One of the main things that’s caused me to take an activist position on COVID interventions — in fact, the main thing — has been the societal interventions imposed population-wide on children and young adults. I have been passionately committed to the well-being and evolution of young adults my entire working life, and also am dedicated to understanding how to raise children in these difficult, fast-changing times.
A little over a year ago, when vaccines seemed close, and information was starting to leak out that we might be able to vaccinate adults safely, but kids’ fates and health were going to be up in the air, I predicted that we would have a societal donnybrook on whether, and when to vaccinate children. It was going to be a tough trade-off. While old folks were easy — the vast majority of deaths from COVID (don’t want to argue about with/of COVID coding here!) were in people over 50. A novel vaccine may have risks, but the risk from COVID was high enough it was a relatively easy bar to meet.
Not so with children and COVID. Any vaccine would have to get over a VERY HIGH BAR of safety. While kids may get COVID, they get a cold. COVID deaths are less than flu deaths in young people, which in and of themselves, are extremely rare. Here’s the current COVID death distribution in the USA, from the website Statista.
That means any convincing case of vaccine efficiency would be a.) hard to generate, because numbers of seriously affected young people would be so low as to be likely unrepresented in a clinical trial, and b.) any trial with an experimental vaccine would have to be so large that it might also cause great harm.
OK. That’s the “science” case. The rational case — the argument I assumed we were going to have, whether getting the vaccine in any measurable way affected COVID outcomes, without causing harms on the order of magnitude as COVID itself, would not be easy. There would be a gray area. But that would be the question.
Boy, was I wrong.
As we now know, that hasn’t turned out to be the debate in the least! Yes, it DOES get brought up. But it’s not the way the public understands COVID for kids at all. Instead, what happened in the absence of the vaccine, once our focus had been sufficiently sated with vaxxing adults, it turned to the fact that kids were NOT vaxxed, and were going to be dirty little super-spreaders. As a society (especially in the US) we went back to dichotomous binning — vaccinated good, unvaccinated bad. And kids, already bit players in the overall American narrative, were literally going to take it in the shorts. Once the Eye of Sauron had been taken off adults, it turned to kids. And then held them hostage through the issue of school re-openings, and protocols for that, which mostly included masking and isolating kids.
OK — masks don’t work. I’ve covered that extensively. But masks, to young kids (I’d argue a majority) aren’t neutral. They are literally a torture. Wrapping young faces in masks (which don’t work) is only “shallow rationality” (implying a cause and effect) in the world that masks might actually work. Some kids can tolerate them — all children go through a phase where they want to be considered good members of the tribe, and fidelity to rule-following is one way of expressing that. And kids are not immune from the social informational environment. Many college students have not been informed that COVID is likely little threat to them (though, quite frankly, my engineering students are well-informed) so it’s no surprise that some grade school kids stepped up to be masked.
And don’t even get me started on masking special needs kids. It’s beyond terrible, and deeply sadistic.
But the problem got worse much more quickly. “Shallow rationality” indicated that there was a hostage situation now in play. Mask kids, and invasively test kids, or they don’t get to go back to school. They’re stuck at home, in online environments, with teachers on iPads. Determined parents might keep a child glued to a screen for four or five hours a day, especially if there were only 1 or 2 kids. But for those with more, or other duties, well, kiss learning goodbye. At least from the screen.
Now that a hostage situation had been created, it should serve as no surprise that a certain subset of narcissists and various flavors of the empathy-disordered showed up. We now had a couple of psychopathic tropes in play, especially with respect to masks that I’ve written about here. The whole “your mask protects me, while my mask protects you” schtick quickly became a control routine for the collapsed egocentrics to bully folks through moralizing. And now, instead of “if you don’t isolate grandma, you’re going to kill grandma,” you had the ever-so-elegant argument “your child, if you don’t do what I tell you to do, is not only NOT going to get educated, but is also going to kill grandma.” Never mind that grandma had very likely already been vaccinated, and well, masks don’t work anyway.
It’s important not to get carried away with specific content when considering psychopathic manipulation. Specific content is only created to be resonant in enacting strategies of power and control. Never say never, but for a true narcissistic fabulist, it doesn’t have to be true at all. There’s no better example than these two clips from ‘The Dark Knight’ — where the Joker talks about how he got his scars. I’ve written about this here, but these two clips so nail the narcissistic control dynamic, they’re worth reposting. I’ve cut and paste them below.
The Joker: You wanna know how I got these scars? My father, was a drinker, and a fiend. And one night, he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn’t like that. Not. One. Bit. So, me watching, he takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it. He turns to me and says, “Why so serious?” Comes at me with the knife. “WHY SO SERIOUS?” He sticks the blade in my mouth… “Let’s put a smile on that face.” And…
[glancing at thug]
The Joker: Why so serious?
When the audience first sees this scene, their thoughts immediately jump to empathetic connection. We are poised to think “Wow — I totally understand the Joker. His dad, tortured and killed his mother with a knife. That kind of trauma would turn ANYONE into a psychopathic killer. ” The Joker is leading us, with our own mental models of how someone might become a killer, not only to empathetically connect with him, but to sympathize with him. Here’s the scene:
Not only can we understand the Joker, but we relate to his experience. We engage in rational and emotional empathy!
