Aristotle wrote about it thousands of years ago as he considered how different urban designs shaped cities as well as the people who lived in them. He was interested in relations between culture, urban design and civilisation, he wanted cities built to produce what he considered to be the best Greek society. He prized and valued equality and fairness and democracy.
Not every person prioritises those values. What happens to a city that is built according to other values? And what effect do different city types, cities with different personalities if you like, different morphologies, have on the people who develop and grow up in them?
Many cities have big egos. Maybe they care more about the way they look from the outside, rather than how they feel for those living on the inside.
Imagine a city that is shaped by a culture of narcissism.
What is Narcissism?
The term narcissism comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a handsome Greek youth who rejected the desperate advances of the nymph Echo. These advances eventually led Narcissus to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Unable to consummate his love, Narcissus "lay gazing enraptured into the pool, hour after hour," and finally changed into a flower that bears his name, the narcissus. While mirrors are a superficial part of this story, the parable and ideas are much deeper.
A book by David Thomas, (Narcissism: Behind the Mask), describes the narcissistic character traits of individuals who he describes as "power-hungry". Not everybody who gets elected to govern a city has the ideals of Aristotle. It is not unknown for the men and women who are elected to positions of power to be "power-hungry". According to Mr Thomas the personality traits of a "power-hungry" narcissist are:
- An obvious self-focus in interpersonal exchanges
- Problems in sustaining satisfying relationships
- A lack of psychological awareness
- Difficulty with empathy
- Problems distinguishing the self from others
- Hypersensitivity to any insults or imagined insults
- Vulnerability to shame rather than guilt
- Haughty body language
- Flattery towards people who admire and affirm them
- Detesting those who do not admire them
- Using other people without considering the cost of doing so
- Pretending to be more important than they really are
- Bragging (subtly but persistently) and exaggerating their achievements
- Claiming to be an "expert" at many things
- Inability to view the world from the perspective of other people
- Denial of remorse and gratitude
Dr Leon Seltzer rather cynically oberves,"Narcissist politicians don't serve the people; they serve themselves" in an article he uses to explore "why narcissism is so rampant in politics". The more substantial quotes below from Dr Seltzer (who is a psychologist) give a flavour of what he thinks motivates the narcissist politician:
....what typically drives them is a lust for power, prestige, status, and authority. These (let's call them) "objects of admiration" not only gratify their need for self-aggrandizement by feeding their oversized ego. They also provide them with compelling evidence to confirm their sense of superiority to others—probably their most coveted need of all.... There's little question that politicians—wield vastly more power and control than the average citizen.
Even before winning office, these individuals may have been inclined toward such "entitled thinking." But there's little question that once elected their newly elevated status promotes further exaggeration of this tendency—which, ultimately, must be seen as anti-social. As politician the whole city has become one huge "narcissistic supply" for them. That is, the ego gratifications available simply from residing in City Council are truly extraordinary: such an unusually prestigious role can't but pump up their self-esteem to levels that further confirm their bloated sense of self. Whereas before they put themselves on a pedestal, now the whole city obligingly seems to follow suit. Moreover, once ensconced in office they may well feel accountable to no one but themselves—free to play their competitive power games with impunity (and frankly, the public be damned).
Beyond such pragmatics, implicitly believing that it's better to receive than give, narcissist-politicians' immense appetite for flattery, praise, and adulation is also abundantly gratified. Quite independent of professional achievement, they expect to be treated as superior. Their fragile psyche demands being admired and looked up to—and unquestionably holding high office almost guarantees that this ego requirement will be amply met. Such an enormous "fringe benefit," helps explain why so many of them become "career politicians," holding onto such psychological blessings as long as possible. In such instances, the chief reason for remaining an incumbent isn't to fulfill any idealistic aspirations. It's to "secure" their inflated self-regard.
But while they may delude themselves that their city sorely requires their unique talents and skills, they experience little motivation to serve the citizenry as such. They've won their position primarily to serve themselves—and they can do so almost obsessively. The saying "Promises are made to be broken" rings particularly true for them. It's become almost a joke that the devout pledges they make on the campaign trail bear only trifling resemblance to what they do once in office. The ability to convince voters that they'll best represent their interests is what defines their success. Actually implementing what they avowed they'd tirelessly work for isn't really an essential part of their agenda—which is typically well-hidden from constituents (and many times from their conscious selves as well). In short, their campaigns measure how well they can dupe the public, not how well they'll fulfill their responsibilities once declared victorious.
