Violence Revisited

By and large my blog posts are not to everyone’s taste. The only blog post I ever wrote that could be regarded as “popular” by stretching the term a bit, was the one I wrote in 2013 about Freud’s take on violence. I suspect the popularity of that post is due to the fact that it has been “borrowed” for many a term paper in some of America’s least prestigious colleges and universities! In any event, I  have always been fascinated by the question why Americans in particular have been so prone to violence and I found that Hannah Arendt and Freud together tell us a great deal about the sources of the phenomenon. For those interested in that very popular earlier post I refer them here.

In this regard I am reading a book by the Australian sociologist John Carroll titled Guilt:The Grey Eminence Behind Character,History, and Culture which sheds some light on the subject. The book appears to be an attempt to flesh out the position Freud takes in his book Civilization and Its Discontents. In that book Freud argued that civilization is the result of the sublimation of aggressive impulses that lie in each of us “beyond the pleasure principle.” Carroll, insists that anxiety is one of the major reasons why humans experience the aggressive impulse; he expands on this argument in his own book:

“The critical question in all cases of sharp injections of anxiety is whether aggression is directed inwards or outwards. When it goes outwards, in violence, in hard work, in religious ritual — the more strenuous and self-punitive the better — even in screaming and wailing, then the provoking anxiety will be largely relieved. On the other hand, when it turns inwards it creates guilt. . . “

Freud would have spoken about the Super Ego and conscience, and nowhere, so far as I know, does he speak about anxiety as a trigger for aggression. None the less, it is plausible. But, however they may originate, when a person is able to sublimate the aggressive impulses inwards he is often able to channel those impulses into creative work. The result of channeling this aggression is not only guilt and remorse and even neurosis, it is what we call “civilization.” Those things we take so much for granted are the result of sublimated aggression, for the most part; sublimation begins in childhood with parental admonitions and proscriptions. And the neurosis is small price to pay for the results we all take for granted. Moreover, neurotic people are frequently the most talented and interesting people we know!

In a permissive society, where parental admonitions and proscriptions are seldom found, the aggressive impulses triggered by anxiety are not directed inwards forming a conscience; rather, they are directed outwards and if we note what Carroll says, almost in passing, the result is often violence. We see this in the spoiled child who has tantrums and strikes out in all directions in an effort to release those impulses that are barely beneath the surface in his case. Those of us who are presumably adults with a lively conscience have been taught not to express those aggressive impulses; we have learned not to release them outwards. But a permissive society allows them to be expressed — one might argue that many a modern psychologist has told parents not only to allow it to be expressed but to encourage it.

Be that as it may, if we are looking for a possible cause why Americans have become so violent — in their preference for violent games and movies as well as in their preference for violent sports — we might consider the very real possibilities that anxiety is increasingly prevalent, and also we have become far too permissive. The combination is volatile, to be sure. By allowing, and even encouraging, the spoiled child to express himself (he’s only a child and he’s just being honest!) we weaken the conscience and fail to develop what has always been called “character.” The child becomes an anxious and frustrated adult and he seeks violent outlets for the aggression he has been taught is simply an honest expression of his emotions. The result may be a relatively harmless preference for violent forms of entertainment. But it can obviously take a more direct and effective route on the way to violence against others in the form of abuse, physical harm, and even pulling the trigger of an automatic weapon in a crowded school room.

This analysis doesn’t address the question why Americans, especially, have been shown to be so prone to violence. But perhaps, motivated as we are by material success, there is greater anxiety in America than in other cultures — especially among those of us who feel the deck is stacked against them and they cannot possibly achieve material success. It is also possible America is more permissive than most other cultures. I suspect this is true, but that’s for the sociologist to determine.

 

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The Old Barbarism

I have remarked on numerous occasions that we have entered the age of a New Barbarism. Civilization as we know it, with its constraints and its demands that we be aware of and even that we care about others than ourselves is being replaced by a culture that is violent, unrestrained and positively fixated on itself. But I was wrong. In reading John Carroll’s interesting book on Guilt, I came to realize that what I regard as the new barbarism is nothing more than a return of the old barbarism that was prevalent in the medieval period.  After all, it wasn’t until the early eighteenth century, while civilization was still in its early stages and people were beginning to be fully aware of others and beginning to develop a lively conscience, moving  past a time when folks ate with their hands, blew their noses on their sleeves, or relieved themselves in the streets; a growing number of books on manners reminded them that

“If you pass a person who is relieving himself you should act as if you had not seen him, as it is impolite to greet him.”

Amusing indeed, but at the same time it gives us a sense of what things were like before we slowly but surely became “civilized.”  In England, for example, between the years 1200 and 1530 we find the following features:

“Conscience was in a primitive state. . . The common man’s imagination was fed with a kaleidoscope of ghosts, signs, specters, apparitions — of angels, devils, shades of the dead, and other countless forms that the Church managed to weave into its philosophy.”

