In June 2021 I wrote an article for Merion West in which I discussed the psychodynamic processes present within the Critical Social Justice (CSJ) (or Woke, used here interchangeably) worldview. By analysing commentary on this worldview, adherents’ behaviour, and their self-disclosure, I identified and discussed several of its inherent intrapsychic dynamics. In this and the following article I shall build upon my observations and demonstrate from psychoanalysis how CSJ movements collectively manifest three narcissistic character structures.
A brief overview
The first, overarching feature of the Woke worldview is the common-enemy (a type of paranoid defence) position its adherents and purveyors assume in the world. The Woke common-enemy position is an identitarian position, in which society is politically categorised according to immutable characteristics as identity markers (race, sex/gender, sexual orientation, ability, etc.). By assigning moral value to these characteristics, in-group/out-group social dichotomies are created, and society is split between an oppressed, innocent victim class on the one hand, and a hostile, evil oppressor class on the other. The Woke worldview is a system in which collectives are morally essentialised. Assigned collective innocence or guilt serves as a template to judge each interaction on an individual level, including each participant’s feelings, intentions, judgments, wishes and character traits. ‘The question isn’t did racism (or sexism or homophobia or transphobia or ablism, etc.) take place, but rather, where it took place’ as DiAngelo proclaims. The psychodynamic defence in operation here is splitting, which is a primitive defence mechanism whereby individuals experience themselves or others as totally good or totally bad. This mechanism is most observed among infants, severely regressed individuals and groups, and severe personality pathologies.
From the all-bad perspective of this split, a person disidentifies from, devalues and dehumanises the Oppressor. This demonised Other is relegated to a state of culpability, deserving of contempt and destruction. Simultaneously from the all-good perspective, identification with and idealisation of the Victim takes place, where the Victim is endowed with a state of moral purity, innocence and vulnerability. The Oppressor is viewed as a cruel, merciless monster, against whom the Victim should be defended. Since moral essentialisation has taken place, obliteration of the Oppressor is not only morally justified (as the Victim is morally infallible) it is actively encouraged, as the slightest measure of leniency is seen as capitulation to an utterly evil Oppressor, which will only lead to further unnecessary suffering of the Victim. Ironically, the behaviour of Woke Victims and their allies toward the Oppressor is no different from that of which they accuse the Oppressor. Silencing and suppression of speech, public attacks and humiliation, death threats, destructive looting and the like are behaviours one would associate with tyrants; the irony is that the Woke Victim class and their allies have a commitment to precisely such behaviour.
Socially, the Woke worldview is proclaimed as sophisticated and moral, and those who ascribe to it, receive social prestige. Intersectional victimhood status and heroic allyship are promoted as convictions that would earn a person much-coveted socio-moral status. Proclaimers of this worldview often admit to their own biases and prejudices, and use these admissions as the basis to assume that everyone else was socialised to have the exact same biases. As Robin DiAngelo demonstrated in her book, White Fragility, instead of taking responsibility for their own racism, failing to live up to the ideals of their own worldview, they projecttheir failures and frustrations onto the collective Oppressor class, with equally vicious aggression, physical violence, public humiliation, demonisation, and cancellation.
Because the moral status of whole groups of people is determined by their immutable characteristics (or parts), the Woke Victims and their allies collectively assume a part-object representation (more about this concept below) of the world. This global attribution of either culpability or moral glory based on mere aspects of a person or class prohibits an ambivalent position in which the whole person with all their traits (good and bad) is engaged with. To permanently cement these peculiar object relations, the following features are written into the Worldview:
- immutable characteristics are selected as moral registers;
- historical guilt and innocence are regarded as ever-present realities;
- history is revised and sanitised to remove any historical empathy that could lead to ambivalence;
- statistics of wealth, poverty, employment and suffering are selectively reported to sustain the Victim/Oppressor narrative;
- completion of the work of dismantling and destruction is deferred. This ensures a constant supply of societal objects (cultural, linguistic, scientific, biological, historical, and personal) to problematise (devalue and earmark for destruction) and dismantle.