But then, a short while later in the movie, we have this scene:
The Joker: Oh, you look nervous. Is it the scars? You want to know how I got ’em?
[He grabs Rachel’s head and positions the knife by her mouth]
The Joker: Come here. Hey! Look at me. So I had a wife. She was beautiful, like you. Who tells me I worry too much. Who tells me I ought to smile more. Who gambles and gets in deep with the sharks. One day, they carve her face. And we have no money for surgeries. She can’t take it. I just want to see her smile again. I just want her to know that I don’t care about the scars. So… I stick a razor in my mouth and do this…
[the Joker mimics slicing his mouth open with his tongue]
The Joker: …to myself. And you know what? She can’t stand the sight of me! She leaves. Now I see the funny side. Now I’m always smiling!
Worse, the next folks, essentially allies to show up are what are called in the “Psychopathic Narcissist” literature, Flying Monkeys, after the assistants of the Wicked Witch of the West from the Oz series written by L. Frank Baum. Notably, those Winged Monkeys are essentially neutral actors, doing terrible things in the name of others. Scientists in this pandemic have been especially useful Flying Monkeys — asking questions like “do babies need to see mothers’ faces in order to not delay development?” There’s a dark historic underbelly to psychological science that has served the needs of narcissists in all this. The heavy burden of proof in a healthy society would be on anyone saying “children do not need to see the faces of caregivers” to somehow demonstrate that thesis was remotely supportable, without experiments of great cruelty.
But as I’ve written about before, academia in general, and science in particular has had an empathy problem for a while. No better example of this would be the work of Harry Harlow, as well as his student Stephen Suomi, that tortured baby rhesus monkeys to support their theories of depression and derangement, as well as the relative importance of attachment.
It’s beyond the scope of this post to examine ethics in animal research. But suffice it to say, empathy considerations, even in the most benign circumstances, are really not the point. Status-seeking through assertion of relative “rightness” is the game in play. And a whole host of scientists and psychologists are more than happy to step up and roll the dice on some other sentient being’s misery in order to burnish their own reputation.
The problem with the current situation is that it is a multi-dimensional hack of the Matrix. The argument, which should have been “how do we protect children and make sure they get to go back to school” instead shifted to “how can we maximize Elite Risk Minimization, through exploitation of a relatively non-affected population.” We had data from other countries, that showed there was essentially no threat to spread from school kids. But if you’re just attempting to add that .001% of protection to elites, AND you essentially have an innumerate population on which to play that game (we’ve seen that one in spades) well, the game is afoot. And that game is what I call Narcissistic Inversion — subpopulations of a given country with collapsing development, down to collapsed egocentricism and survival-level fears — turn to their children to demand they sacrifice for irrational adult fears. The parent/child relationship is inverted on a massive scale. Children are now responsible for adults.
It was more than problematic almost immediately. Mixed into this already toxic gaslighting cocktail was a long, societal-wide debate on vaccines in general. The press and large social media companies had taken the convenient position that the debate on kids’ vaccines were somehow related to the long-standing argument about childhood disease vaccinations. And with a population already fundamentally unable to process risk/reward arguments, this came down in the middle of everything like Thor’s Hammer.
I have stories from friends — not just off Twitter — of parents alternatively telling me “my kids just want to go to school, and if wearing a facemask is what they have to do, they’re happy to do it.” Another parent of a woman I deeply admire told me her seven-year-old was begging to be given a vaccine. These are all normal folks I’ve known and been friends with for a long time.
And what that tells me is that what we are dealing with is not so easily isolated to an individual. This problem of narcissistic inversion, where now children are in charge of protecting the health of parents and their grandparents, is a society-wide memetic abuse tactic. In any large-scale societal trauma, it would be considered incumbent on the parents to buffer the children from the stress and trauma of the given situation. But because of the toxic environment, functionally unmoored from statistical reality (there will always be children with severe respiratory disorders, and of course that is sad) children are now in charge of parents and their emotional states. The parent/child relationship has been inverted, if not consistently on an individual basis, certainly on a larger statistical one.
What’s even worse is the media environment that now attacks healthy parents, who might be attempting to protect their own children, in giving in to the argument of masking or taking an untried vaccine, or be essentially banned from social intercourse. Kids pick up on that stuff — and so if you don’t go along with the narcissistic inversion script, it’s because you, as a parent, are fundamentally an immoral person.
The problem with all of this is that it means that the results of this narcissistic inversion, while being borne by children now, will profoundly affect the shape of our society to come. Children who have to raise their parents (and in the interest of full disclosure, I was one) have been subjected to complex traumatic stress disorder. Downstream, that means there will be further, deep crises with attachment, dissociation, and stress.
