In this way, Morton argues, our need to get a more immediate, superficial sharing, and to feel good about ourselves as a result, protects us from recognizing our deeper and more threatening sharing, a more terrifying similarity: we’ve done things more like the murderer than we can bear.
It’s not a crass relativism, Morton’s idea; his point is not that morality and ethics are, or should be, relative to our situation. He is outlining the limitations of our fetishizing of empathy causes: the way protecting our image as a moral person can keep us from being exactly who we want to be — good at understanding the world and others, at preventing atrocities, at helping people to heal and change. He’s also suggesting why we do this: in everyday life, in order to get along quickly with others, we need clear distinctions between moral and atrocious acts, without the kind of extensive knowledge of their contexts that it takes to really and deeply understand. And when we begin questioning the centrality and accuracy of our own perspective, searching out the details that matter so we can get a more accurate representation of the other, we find too much similarity, that too many “ordinary actions are continuous with many atrocious ones,” and we can’t function.
It is easier to choose to see others as mirrored inversions of our false sense of decency — to imagine that when they do selfish or violent things, it must be decency they abhor. When it speaks through us, sometimes, the narcissism script helps us do this, valorizing closeness and empathy as the ultimate moral good, and as what is increasingly lacking in others, so we can perform astonishment at the boyfriend, Milgram’s subjects, the Nazis, the millennials, the world — in exactly that moment when, if we were to acknowledge the difference in context, we might find too threatening a similarity.
In the case of the bad boyfriend, the millennial, and the murderer, it’s not just decency that keeps us from being able to actually understand and feel the other, but our beliefs about the opposition between human and inhuman, and our beliefs about mental “health.” In fact, the mistake the script repeats and repeats — that what is human is the opposite of what is inhuman — may be partly responsible for keeping us, for centuries, from this deeper understanding of what it actually means to do what Morton calls “empathy’s work.”
The narcissism of decency, then, does exactly what we decent people fear: it prevents a deep sharing of feeling. But that sharing is the very feeling of being alive, and somewhere on the other side of our everyday moralizing, it is always there.
Kristin Dombek. The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. (pp. 96-7)
By the way, this book is brilliant, strange, and wonderful — one of the best and most enjoyable things I’ve read in a long time. I can’t recommend it highly enough.