A consequence of such psychological processes is a collective embodiment of what Melanie Klein described as primal envy. This is demonstrated through the following: their impaired ability to endure an ambivalent position (the opposite of splitting); their impaired ability to appreciate and preserve what is deemed valuable by society; the perpetual shifting of targets earmarked for destruction; the ever evasiveness of gratitude and peace; and the sheer pleasure from fantasising about, verbalising and enacting destruction of cultural artefacts, online mobbing, reactive abuse and trolling. Such destructiveness requires immense aggression, moral self-justification (essential self-idealisation, a feature of grandiosity), and divesting the Other of reason for mercy (essential devaluation). Maintaining such caustic envy requires committed self-idealisation, since the weakening of moral self-righteousness may leave room for appreciation of the Other, which in turn might bring the Woke adherent face-to-face with their own sheer destructiveness – a realisation that could burden them with unbearable guilt and shame.
Within this worldview, a complex assemblage of internal, defensive operations is activated. These defences cohere in such a fashion, that Woke ideologues exhibit a predictable array of attitudes, judgments and behaviours projected upon themselves, members of their in-group, celebrities who endorse their ideological position and their ideological enemies. The character structure of these defences is well-known to those familiar with psychodynamic psychology (see McWilliams, 2011). This structure is a clear depiction of collective narcissism. To see how this analysis fits into the narcissistic superstructure, and to see how the defensive operations within the Woke ideological movement assemble into three narcissistic character types, a more detailed discussion of narcissism is needed.
Characteristics of the narcissistic subject
In psychoanalytic psychology, object relations refer to the way a person relates to the world of people and things, based on specific beliefs and expectations about themselves and those others. These patterns can be conceptualised as internal structures or templates which each person unconsciously and exhaustively enacts toward themselves and others. In their object relations, narcissists have a particular bias or central tendency in their relational structure, namely, to relate to themselves and to others, based on mere aspects or parts of themselves and others. A person is imagined to be either totally good or totally bad (split defences), based on aspects of that person they regard as all good or all bad. They would consider someone to be all bad, for instance, based on their struggle with their temper, or their lack of sporting ability, or sense of guilt for past mistakes, etc., or imagine another to be all good, based on their sense of humour, or their participation in a favourite sports team, or their support of a particular ideology, etc. This dynamic – the judgement of the self or another in their totality based on parts or aspects thereof – is called part-object representations.
Another characteristic of the narcissist’s relational dynamic is their demand for agreement, affirmation, approval, and obedience. These mirroringdemands exist precisely because the narcissist feels fusedin their object relations, meaning that, what they think, feel or believe to be true is assumed to be present also in the minds of others. They lack the capacity to authentically appreciate distinct subjective experiences of others. As Fromm notes, “[T]he narcissistic person cannot perceive the reality within another person as distinct from his own” (p. 70).
The narcissistic person remains stuck within an internal and interpersonal echo chamber of sorts to ensure that a fragmented self is not activated, and instead is provided with a steady supply of affirmations and celebrations of their own beliefs, achievements and perceptions. What is described here is commonly called a narcissistic extension of the self. Whatever the narcissist identifies with – their appearance, opinions, preferences of style, political allegiance, ideological positions, social causes, friends, children, pets etc. – they incorporate into their expanded sense of self and treat these as if they were extensions of themselves. As Fromm observes, “Just as the narcissistic person has made his “self-image” the object of his narcissistic attachment, he does the same with everything connected with him. His ideas, his knowledge, his house, but also people in his ‘sphere of interest’ become objects of his narcissistic attachment” (p. 74).