Sound familiar? Has the entertainment industry become our church? What about this: ”

“Medieval culture was visual and tactile. Pictoral expression far surpassed the intellectual or literary. The popular stories were picturesque. . . The prominant role that magic played in the Middle Ages [created problems for the Protestant Church] that removed magic from Christian ritual without countering the belief in magic. . . . medieval man’s experience had the directness and absoluteness of the pleasure and pain of child life. . . As the visual was preferred over the literary, so the visible and public were preferred to the private.”

As in the entertainment industry once again, or, perhaps, social media? Perhaps this:

“The disposition of medieval man was that of a delinquent. It was violent and impulsive, without capacity for restraint or moderation. Tempestuous uninhibited passion was never far from the surface. . . Affection seems to have been scarce; the dominant emotions of the time were rather those of impotent fear and reflex violence.”

I could go on, but you get the idea. It is too much to see a precise parallel — as some have tried to do with contemporary civilization and the fall of the Roman Empire. But the similarities to the medieval period are striking as we cover ourselves with tattoos and piercings, gobble up entertainment, fixate on our hand-held electronic devices, seek violent solutions to complex social problems, purchase personal weapons at an alarming rate, take innumerable pictures of ourselves (and what we are about to eat), crave violent games and movies. The Harry Potter craze seems to echo the comments Carroll makes about the “kaleidoscope of ghosts . . ” that was common in the medieval period. In a word, there are signs that we are in danger of becoming increasingly barbaric as we turn our backs on civil discourse and the virtue of restraint, on the richness and treasure that is (was?) Western Civilization.

Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies showed us a group of English school boys stranded on an island after their plane crashed. Within a few days the thin veneer of civilization wore off and we began to see the savage nature of the animals beneath — with a few exceptions. Law and morality were forgotten and chaos, in the guise of complete freedom, placed the lives of each of those boys at risk. This was fiction, but it was based on sound observation and compelling arguments by psychologists such as Sigmund Freud who told us that beyond the pleasure principle there lies a core of festering aggression within each of us. And our history provides us with multiple examples of this undeniable fact, as Carroll points out. During the medieval period the thin veneer of civilization was almost transparent and it took centuries of struggle for humans to begin to act like humans, to care for one another, acquire manners, and to put law above violence, to become “civilized.”

The veneer gradually thickened but today we seem determined to scratch it off as too inhibiting. However, we should be aware of what lives beneath that veneer; we are seeing growing numbers of examples of that inner core of aggression that Freud spoke about. From an uncivilized president and his legions of agitated supporters to the hordes of people buying guns, to the shouting that has replaced civil discourse, to the gradual disappearance of good manners, to the attacks on reason and science, we see all around us signs of that core of “tempestuous, uninhibited” aggression. We must be very careful not to wear off entirely that veneer of civilization since that way lies the old barbarism, a part of ourselves that we always carry with us and which we really don’t want to expose for all to see.

Taboos

The growing number of restrictions on our speech and thought are alarming. Increasingly, there are things we must not say or think lest we hurt the feelings of someone somewhere. And while the impulses that have taken us in this direction are well-meaning and even laudable, they threaten to constrict thought and speech to the point where we are struck dumb.

In reading the Australian sociologist John Carroll’s book on Guilt published in 1985 I came across a passage that would today get some folks riled up. He is speaking about the

“. . .pervasive influence that the Romantic movement has had on modern Western sensibilities [that] require us to look into the guilt that flows through the high sublimation of its literature. . . .The hostility to the constraints of society, the elevation of spontaneity of feeling and sensitivity, of passion over reason, of art over work, all suggest identification with female traits, and hostility to the signs of the patriarchal father — order, control, artifact.”

The suggestion that there are “female traits” would be dismissed by the outraged radical feminists among us as completely out of order. And this despite the fact that those traits are evident and important. In fact, if our culture were less masculine, less inclined to violence, to control and take, and more feminine, more compassionate and caring — more in tune with our “Mother Earth” — we would all be better off. The point here is that constraining speech and thought by insisting that certain words and phrases are out of order results in the dismissal of those ideas that might help us understand more clearly what is going on around us.

The list of taboo words and phrases grows as the Political Correctness Police on our college campuses strive to turn them from educational institutions into Care Clinics. The irony here should be obvious: the desire to purge our college campuses of nasty and hurtful thoughts is in every way an expression of the “female traits” of which Carroll speaks and that desire is heartily supported by the feminists on college campuses who also object to the notion that there ARE such things as “female traits.”

But the problem goes even deeper as we hear about comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld who will no longer visit college campuses because of the restrictions on his comedic thrusts — which, let’s face it, are very gentle to say the least. Have we, after all, lost our sense of humor? The notion that there are growing numbers of things we simply should not allow anyone to say (or think) places restrictions not only on comedians but also on others who would say things on campus that might hurt someone’s feelings. But, surely, we should point out that someone somewhere will be hurt by something that someone says at some time. Of all places, college campuses should allow the free expression of ideas and speech in spite of the fact that something someone says might hurt someone’s feelings. That’s just the way of the world. In protecting our students from hurtful words and thoughts we hamper their intellectual development.