Notorious for being empathy-challenged (though they may be extremely adept at masking this deficit), narcissist-politicians are frequently tone deaf as regards how some of their private, "entitled" actions can affect public opinion. Compartmentalizing their lives, they suffer from a peculiar moral myopia and lack of imagination, unable to anticipate how their sexual infidelities, or other behaviours, might be held against them. In this sense, their exaggerated sense of privilege frequently undermines their better judgment. As cold-hearted and calculating as they can be—for they see others as essentially objects to manipulate for personal gain—they're strangely naive (or even unconscious) about how their unprincipled acts could be negatively interpreted by others, who don't necessarily assume such behaviors as "entitled" at all.
Frankly incapable of emotionally identifying with others' distress, the wrong they may have done them remains forever out of their focus. What is in focus for them is the deeply felt assault to their self-image that comes from being charged with wrongdoing. And, so threatened, their push-back reactions are self-righteously contrived to reclaim both their personal and ideological superiority over their attacker. Flagrantly falsifying facts and details beyond reason, they vehemently proclaim the moral high ground.
Sound familiar? I know it's over-written and exaggerated stuff, but I've included it here to flesh out the overall argument I am making.
A number of academics are considering what might make an organisation behave in a narcissistic manner. For example Grant and McGhee of AUT's Faculty of Business have looked at the "personality" of failed finance institutions in New Zealand. They write about organisational narcissism. Their analysis of narcissism, based on an extensive literature search, starts like this:
In modern parlance, yet still rooted in this ancient myth, narcissism “generally connotes a person who possesses an extreme love of the self, a grandiose sense of self-importance, and a powerful sense of entitlement” (Duchon and Drake, 2008, p. 303). While useful, this definition needs further unpacking. Brown (1997), while noting the divergent conceptions of narcissism, summarised much of the extant literature into six broad behavioural/psychological characteristics. Denial, the first of these, has the narcissistic individual “disclaiming awareness, knowledge, or responsibility for faults that might otherwise attach to them” (p. 646). Rationalisation is the narcissist’s attempt at justifying unacceptable behaviours or attitudes and presenting them in a socially acceptable form. Self-aggrandisement refers to the tendency to overestimate one’s abilities or achievements. The narcissistic personality, imbued with these beliefs, is often accompanied by “extreme self-absorption, a tendency toward exhibitionism, claims to uniqueness, and a sense of invulnerability” (p. 646). In addition to these characteristics, and to further self-enhancement, the narcissist also distorts reality through selective perception. This fourth one, attributional egotism, is the tendency to explain events in a self-serving manner and to attribute positive outcomes to causes internal to the self and negative outcomes to external factors. The psychoanalytic literature generally accepts that narcissists use self-serving behaviour to preserve and/or enhance self-esteem. A narcissist bolstered by the above characteristics, also has a strong sense of entitlement. This, in turn, is associated with “a strong belief in his/her right to exploit others and an inability to empathize with the feelings of others” (p. 647). Unfortunately, for him or her, this lack of feelings towards others matches an insatiable need for their approval and admiration. Thus, the narcissist finds themselves in the not-so-enviable position of “holding in contempt and perhaps feeling threatened by the very individuals upon whom he or she is dependent for positive regard and affirmation” (p. 647). Finally, narcissism is also associated with high levels of anxiety. Research demonstrates that narcissists suffer from feelings of dejection, worthlessness, hypochondria, despair, emptiness, fragility, and hypersensitivity. While anxiety itself is not an ego-defence, it is what the above ego-defence mechanisms seek to ameliorate....Of most significance to this research is how individual narcissism at the highest level - be it Board of Directors or Elected Councillors and CEO - might or would affect organisational behaviour. Grant and Mcghee write:
Some authors have argued that leader role modelling is the most critical factor determining ethical culture (Dickson , Smith , Grojean , & Ehrhart 2001 ; Morgan, 1993; Murphy & Enderle, 1995; Nielsen, 1989; Schein, 1992; Sims & Brinkmann, 2002). Jackall (1988) suggested that ethical behaviour in organisations is often reduced to adulating and imitating one’s superiors. Lord and Brown (2001) claim that leaders provide a ‘natural source of values’ for their employees while Bandura (1977), in discussions of socialization and social learning theory, suggests that employees imitate the values stemming from their leaders. Hood (2003), who looked specifically at the relationship between the CEO’s leadership style, values and the ethical practices of the organisation, found that leadership styles do influence ethical practices in the organisation. Brown, et al. (2005) considered managers to be a key source of guidance for ethical behaviour. Given this strong relationship between leadership and moral identity, we argue that if the management-control nexus exhibits narcissism, then it is probable that the individuals and the organisation as a whole will reflect these narcissistic tendencies.What is a NarciCity?
