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.

 

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.

Bogus Christians

The following story caught my eye. Jesus threw the money-changers from the temple. He should return and throw this guy out of his plane….

You may have heard the story a few months ago about an Atlanta-based minister who claimed he needed a $65 million private jet so he could “safely and swiftly share the Good News of the Gospel worldwide.” But almost as quickly as Pastor Creflo Dollar asked his 200,000 followers to each donate $300.00 [each] towards the purchase of a luxurious jet, the campaign vanished and was removed from his website.

But now, the board of World Changers Church International — which also operates as Creflo Dollar Ministries, has announced it is ready to purchase the plane.

“We plan to acquire a Gulfstream G650 because it is the best, and it is a reflection of the level of excellence at which this organization chooses to operate.”

This has got to be one of the biggest shams ever, and there’s so much delusion it’s hard to even figure out where to begin.

Let’s start with the money. Imagine what could be accomplished with $65 million! That’s a lot of money. Do you think Jesus would have wanted his earthly representatives travelling the globe in luxurious accommodations? Or do you think Jesus would have wanted to see that $65 million used to feed the poor, help the homeless, improve education, or just make some kind of huge impact to help humanity?

The final paragraph says it all: think of the good that money could do, especially since “World Changers Church International” presumably was organized to help the poor. But this is an old story and isn’t restricted to this man or this obscene expenditure. The Christian Church since the days of Constantine, at the very least, has sold out to Mammon. Victorian Bishops lived in palaces and we read often about corrupt and selfish church officials that are bent on living in a grand style. Dante put numerous Popes in Hell because of their corruption which resulted from their succumbing to the lure of money and power. It is possible, I suppose, that Pastor Dollar (how’s that for a revealing name??) is a decent man, but it defies logic and history to suppose for an instant that he cannot be corrupted. If Dante were only alive today….

But, again, when one considers how much good the filthy rich could do with the money they buy trinkets with and hide away in off-shore accounts and homes in Europe one’s mind is already boggled. There is no argument I know of that allows us to say that the rich ought to help others. But there are religions that all agree this would be the right thing to do. It’s not a question of logic and argument; it is a question of conscience.

Panic Attack

I hope you have seen the 25 minute interview with Ed Snowden, the man who blew the whistle on the NSA. The interview was conducted in Hong Kong where Snowden now resides until he has determined what the future will bring. He comes across as a bright, articulate, well-informed, and conscientious young man who knows whereof he speaks and also knows exactly what he did. I will not  spoil the interview for you because it is well worth your time, no matter how busy you are. I will simply attach the link here and hope you will check it out.

Toward the end of his interview Mr. Snowden expresses his main concern: that after the dust settles, things will go back to the way they were — except that the intelligence gathering community will become even more efficient and they will continue to gather information about all of us and we have no idea whatever how that information will be used by a government that increasingly borders on paranoia. Actually, I paraphrase and added the bit about paranoia myself. But if you listen to the interview you will see what Mr. Snowden actually does say. He certainly hopes that American citizens will become riled up enough about the situation that they will put pressure on their representatives so that present policies in Washington can be changed and this surveillance nonsense can be thwarted. And he is realistic enough to worry that this will not happen.

So am I. I am put in mind of some comments made by Andrew J. Bacevich, a West Point graduate who fought in Viet Nam in 1970 and 1971, served as a career Army officer, rising to the rank of Colonel. Bacevich recently testified to a Senate committee that Americans have “fallen prey to militarism, manifesting itself in a romanticized view of soldiers, a tendency to see military power as the truest measure of national greatness, and outsized expectations regarding the efficacy of force. To a degree without precedent in U.S. history.” As Bacevich went on to say, “The mystical war on Communism finds its counterpart in the mystical war on terrorism. It prevents us from seeing things as they are.”

Bacevich, like Snowden, also knows whereof he speaks. And given this present aura of “mysticism” in Washington, one can conclude that the Congress in the grips of the military and the intelligence community to a degree that even a full-fledged effort by the American people will not penetrate that fog and result in alterations of national policy. This is the case because it is not only the American citizens who have “fallen prey to militarism,” it is our leaders as well. And with this fog thickening every day, it will become even more difficult to penetrate and messages to Congressional leaders from their constituents will simply not get through. The truly unsettling thing about this situation is that it is largely built on a fiction. Ours is one of the safest countries on earth.

