Pumpkin Fest Madness and the Age of Narcissism

November 21, 2014

There are probably many social, economic, and familial forces at work in generating the trend toward public incivility, and it would be silly to blame the Internet for the riot in Keene.

“It’s just like a rush. You’re revolting from the cops. . . . It’s a blast to do things that you’re not supposed to do.”

-Steven French, age 181

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_crop","fid":"29570","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image media-image-right","id":"media_crop_9832540651375","media_crop_h":"0","media_crop_image_style":"-1","media_crop_instance":"3065","media_crop_rotate":"0","media_crop_scale_h":"59","media_crop_scale_w":"150","media_crop_w":"0","media_crop_x":"0","media_crop_y":"0","style":"float: right;","title":" ","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]When I first saw the headline “Pumpkin Fest Riot,” I thought it might be a parody, along the lines of spoofs published by The Onion. But it was all too true: there really was a riot at the Pumpkin Festival held October 19 in Keene, NH. I am not in a position to pass judgment on the guilt or innocence of specific persons involved, but this is what The New York Times reported:

. . . hordes of partyers . . . turned parts of the city near Keene State College into chaos, and drew police officers in riot gear to break them up. Video and photos posted to social me diaon Saturday and Sunday showed revelers knocking over street signs, setting boxes on fire, standing triumphantly atop an overturned car and chanting obscenities at the police, who moved in formation to disperse them.2

Now, as one who has often pontificated on “the downfall of Western civilization,” I am tempted to see this latest incident as confirmatory evidence. Indeed, I have never been fully persuaded by Prof Steven Pinker’s thesis that violence has actually been in decline over long stretches of history3-although we may indeed be less likely to see certain kinds of mass violence that were common in ancient or medieval times. But even if Pinker is correct, I would still argue that when a small-town, pumpkin festival turns into a riot, we have an obligation to look deeply into our social norms and mores, if not into our own souls.

On the one hand, the young man quoted above-“You’re revolting from the cops. . . . It’s a blast to do things that you’re not supposed to do”-might be seen as reflecting an attitude almost as old as Western civilization. Thus, the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia was a period of revelry, feasting, and “role reversal” in which rules were suspended, slaves were served by their masters, and the “. . . whole mob . . . let itself go in pleasures.”4

And, the phenomenon of student rioting is at least as ancient as the 13th century. According to Matthew Milner5 of McGill University, this is what happened at the University of Paris in 1229:

The strike at the University of Paris occurred between March 6, 1229, and April 13, 1231. . . . The origin of the strike begins on Strove Tuesday, the carnival day preceding lent (March 6th, 1229). During the events of the day, a group of students from the university instigated a brawl in a tavern on Rue Saint Marcel, which ended in them being ejected from the establishment. Returning to the tavern the next day (March 7, 1229), the students started a riot. First by attacking the tavern itself, before moving onto the surrounding area.

Perhaps from a historical perspective, the “Pumpkin Fest Riot” should not come as a big shock: when large crowds of young people gather-particularly in the haze of heavy alcohol use-some degree of rowdiness is understandable and predictable. And, in fairness, some of the violence in Keene was instigated by “outsiders,” intent on causing mayhem.1

On the other hand, there are reasons to wonder whether recent changes in American society may be exacerbating some of these age-old tendencies. I have written elsewhere on the evidence that narcissism has been increasing among young people in this country.6 Leaving aside various technical and psychoanalytic definitions of this term, we can think of narcissism as embodying the attitude, “I should be able to do whatever I please, whenever I want to do it-and if other people don’t like it, that’s just too bad!” I cited the work of Jean M. Twenge, PhD, and W. Keith Campbell, PhD, as discussed in their book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.7 These researchers argue that several social and cultural trends have contributed to “the relentless rise of narcissism in our culture,” including a breakdown in “community-oriented thinking” and an overemphasis on individual privilege. Twenge and Campbell see these trends as having begun in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their thesis remains controversial, and it isn’t my intention here to dissect it. But, having grown up in the 1950s, in a town about the size of Keene, it is almost inconceivable to me that a “pumpkin festival” could have devolved into an alcohol-fueled riot in our little town.

Maybe I’m just indulging in self-comforting nostalgia-but maybe not. Perhaps society really has changed in ways that foster the kind of violent, mean-spirited, hell-raising we witnessed in Keene. Bay County, Florida, Sheriff Frank McKeithen has observed such a trend in the increased rowdiness and violence during “spring break” in recent years. Commenting on the deteriorating behavior of party-goers in Panama City Beach, Florida, McKeithen observed that in earlier years, “Most college students were like, ‘Oh my god, my mother’s gonna find out and I’m done for.’ Now it’s like, ‘Eff my mother and eff the police.’”8

One societal change is undeniable: the increasing anonymity fostered by the Internet-a medium scarcely imaginable in small-town America during the 1950s. As I have argued elsewhere, for all its many blessings and benefits, the Internet has permitted-if not encouraged-a profusion of anonymous abuse and invective.9 Arguing along similar lines, commentator Gwen Ifill described the “dearth of civility in the public square,” which most Americans believe has gotten worse in the past few years.10

There are probably many social, economic, and familial forces at work in generating this trend toward public incivility, and it would be silly to blame the Internet for the riot in Keene. If anything, the anonymous abuse generated on the Internet is as much a symptom as a cause of American society’s increasingly uncivil behavior. But one thing seems very likely to me: both the abusive, anonymous Internet troll and the young rioter in Keene embody a worldview that shouts, “I should be able to do whatever I please, and if other people don’t like it, that’s just too bad!”

Acknowledgment-Thanks to Dr John Grohol and Psych Central for permission to re-publish this piece, which appeared in slightly different form on Psych Central. http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/10/22/pumpkin-fest-madness-the-age-of-narcissism.

References:

1. Payne E. New Hampshire pumpkin festival crowd sets fires, throws bottles. October 19, 2014. http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/19/us/new-hampshire-pumpkin-festival-riot/index.html?hpt=hp_t2. Accessed October 28, 2014.

2. Bidgood J. Pumpkin festival takes a menacing turn. New York Times. October 19, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/20/us/pumpkin-festival-goesfrom-treat-to-trick.html. Accessed October 28, 2014.

3. Pinker S. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Penguin Books; 2012.

4. Seneca. Epistles, XVIII.3. In: Saturnalia. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/calendar/saturnalia.html. Accessed October 28, 2014.

5. Milner M. History 214. University of Paris strike. http://digihum.mcgill.ca/~matthew.milner/teaching/classes/hist214_f13/timeline/?show=events&id=54. Accessed October 28, 2014.

6. Pies R. Have we become a nation of narcissists? Psych Central. http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/09/16/have-we-become-a-nation-of-narcissists. Accessed October 28, 2014.

7. Twenge JM, Campbell WK. The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. New York: Atria Books; 2010.

8. Dange S. The history of spring break. April 29, 2014. http://www.wjhg.com/home/headlines/The-History-of-Spring-Break-257129781.html. Accessed October 28, 2014.

9. Pies RW. Our uncivil society and Internet abuse: time to end anonymous postings? Medscape. July 30, 2012. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/768163_2. Accessed October 28, 2014.

10. Ifill G. Gwen’s take: dearth of civility in the public square. PBS NewsHour. June 14, 2012. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/gwens-take-dearth-of-civility-in-the-public-square.