The third characteristic of the narcissist’s object relations is the defensive split within which it takes place. On the all-good side of the split, the self is perceived to be idealised (adored, special and perfect in appearance, abilities, intelligence, morality, etc.), fused with an omnipotent Other providing them with interest, priority, approval and admiration. If fusion is threatened through disagreement or imperfect affirmation (this mirroring is also called narcissistic supply), or bad aspects within themselves or the Other are encountered, the narcissist’s sense of self feels threatened against the anguish of disorientation and fragmentation. Any perception of reality that threatens their perception, or their grandiosity results in the affliction of a narcissistic injury. This threat can be simple disagreement, criticism, lack of admiration or being the subject of a joke. A relational switch takes place, and within this all-bad state, the narcissist experiences the world as hostile, aggressive and malicious, and themselves as inadequate, worthless and commonplace. Because this all-bad state is so unbearable, the narcissist typically resorts to aggression, either to destroy the devalued Other, or to destroy the worthless and frustrating self, in an attempt to restore the grandiose self and omnipotent Other. This aggressive response is referred to as narcissistic rage.
“If he is the world, there is no world outside which can frighten him; if he is everything, he is not alone; consequently, when his narcissism is wounded he feels threatened in his whole existence. When the one protection against his fright, his self-inflation, is threatened, the fright emerges and results in intense fury. This fury is all the more intense because nothing can be done to diminish the threat by appropriate action; only the destruction of the critic – or oneself – can save one from the threat to one’s narcissistic security” (Fromm, p. 78).
Fromm also identifies another important and relevant characteristic of narcissism when he states:
“The most dangerous result of narcissistic attachment is the distortion of rational judgment. The object of narcissistic attachment is thought to be valuable (good, beautiful, wise, etc.) not on the basis of an objective value judgment, but because it is me or mine. Narcissistic value judgment is prejudiced and biased. Usually, this prejudice is rationalized in one form or another, and this rationalization may be more or less deceptive according to the intelligence and sophistication of the person involved” ( p. 76).
The inherent danger of a narcissist who is also endowed with intelligence and power is their ability to abuse their authority, and manipulate facts to their own advantage. Narcissists have a peculiar difficulty with facts as objective truth, because the concept of disinterestedness feels threatening to them. Within their fused part-object relations, facts are especially vulnerable to the invasion by the narcissist’s personal agendas and prejudices. Other than those who are not as severely narcissistic, and who are better equipped at integrating disinterested facts, the narcissist tends to use dialogue, judgment and critical reasoning to their own prejudiced agendas. In response to criticism or refutation, then, the narcissist must respond defensively, as described above, which usually includes both emotional and intellectual manipulation.
In both personal and professional relationships, the narcissist engages in fact-manipulation to ensure that their perception of reality prevails. They will resort to ambiguous language, nuance manipulation, selective amnesia, emotionality, aggressive defensiveness and reinterpretation of another’s motives to skilfully establish that their perception of events is simply indisputable. A person’s response would typically be one of confusion, self-doubt and disorientation. Bait-and-switch tactics, equivocation, cherry-picking and revisionist reinterpretation of events tend to have a disorienting effect on people, especially those who sincerely trust the narcissist. This phenomenon is commonly known as gaslighting and is possibly the clearest hallmark of narcissistic relationships.
In his work on the disorders of the self, James Masterson classified three types of narcissism. These are: exhibitionistic (grandiose) narcissism, closet (vulnerable) narcissism, and devaluing narcissism. With all three types of narcissism, the person engages in fusion relations, resort to splitting defences, and defend against narcissistic wounding. The difference in types of narcissism is seen in the dominant defences employed, especially during narcissistic wounding.
