In my effort to understand violence and the reason why Americans seem to have a penchant for violent acts, I have previously alluded to Hannah Arendt’s suggestion that violence is a result of a sense of powerlessness that leads to frustration and finally to a violent act. This strikes me as entirely plausible. But there is a deeper and, perhaps more compelling analysis that we can find in the writings of Sigmund Freud — and it seems to complement Arendt’s analysis.
Before looking at what Freud said about violence, however, I must apologize to those who think the man himself was quite mad and obsessed with sex. I had a colleague in psychology at the university where I taught who had a picture on the bulletin board in her office with a red circle and a line through the silhouette of the father of modern psychotherapy. I have always thought that strange, since the man was historically important in her field, but she was convinced that he was the patron saint of misogynists and she simply couldn’t get past the fact that Freud insisted that all women suffered from (among other things) penis envy. She refused to teach any of his doctrines to her students. Welcome to the postmodernist age!
Be that as it may, Freud had some very interesting things to say about human sexuality and about the human psyche generally and rather than toss him on the dust bin of dead-white-European-males with the rest of many of those who created Western Civilization, it might be worth our while to listen to what he had to say. With that in mind, let’s take a quick peek at what he had to say about violence.
Freud was convinced that humans develop a conscience, or what he called the “super-ego” as a result of repression. Parents say “no” to the child and the child represses his natural urges toward aggression and destruction. Thus, what we call “civilization,” in the form of parental and societal repression, thwarts the natural instincts common to us all and they are turned inwards toward the self and become what we call a bad conscience. We feel bad about doing those things we were told not to do as we grow up.
When the restraints of civilization are loosened, as they are in a permissive society, the aggressive instincts turn outwards again in the form of violence toward others. Given the fact that, thanks in large measure to a misreading of Freud, ours is an increasingly permissive society where we rarely say “no,” we can expect to see increasing levels of violence. We no longer turn the aggressive instincts toward ourselves in the form of a bad conscience, we turn them loose on others in the form of rage and violent actions: we let it “all hang out.” When guns are readily available, as they are in this society, this can easily take the form of an increase in what we call “gun-deaths.” Couple the lack of repression with a growing sense of powerlessness among people used to getting their way as children and we can begin to understand why violence is on the rise in this country.
So those who say that guns don’t kill people, people kill people are half right. People in this increasingly permissive society are more and more inclined to violence and would doubtless find a way to express that violence — though they can get vicarious release by watching violent sports such as football. But when they (or their mothers) can buy an assault weapon and some hand guns from Walmart, the temptation is to reach for those weapons when angry rather than, say, a baseball bat or a knife.
There’s not much we can do about the permissive nature of the society in which we live. It seems to be a fact of modern life. But we can certainly do something about the availability of weapons that allow the expression of our violent tendencies to take the form of mass killings — if we have the will. And by “we” I mean, of course, the Congress of the United States.