As quoted recently in a publication by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, this point was made evident on the campus of Williams College in Massachusetts where 400 college professors signed a petition

“. . .to adopt the Chicago Principles. The petition states, ‘While there is an understandable desire to protect our students from speech they find offensive, doing so risks shutting down legitimate dialogue and failing to prepare our students to deal effectively with a diversity of opinions, including views they might vehemently disagree with.’ . . . Students have issued a counter-petition in which they argue that the unfettered free speech supported by the Chicago Principles harms minority students.”

The ACTA has taken a stand with the 400 faculty members. But the likelihood these days is that the college will side with the students in the end.

The problem, of course, has worked its way outside the walls of academe as political correctness is all the rage. José Cabranes was a recent recipient of the Merrill Award presented by the ACTA. He tells us we are faced with a choice between “academic freedom or civilizational decline.” Free speech and free thought must be encouraged at the very least to the point where it actively provokes violence toward others — not only on college campuses, but also at political rallies where the clear goal is to win over folks to a restricted world view in which only those who agree with those who seek power are allowed to speak. Somehow, we must find a balance.

It’s All About Me

In 2004 I wrote a book in which I sought to discover the roots of the rampant subjectivism that permeates modern culture and indeed the modern (and post-modern) world. It was cumbersomely titled (by the publisher) The Inversion of Consciousness From Dante To Derrida and professed to be a “study in intellectual history.”  In that book I pointed to three main factors that seemed to lead human attention away from the world “out there” and to the subject himself or herself. I noted the Protestant Reformation, the birth of modern science, and the philosophy of Francis Bacon and René Descartes.

The Protestant Reformation undermined the absolute authority of the Catholic Church and with it the certainty in the minds of most of those in the Western World that there is an absolute right and wrong, there is Truth, and the soul is immortal. This uncertainty, not to say anxiety, coupled with the Cartesian doubt with which Descartes started his system, resulted in growing uncertainty not only about the authority of the Church but also about the veracity of human faith and the certainties upon which were based the confidence of earlier generations. The invention of Galileo’s telescope exacerbated the situation as it called into question the confidence humans had in their own sense experience: seeing was no longer believing. Jupiter had moons that had never before been seen and this called into question the entire edifice of Ptolemaic astronomy that had been the framework of “science” since the time of the ancient Greeks. Moreover, the Ptolemaic view had the support of the Catholic Church which found Galileo’s discoveries deeply disturbing because they supported the Copernican theory that called into question the certainties on which the Church had rested its guidance of human activities for centuries.

If we ignore the corruption within the Catholic Church itself, including the “grand schism,”  the Protestant Reformation was the final straw in bringing down the tower of certainty that was the medieval church — as I have noted in previous posts. Especially in the writings of John Calvin, the accumulation of great personal wealth was no longer seen as an evil but was welcomed as a sign of God’s favor. And this gave license to human greed which found its home in the economic system of capitalism as put forward in the writings of Adam Smith. For Smith capitalism promised humankind a new world of peace and prosperity; but more than that it encouraged human beings to pay close attention to themselves and to their own well-being. In the end an “invisible hand” would guarantee  benefits to all based on the success of the few.

All of these factors, it seemed to me brought about what I called the “inversion of consciousness,” the turning away from the world to a preoccupation with the self and to personal pleasure and self-indulgence. There can be no question but that modern science and capitalism have brought about many benefits to humankind. Modern medicine and the possibility of financial gains promised by these two factors alone prolonged human life and raised humankind to new heights of ease and comfort. But it was bought at a price and there is a serious question whether or not that price was worth paying.

I recently finished a book by Hannah Arendt that was published almost 50 years before my book. It is titled The Human Condition, and I had not read it when I wrote mine, but I found a great many areas of agreement between the two books, which is most encouraging — surprising even. Arendt characterizes our age as one in which “self-centered and self-indulgent egotism” are prevalent, an age in which the only value is life itself — not the quality of life, but simply life itself. She points to the same three factors as I do in attempting to discover modern man’s preoccupation with himself. But she places a great deal more stress on the doubt of René Descartes than I did. She thinks Descartes’ doubt, with which he begins his systematic journey to rational certainty, places the subject firmly within himself as the final authority about not only right and wrong but, more importantly, about truth. Cartesian doubt even undermines religious faith. The truth is no longer about the world; in the modern world it is about one’s perception of the world.  And thinking is turned away from the world to the subject himself who is thinking about the world. And it is thought, after all, that provides Descartes with the springboard that established the certainty of his own existence and, ultimately, about the world. “I think, therefore I am.”

In the modern world, then, it is all about me. Knowledge is determined by how we reason about what is going on about us and right and wrong collapse — as does virtue — into mere opinion about what might lead to greater personal benefits  in the short term. And while much of this seems remote and of interest only to philosophers and scientists we must note that those ideas have slowly permeated our culture and deeply affected the way we think about our world and about ourselves. All of us. And if we add to the mix the recent explosion of interest in electronic toys that fix the attention to the gadget in hand, it becomes obvious how the world outside the self has simply disappeared. The self is all and the objective world has become lost in the inversion of consciousness.