“Remarkably Narcissistic”—“Who Could That Be?” and “Who Can’t Say It?”
Note: In December 2015, I posted an extensive essay on the future of the professions, which received extensive and extremely thoughtful responses that elicited many further thoughts on my part. As a result, for the ensuing five months, I have posted my responses here. I also participated in an interview about Good Work in the law, conducted by Harvard Law Professor David Wilkins.
With this week’s posting, I re-commence the blog as it was originally conceptualized. I’ll contribute regularly, and I hope that others will comment and contribute blogs of their own. This week’s blog is a bit unusual because it focuses on events in my own life; some succeeding blogs will further consider various dimensions of what it means to be a professional—today, in the past, and, most importantly, in the future.
Several months ago, well before Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy was being taken seriously by most observers, a journalist from Vanity Fair asked me for my opinion about that candidate. We talked for a while, and at some point in the conversation, I expressed my view that Trump was “remarkably narcissistic.”
I did not think twice about this casual remark, and I was somewhat surprised that this two-word phrase was quoted prominently in the November issue of the magazine. I was even more surprised when I received a lot of email about this remark, found it quoted not only in the United States but also abroad, and even received an invitation to speak on the Glenn Beck show (which I declined). When I last checked, the phrase “Howard Gardner Donald Trump remarkably narcissistic” received over 18,000 hits on google, and “Donald Trump remarkably narcissistic” received 143,000 hits.
I’m not averse to publicity, and yet I regret having made this casual remark. Not that I think the remark is wrong—indeed, I’ve run into few individuals who would disagree with this characterization of the presumptive Republican nominee for President. (I wonder what he would say!)
The reason for my regret: within clinical psychology, the term “narcissistic personality disorder” has a technical meaning. Indeed, it usually foregrounds several features—for example, “believing one is special,” “selfishly takes advantage of others to achieve his own end,” and “shows arrogant, haughty, patronizing, or contemptuous behaviors of attitudes.” The official diagnosis entered into the Third DSM Manual (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders); and while its place and definition have been debated ever since, the phrase is still a “term of art” within the clinic and among clinicians.
I am not a clinical psychologist. Moreover, I was using the phrase in a lay way (after all, Narcissus peered admiringly at his reflection thousands of year before the field of psychology was born). And yet, it is not reasonable for me to expect other persons to know those facts. One reason I was quoted is because I am a psychologist, and so one can reasonably infer that I was using the term as a trained diagnostician might use it. And were I a clinician, I should not have invoked the phrase causally—I should only have so characterized Donald Trump if I had studied him carefully and, optimally, if I had examined him myself.
Why discuss this faux pas in a blog devoted to professional ethics? Because professionals should be held to a high standard of conduct. Clinical psychologist or not, I should have anticipated the ways in which my words could have been cited and accordingly declined to utilize any words that smacked of diagnosis whatsoever. And to the extent that I could delete my words—whether or not anyone else would notice or care—I should do that.
I’ve also concluded that, in general, when discussing politicians, we should focus on the truth or falsity of what they say and on the appropriateness of their policy recommendations, not on characterizing their personalities or engaging in armchair psychologizing.
This episode raises the broader question: to what extent should any professional speak to the press? Or email reporters? I do have colleagues who refuse to speak to the press altogether—either because they feel that they should not do so on principle (“I think it is not a good thing to speak to reporters”), or because they feel insufficiently informed (“I don’t really know enough about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders”) or because they have been misquoted or fear that will happen.
In my view, professionals are often the best informed individuals on certain topics, and it’s unfortunate if they/we refuse to interact with the press. Indeed, if professionals do not, then amateurs certainly will! And yet I think that we have a special responsibility to be as Deliberate, Dispassionate, and Disinterested as possible.
Alas, the three Ds are rarely what an American journalist is looking for—rather it’s Drama and Hyperbole. Indeed, sometimes, in speaking to a reporter, I have been so frustrated that I’ve said, “For goodness sake, tell me what you want me to say, and I’ll let you know whether I agree with that.” That’s one reason why I typically answer by email, so that words cannot be put into my mouth or be distorted.
But just because some reporters do not behave in a professional manner, that’s all the more reason why those professionals to whom reporters speak should hold ourselves to a high standard. Yet we are also tempted to act in a less professional way, because it is the more dramatic remark that tends to be quoted and—as I learned in the Trump affair—requoted.
I hope that I’ve learned my lesson. I will not perform lay diagnoses of others. I will desist from providing dramatic headlines. And whenever possible, I’ll write for myself—as in this blog.