The sign of a successful family, community or nation is its ability to both reproduce a culture with a set of healthy values, as well as further evolve its members’ ability to manage complexity as the world continues to evolve. We have had lots of challenges in our society along these lines. But a continued period of narcissistic inversion may mean development of one of the largest critical flaws of all — our children, because of their experience and exhaustion with their own parents, may not want to have children at all. As we wrestle masks onto three-year-olds that would not need it, even if masks worked, and deprive them of the developmental signaling because of the arguments of erudite, yet low-empathy professional idiots and poseurs with their own set of issues, we might pause, band together and end this crazy bullshit.
From an empathetic scaling perspective, narcissistic inversion implies a collapse of time to a single second, centered on the pathological individual and the fears that exist in their own head. And that will not bode well for any long-time societal trajectory.
There is a large and rich literature on this phenomenon in the family systems literature — you can search under ‘parentification’. I’m far from the first person to notice the phenomenon.
When nations proceed along paths that subvert the basic notions of attachment, so ably described by researchers like one of my heroes, John Bowlby, they may achieve some extra outcome for a while. But fundamentally, deciding not to raise children with healthy attachment inevitably ends in catastrophe. I write about Athens and Sparta in this piece on that very ruinous outcome.
12 thoughts on “Societal Narcissistic Inversion”
Are you coining/invoking the term Societal Narcissistic Inversion to specifically describe the inversion of the parent/child dependency/power dynamic, or is this more broadly attempting to describe the inversion of a dependent/caregiver relationship?
I worked with “parentified children” very often in a previous career, and the dynamic isn’t quite the same as what you’re describing, which is where I think the “Narcissistic” in “Societal Narcissistic Inversion” comes from:
Parentified kids assume the “responsible head of household” role in family units of incompetent or self-destructive parents, becoming the caretakers of their parents and siblings. In these instances, though, absolutely no one is under the illusion that anything else is going on: Jimmy is cooking meals for the whole household and working after school to pay rent on the apartment because mom is a junkie.
In the COVID mass hysteria scenario, the parents demanding their children subject to psychological torture and medical experimentation are convinced they’re protecting them, and that the kids like it, and that the children’s irrational fear of COVID is natural and self-originating- hence why this is a narcissistic phenomenon.
Am I understanding this correctly?
LikeLiked by 1 person
I think this is a great comment — thanks for making it. What I’m attempting (imperfectly) to do with this piece is look at a scaled view of this dynamic applied to a society at large. Of course, individuals will have a spread of pathologies, from modest to bad, inside the context of all of this. Always open to better naming — which is why I didn’t use ‘parentification’ to title the piece.
I think the name is great and certainly descriptive- I just wanted to fully understand the relationship of your comparison with parentification to the phenomenon you’re naming.
So, to be clear, you are describing something different (but similar in ways) to parentification, and that this goes beyond specific child/parent role reversal?
Could we apply this construct to, say, the public (child) and public health (parent)? You must sacrifice yourself to protect the public health system’s well-being, whose job it normally is to protect yours? And increasingly irrational demands can be justified in this context?
I love the idea of applying this construct to the public and public health.
As someone who used to work in the field, I’ve always despised the paternalistic (negative meaning) attitude some in public health have displayed toward the public and how some (usually these same people) use the public as their own mode of ‘glorification’ (kind of like how some parents use their kids to make them look good).
Now, the public’s role is that of a parent providing ‘protection’ in at least two ways: providing CYA (covering public health’s ass being blamed for their failure) and protecting public health’s fragile ego.
Great comment, thank you!!!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Sure — though I was really wondering what this might look like in a fractalized/multi-scale societal network. What kind of young people will we be developing who are told, on the one hand, to mask to save Grandma, while at the same time suffering aggregate developmental delays?
I’ve been teaching now for 38 years, and my students now, due to changing societal conditions, have far less agency than they used to at the beginning of my career. That lack of agency translates into different problem-solving/complexity management abilities — so I do know that system-wide change does happen. What happens when we put in something that’s actually far more psychopathic?
We are running the experiment.
I have a daughter, a 2020 high school graduate and it breaks my heart to see her choose to wear a mask which effectively hides her smile. I believe for her long term mental well being we would have removed her if she was still in the public system.
I’ve known how wrong this but wasn’t able to articulate it in any way near to what you accomplished here.
My takeaway is that what we desperately need right now is a law that bans anyone under the age 18 from wearing a mask.
From the data, in my opinion, anyone under 30 shouldn’t mask up either. Our society, our country has collectively lost its mind. The dysfunctional mixed up family we’ve always known our country to be is now on full display for the world to see.
Kind of silly how, in the beginning, I thought that somehow we would come together to prevent that from happening.
I’m glad I came across this.
More people need to read this.
More people need to think like this.
Right now, I’d settle for people just thinking.
This article is both chilling and riveting. It also, at least for me, coalesces and names some things about current dynamics that I’ve seen, but haven’t been quite able to embrace.
It also, for which thank you, validates my concern that a tsunami of mental health issues in children, youth, and teens is building. When it breaks, I expect that our US mental health and social services systems will collapse like a house of cards.
Thank you so much.
We’ve enshrined persecution of youth into our social systems, like universities and K-12. I fear we will follow the path of Japan, where people will simply stop having kids.