The exhibitionistic narcissist is the subtype usually thought of when narcissism is discussed in popular media. The exhibitionistic narcissist feels special and superior (self-idealisation) over others and demands admiration for their superiority. Due to their sense of self-importance, they feel entitled to narcissistic supply through mirroring-responses by the Other (fused or one-minded relations). They can be charming and funny (to obtain admiration), but also manipulative and dishonest (because they deem themselves superior to rules), defiant towards authority and intolerant of disagreement and criticism. They often strive for fame, power and wealth. Failure to adequately mirror the exhibitionistic narcissist’s grandiosity leads to narcissistic injury, during which they view the Other as aggressive or deliberately withholding. Within such a state of mind, the exhibitionistic narcissist would respond with rage to humiliate, attack or destroy the non-mirroring Other, in order to restore a sense of grandiosity.
The closet narcissist is in constant defence against inadequacy, self-doubt and incompetence. They assume the omnipotence of the admired Other (idealisation and identification) from whom they obtain acceptance or approval as someone who is complete and perfect. They have an impaired ability to regulate self-esteem, and uniqueness or grandiosity of the self is not assumed; it is earned through fusion with an idealised Other in whose glory they bask. The idealised Other serves as a value-endowing proxy which the closet narcissist includes within their narcissistic extension of the self. By fulfilling the desires of the idealised Other dutifully and perfectly, the closet narcissist is endowed with a sense of adequacy, moral purity and accomplishment. If, however, the Other refuses or fails to supply such satisfaction, the closet narcissist will temporarily respond with self-righteous anger or withdrawal. In time, however, they restore fusion through self-flagellation, self-chastisement and recommitment to pleasing the Other. It would therefore be common to see self-denying conscientiousness, romanticised self-deprecation, self-inhibition and perfect obedience in their attempts to earn approval from the idealised Other, which, in turn makes them feel complete and powerful.
The most challenging and pathological type of narcissist is the devaluing narcissist. As the name suggests, these individuals are in a constant state of hostile self-protection and protective devaluation, dreading the state of fusion they find themselves in. These individuals tend to be insatiably demanding, resentful, cynical and ungrateful. Due to the hostile and aversive nature of their relationships with others, their relational history consists of short-lived and combative relationships, or longer-term relationships with individuals who would masochistically endure the acerbic orientation the devaluing narcissist assumes toward life. Because they constantly defend against attack, they resort to the most extreme form of Kleinian envy through verbal, and often physical aggression. While Erich Fromm did not describe the devaluing narcissist using such terminology, he did comment on a phenomenon akin to this personality type, namely malignant narcissism. And while he related this life orientation to the contemporary milieu of his time, the description reflects the devaluing and destructive characteristic of devaluing narcissism. He describes malignant narcissism as a necrophilic life position:
“Necrophilia constitutes a fundamental orientation; it is the one answer to life which is in complete opposition to life; it is the most morbid and the most dangerous among the orientations to life of which man is capable. It is the true perversion: while being alive, not life but death is loved; not growth but destruction. The necrophilous person, if he dares to be aware of what he feels, expresses the motto of his life [in attitudes, relationships and behaviour] when he says, ‘Long live death!’” (Fromm, p. 41).
Considering the identified defences of adherents and purveyors of the Critical Social Justice worldview, it can be concluded that narcissistic character traits are at the core of this ideology. Since three subtypes of narcissism exist at an individual level, does the same apply to the collective? In Part 2, I discuss how the same distinctions can be made among the adherents of the Woke worldview.
DiAngelo, R. (2018). White Fragility. Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Penguin Books.
Fromm, E. (1964). The Heart of Man, Its Genius for Good and Evil. Harper & Row.
Klein, M. (1957). Envy and Gratitude. Tavistock.
McWilliams, N. (2011). Psychoanalytic diagnosis: Understanding personality structure in the clinical process. (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.
Masterson, J.F., & Klein, R. (1995). Disorders of the Self: New Therapeutic Horizons: the Masterson Approach. Brunner/Mazel.
By Jaco Van Zyl, a psychoanalytically trained clinical psychologist originally from South Africa. He recently relocated to Limerick, Ireland, where he works in private practice. Jaco has a special interest in psychoanalytic psychotherapy, personality, and group psychology.