerous for group cohesion but also for interpersonal bonding. This is so because virtually all interpersonal bonding is a type of group bonding. We like the same things, believe the same things, so we can bond; we are friends because we already are members of the same group(s).

When people are very close and have formed their own group that is stronger than any other group they feel they belong to, meta-communication is much less likely to produce discord.

For example, my partner can say she doesn’t like my shirt or the way I cut my hair without bothering me at all. In fact, I am grateful if she tells me that because I trust her and can easily fix the problem. If she criticizes me for something I can’t fix, that’s another matter (and another subject for another day).

If a new friend or colleague criticizes my shirt or hair, I probably will not take it in the same spirit as I did when the comment came from my partner. Rather than feel grateful (which I still might do), I am more likely (than with my partner) to hear my colleague’s comment as aggressive, rude, or disruptive. Rather than strengthen our bond, it can damage it.

This is a basic reason why so many groups and so much human communication is so dissatisfying, so dukkha. As such, we simply cannot say interesting meta things to most people without risking strife.

Some other examples of dangerous meta-communication that should be neutral but are not for people with strong beliefs or group allegiances are:

  • doubting the veracity of religion or science
  • saying anything bad or good about vaccines
  • saying anything bad or good about political parties, political philosophies, or politicians
  • saying anything bad or good about ethnicity or ethnic history, regions or regional histories or politics, symbols, flags, etc.

Lists like this could go on for miles. And that is because most people normally organize their minds along lines like that. When you engage in meta-communication about any subject that organizes someone’s mind, they will have trouble with it. Propaganda even uses that basic reaction as part of its basic formula.

Cooperative narcissism very often exists in intimate relations between two people. This happens because the dominant means (conformity, agreement, general semiotics) people use to communicate within groups are brought into the intimate relationship as a “natural” part of it.

The problem with that is it is much too confining for individual minds. This point is probably obvious to many readers. But I wonder if those same readers have a means to overcome it. How many intimate partners can do clear meta-communication with each other extensively without causing discord?

I bet it is not so many. The reason there are often problems in this area is partners restrict themselves to doing meta-communication on meso and macro subjects only.

“I think you are this kind of person.” “I believe your personality is thus and so.” “I think you are like this because you have that background.” Etc.

These sorts of meta-conversations can be fun and informative, but they also tend to go in circles while generating massive misunderstandings. At worst, we come to believe them—to reify “main points”—and bind each other to forms and stereotypes that are not deeply real.

The way out of this problem is to escape through micro communication. As long as two people have a prior agreement (as in FIML practice) to honestly do micro corrections on as much of their communication as possible, they will overcome the problems of cooperative narcissism and the damage it does to human communication at all levels.

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