So, what does a narcissistic organisation look like? Duchon and Drake (2008) have argued that an organisation’s identity operates as an analogy to an individual’s personality and essentially determines its moral behaviour. They even go so far as to claim that an extreme narcissistic organisation cannot behave properly because it does not have a moral identity. This is because the organisation’s identity does not contain a predisposition to act virtuously and so it is morally flawed.
Narcissistic organisations use ego-defence mechanisms to protect the integrity of its personality even at the expense of sacrificing the morality of its actions (Ketola, 2006). They become self-obsessed and use a sense of entitlement, self-aggrandizement, denial, and rationalisations to justify anything they do (Duchon & Drake, 2008). In such organisations, individuals and groups may be responsible for making decisions but those decisions will tend to be consistent with the larger system’s moral identity (G. R. Weaver, 2006) and so unethical behaviour can emerge unintentionally. This may explain how in the (New Zealand corporate) cases individual decision makers in senior positions did not question blatantly unethical behaviour.
Let's take the narcissistic organisational characteristics identified by Grant and McGhee: denial, rationalisation, self-aggrandisement, attributional egoism, entitlement, and anxiety, and consider how Auckland City fares as a case study, just looking at sewage.
|Denial||Nobody gets sick from combined sewer discharges into the Viaduct. The Waitemata Harbour is a beautiful shade of blue. People (maori) eat snapper from it.||Human excrement contains microbial contaminants that cause ill health. It is top priority to collect, transport and treat human excrement away from areas of human habitation or play.|
|Rationalisation||Because stormwater dilutes the sewage when it rains, and nobody swims in the Viaduct when it's raining anyway, there are no health effects.||Human excrement contains microbial contaminants that cause ill health. It is top priority to collect, transport and treat human excrement away areas of human habitation or play.|
|Self-aggrandisement||Auckland shares top billing in most global indicators for liveability. New Zealand is known by its brand as 100% pure. The sky is blue. The sea is blue. The grass is green. The people always smile.||We know that human excrement contains microbial contaminants that cause ill health. We know Auckland's sewer systems are old, decrepit and leak. It is top priority to remedy this.|
|Attributional egoism||"The harbour’s deep navigable channels and sheltered bays helped to determine the choice of a site for New Zealand’s capital in 1840.... Spotlight on beach water quality. ...beach water quality for the Waitematā harbour ... web based and accessible by the public .... this model will help inform the public of the associated health risk when swimming at beaches within the harbour...."||Human excrement contains microbial contaminants that cause ill health. It is top priority to collect, transport and treat human excrement away from areas of human habitation or play.|
|Entitlement||"OF THE NINE BATHING BEACHES TESTED DURING SUMMER 2013/14 95% passed RECREATIONAL BACTERIA GUIDELINES"|
. Spotlight on beach water quality. "...grades represent an average of the results from the individual sites. Individual site results will vary and localised issues may not be represented by the overall grades....."
|Human excrement contains microbial contaminants that cause ill health. It is top priority to collect, transport and treat human excrement away from areas of human habitation or play.|
|Anxiety||What if our worst localised sewage overflow issues were featured on the front page of the The News of the World, The Wall Street Journal, People's Daily, The Sydney Morning Herald? Better to measure less and headline good news statistics.||Human excrement contains microbial contaminants that cause ill health. It is top priority to identify major sources, contain leaks, publicise detailed information, budget repairs.|
I have chosen wastewater here. But I could just as easily have chosen rates, roading, rubbish, debt, public space, green space, you name it. And I haven't even begun to write about equity, fairness and democracy.
Urban issues make big and easy targets. But what really matters is something far more profound and important. When we design our cities, when we design policies for our cities, we are building a city culture that shapes and nurtures our children (who have no choice where they are born). The city culture will also attract visitors (who generally choose the city that meets their needs).
Wisdom and wise decisions build wise cities that produce, instill and attract wisdom.