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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Mental Health

A recent story about the spate of suicides at Tulane University raises several important questions. As the story tells us, in part,

No college is immune. The problem is growing, and it’s universal. Universities are welcoming a generation of students who are more anxious than ever, and who appear to be cracking under the weight of the growing pressure to get into a good college and then to pay for it. Society burdens kids with this pressure, and then sends them off to college to deal with it. At the heart of the wrenching debate is a touchy question: How much responsibility do colleges really bear for the psychological well-being of their students?

The question at the end seems to be the central one. But let’s take a look at the suggestion — which we hear a great deal — that today’s students are under more pressure than their predecessors. As one who has been connected with academia for the vast majority of his life, I have made the claim, which I stand by, that students have always been under pressure. Indeed, one could argue students were under even more pressure before the average grade became an A-. Previous generations had to meet much more stringent academic standards, most had to work their way through college and face such things as the draft. In a word, there was a great deal of pressure to succeed. In fact, there were frequent suicides in colleges that were  explained on the grounds that the students feel anxious because of the pressure to get good grades in competition with other students who are as bright or even brighter than they are. In high school this was not the case because high schools have a much broader spectrum of students, the bright students tending to feel less competition.

Whatever the case may be, it’s a moot question whether there have been more suicides in colleges and universities recently. But if we allow that the problem has grown, it does seem to me that this simply reflects an anxious age in which suicide in our culture as a whole is doubtless more frequent than it may have been in past years. For one thing, there are more people on earth now than ever before: it is becoming very crowded and the pace of life is faster than ever. For another thing in this country, at least, corporate agendas have taken priority in Washington and as a result the problems that increasing numbers of folks are becoming aware of, including the bright college students, are being largely ignored by those we elect to address them. This surely adds to the stress. And with families struggling to pay the bills, the kids growing up tend to be ignored and must feel a lack of connection with those they love. This increases the anxiety levels as well. So it’s not just college students who feel the pressure.

But the question at the end of the story above is central to the discussion. How much responsibility do the colleges bear to solve this problem? To what extent are they responsible for the “psychological well-being of their students?” I once argued that colleges are only responsible for training young minds, setting them free from prejudice and stupidity in preparation for a chaotic and ever-changing world. The family and the church mold character. I still maintain that, since I have seen what happens when the colleges start to address social problems and their sense of purpose becomes fragmented: they lose their focus and in trying to do everything they do nothing well.

I still maintain that their primary focus should be on training young minds. I would also add that no matter how busy they are, parents should be more involved in the lives of their children and many of these anxieties could be dealt with before they become mental health issues. And our churches should do more to attract young people who are staying away in droves. At the same time, colleges should assuredly be aware that the students feel pressures and there should be professionals available for counseling. But this concern must be secondary for the reasons given above: colleges and universities cannot be all things to all people. They cannot solve all of our society’s problems. But they can address them by training young minds to deal with those problems in new and creative ways. That is what colleges and universities are designed to do and what they do best — when they remain focused on their central purpose.