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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Of Inequality, Mental Illness and Bootstraps

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times discussed how inequality hollows out the soul. A key focus of the piece is that major and minor mental illnesses were three times as common in developed societies where there are large income disparities between rich and poor, such as in the United States. This piece resonated with me. One section in particular caught my attention:

"Two sociologists at the University of Toronto, Robert Andersen and Josh Curtis, found that although there is always some connection between people’s income and the social class to which they feel they belong, the match between the two is closer in societies with bigger income differences between rich and poor."

I found this an interesting claim. Because of my early life, I still think of myself as poor. If pressed I'll acknowledge that I am not, at this time, poor.  It is very difficult for me to think of myself as middle or upper middle class; if I am better off than I used to be, I tend to see it as both fortuitous and temporary. This is in some ways a positive situation for me, since it makes me empathetic to the poor. But my difficulty in acknowledging that my class position might have changed since my childhood and early youth also means that I sometimes miss out on the advantages of my change in class. In many ways, I am still breaking out of the box that first constrained me.

I don’t think that the opinion piece advocates the elimination of income disparity. Instead, I take it as a useful part of a broader discussion about how we view income disparity and the toll that our views take on the mental condition of both the poor and the rich.  As the article notes, the poor are much more likely to experience depression than the rich.  And the rich are, according to some research, more likely to experience conditions such as narcissism or feelings of grandeur. The interesting thing I find, however, is that narcissism, perhaps because of its greater association with the rich, is less stigmatized as a mental disorder than depression. 

Though we tend to laugh about narcissistic outliers, we are not really laughing that hard at most of them. Instead, our laughter is often the ambivalent, envious laughter of the socially striving. We wish that we were laughing with the narcissistic. There is some sense that narcissism is not a failing at all, unless it’s really, really out there.  Even recent psychological thinking on narcissism tends to move away from a categorical approach and towards a dimensional approach that centers on the severity of the dysfunctional personality. Recent changes in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual reflect this approach. What goes undiscussed much of the time is that there is, as I have written before, a distinctly gendered and classed aspect to discussions of narcissism. (See my previous post (In)Sanity, Thy Name is Woman.) There is also a racial aspect to narcissism. People of color, men or women, who exude, shall we say, too much confidence, are far more likely to be considered at the social if not psychological extremes of narcissism. Ask Richard Sherman.

It is almost as if we are supposed to be (somewhat) self-absorbed, vain, and self-aggrandizing as a result of being (or in order to become) wealthy. How else are we going to have the gumption to pull up our own bootstraps and keep them up?