We are separated from much of the world by two oceans and bordered by allies, as we are reminded by Jill Lepore in a recent New Yorker article (1/28/13). The country is, “by dint of geography among the best-protected countries on earth. Nevertheless, six decades after V-J Day nearly three thousand American troops are stationed overseas, including fifty-five thousand in Germany, thirty-five thousand in Japan, and ten thousand in Italy.” Further, our intelligence community, despite its excesses, is considerably better informed about the goings on of suspected terrorists than it was before the attacks on the Twin Towers.  And yet, despite these protections the nation shakes in fear of what we seem convinced is an inevitable terrorist attack that will bring this nation to its knees and wreak havoc among our citizens. We have become increasingly apathetic and are losing our collective sense of perspective. Despite the fact that the odds of any single American being killed by terrorists is approximately the same as that same American winning the lottery, we seem perfectly content to hand over our freedoms and even our consciences to the government in the name of “national security.”

Thus, it would seem, Mr. Snowden’s fears are well founded.  After the dust settles — and it will settle sooner rather than later — things will almost certainly go back to the way they were. The mystique of militarism has us all in its grips, and we seem perfectly content to leave it that way.

Cool Heads Prevail

I had coffee with my friend Lloyd the other day and among other things we discussed Goethe’s Faust. We have discussed that book many times over the years as it is one of Lloyd’s favorites — he read it in German, which he taught at the university. I read it in English, and I have taught the first part a number of times in my honors classes: it is also one of my favorite books of all times.  Lloyd is convinced that Faust loved Gretchen while I am convinced he is incapable of love — in the modern parlance he is incapable of “commitment.” He is a narcissist. But we struggled to figure out the second part, which has baffled critics over the years. Goethe spent his entire life writing that book and I daresay he never figured out the second part, either! I do not think Faust is a thoroughly evil man (though Lloyd disagrees with me here as well). He attempts to improve his world and throughout he manages to exhibit a fairly lively conscience; in the first part of the poem Mephistopheles has to drag him away from Gretchen’s prison cell just prior to her execution. He feels terrible about what he has done to her — as well he should.

Mephistopheles, on the other hand, is without feelings: he has no conscience at all. He is the cold intellectual that Goethe holds up for our examination as a paradigm of the thoroughly evil person. He is without compassion and fellow-feeling. He simply calculates and acts accordingly. I find the same insight in Dostoevsky: the man who lacks compassion and fellow-feeling, who has no conscience is not a man you want to approach. Dostoevsky knew several of that type while he was a political prisoner in Siberia and he knew whereof he spoke. Shakespeare tells us that “conscience does make cowards of us all,” but then Hamlet says that “being a coward” means “doing the right thing.” It leads us away from those actions that would ultimately destroy us. Dostoevsky’s character in Crime and Punishment commits a dreadful crime and in the end he can’t live with his conscience.

But what does this have to do with us? Plenty! In the recent past we have witnessed a country run by men who seem to be lacking in compassion and fellow-feeling. Hannah Arendt describes at great length the psychology of Adolf Eichmann who was a man determined to get the Jews to the gas chambers on time. He was a bureaucrat who worried only about the efficiency of the killing machine. He never lost a moment’s sleep over the thought that he was sending men, women, and children to a grisly death. And the men who commanded him and followed his orders were evil in this same way: they were cold and calculating. Joseph Stalin was cast in the same mold. And history has shown us others of that type — even in the bosom of the Catholic Church, in the form of Torquemada who sent “infidels” to a screaming death in the auto-da-fes in Spain.

And if we are willing to look closer to home we might see these types sitting in a comfortable room somewhere in Washington, D.C. (or North Dakota) ordering drones into crowded city centers in Pakistan to target al-Qaeda leaders. They remain aloof because they don’t actually see the faces of those people thousands of miles away and they brush aside the uncomfortable facts that a mere 2 % of the reported 4500 targets are actually militant leaders and that 881 of those people were almost certainly innocent civilians, 176 of them children. (One suspects that these numbers are on the low side.) By remaining aloof and apart I imagine that those who direct the drones can sleep well at night, because their conscience never enters the picture: they are not killing people, they are killing the “enemy”  — while seeming to play a video game.

Freud On Violence

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.