The Need For Authority

About four years ago I posted a piece on my blog about “Parental Authority” that incorporated the comments below by Christopher Lasch. Now, I have referred to Lasch many times as I regard him as one of the most astute thinkers I have encountered and certainly one of the very few who seems to have his finger on the pulse of contemporary society. Lasch is convinced that our permissive society has brought about the “Culture of Narcissism,” and while we are fond of accusing our current president of this malady, it would appear that it is widespread in our commodified, hedonistic culture in which success is measured by the size of one’s pocketbook and increasing numbers of folks can’t see beyond the perimeters of their own diminished selves. In any event, I want to revisit the comments I quoted from Lasch’s book in an attempt to unpack some of the more important insights he shares with us in an attempt to understand the role of authority, not only in the family, but also in the society at large.

The undermining of parental authority began in the 1920s with a book, Parents On Probation, by Merriam Van Waters. The movement toward the rejection of notions like “authority,” “discipline,” and “virtue” was given tremendous impetus in the 1950s by people like Dr. Spock and the other pop-psychologists who decided that it was they who should be raising the kids, and not the parents, and that in the end no opinion ought to be given preference over another — unless it was their own. In any event, Lasch had this to say about the lost notion of authority and its effects on society as a whole:

“. . .the collapse of parental authority reflects the collapse of ‘ancient impulse controls,’ and the shift ‘from a society in which the Super Ego values (the values of self-restraint) were ascendant, to one in which more and more recognition was being given to the values of self-indulgence.’ The reversal of the normal relations between the generations [in which the children have come to rule the home], the decline of parental discipline, the ‘socialization’ of many parental functions, and the ‘self-centered, impulse-dominated, detached, confused’ actions of American parents give rise to characteristics that ‘can have seriously pathological outcomes, when present in extreme form,’ but which in milder form equip the young to live in a permissive society organized around the pleasures of consumption. . . In this way [parents] undermine the child’s initiative and make it impossible for him to develop self-restraint or self-discipline.”

Lasch is convinced that not only the kids but their parents as well all need some sense of authority to give structure and coherence to their lives. It is the development of a healthy Super Ego, according to Lasch, that provides this structure and without it we have self-indulgence, confusion, uncertainty, and even the frustration that leads to violence when we are told that something we want we cannot have. The “values of self-restraint” that Lasch speaks about in the above comment are precisely those values that were once called “virtues” and which made the peaceful and successful coexistence of humans in society possible. These were the virtues that were prized during the Victorian Age and before that in the Age of Enlightenment and which lead to such things as the founding of this nation on the basis of  the conviction that citizens were virtuous and would invariably elect wise and virtuous men and women to high office. This, unfortunately, has not been borne out as recent experience will attest. Much of this comes from the rejection of the notion of authority, the notion that there is someone else who knows better than you or I what is the proper thing to do in a given situation. Some would argue that the Protestant Revolt diminished the role of the church as the ultimate authority and this has undermined the notion of authority of the church and placed the ultimate authority in the Bible which is subject to the interpretation of anyone who could read. Is it possible that this displacement planted the seeds of relativism, the gradual translation of virtue, which is fixed, into values, which are merely matters of opinion? I simply ask.

The “reversal of normal relations” between parents and children of which Lasch speaks refers to the child-oriented families and schools that are now commonplace in which the child is regarded as the better judge of what is best for him and the parent hides in the forest of self-indulgence and the pursuit of wealth and pleasure. The teachers also look to their students for guidance as to what it is their pupils want and those whimsical desires are codified into a curriculum that changes with the whims of the students. Everywhere we look we see confusion and self-doubt — except on the faces of the spoiled and entitled children who appear to be self-assured while all the time they have no idea where it is they ought to be going. Indeed, the notion that there is an “ought” that needs to be recognized is alien to a narcissistic culture that revels in pleasure and self-indulgence. The parents and the teachers reveal, as Lasch mentions, “self-centered, impulse-dominated, detached, confused actions.” The children and students are bewildered and float aimlessly through life. The authority of a parent or a teacher, someone who knows better and who can provide guidance, is missing and the result is  predictable: it becomes impossible for the children or the student to “develop self-restraint or self-discipline.” Indeed, it is not clear to most of us just what these things are or why they are needed.

In the absence of a fixed point of reference provided by an authority figure or indeed any sense that there is anything other than self that matters, it is no wonder that undisciplined and bewildered children grow up to become ill-suited to a society or a job that may demand of them self-restraint and at times sacrifice.  It is no wonder that many of them resort to violence in rejecting those demands which are foreign to them, demands that were once normal but which are slowly being eroded away.

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Freud On Trumpism

In an attempt to understand the “Trump Phenomenon,” by which I do not refer to the man himself but to the growing numbers of people who swallow his swill and are ready to take up arms and blindly follow him anywhere he leads, I begin with a section of one of my earlier posts on Freud’s attempts to understand 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 outward 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 [who see others as obstacles to be overcome and are] used to getting their way as children and we can begin to understand why violence is on the rise in this country.

I should begin by saying that this post, “Freud On Violence,” was written several years ago and still remains the most popular post I have written, drawing the major portion of my “hits” each week, even now. I am unable to explain it, but there it is. In any event, I do think Freud can help us understand why Donald Trump is so popular. In a word, Trump embodies the permissive society. He promises his followers a world without restraint. He empowers people who are frustrated by their seeming impotence in an overcrowded society that inhibits the free activities of people who have no idea what the word “no” means.

Given that violence is an expression of aggressive instincts encouraged by a permissive society, and given that Donald Trump embodies this permissiveness (given his unfettered hatred and fear-mongering, his outspoken condemnation of all things and peoples that seem to interfere with free action), it is not difficult to see why many people are drawn to him. These folks want to live in a world in which they can do all those things they have been told they can do as children — which is to say, whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it. He is anti-establishment in the sense that he is opposed to any sort of restraint on the baser instincts that are at the core of our essential human being. Thus he speaks for those many who feel the strong urge to express themselves in outward violence, who lack a super-ego, or conscience, and who find civilized society confining and repressive.

Ortega y Gasset once said that “civilization is before all the will to live in common. A man is uncivilized, a barbarian, in the degree to which he does not take others into account.” What this involves, I take it, is tolerance for others, all others. And it involves a willingness to avoid doing things and saying things that might hurt others no matter how strongly we feel the urge. The alternative is Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Protest

The increase in violence at Donald Trump’s rallies of late has tongues wagging and writers furiously pounding the keys. It is indeed disquieting at the very least. Trump himself swears he is opposed to violence even though he is on record as encouraging his followers to hit those who protest at his rallies. He’s even promised to pay their fines! His apologists on Fox News are calling for more violence against the protesters who are blamed for the violence. We now have the interesting scenario of those who hit and those being hit both claiming to be innocent. Sounds like the NFL! Trump, as is his style, blames everyone else, including Bernie Sanders and the president, for the violence that has erupted at his rallies. Now there’s paranoia and delusion together in a most interesting mix.

But the reports of a woman standing quietly at his rallies with a peace sign being roughly escorted from the place, conservative reporters who merely seek answers to obvious questions being grabbed by Trump’s right-hand man and nearly thrown to the ground — and Trump later saying the woman is “delusional” and “made the whole thing up” — or blacks in the crowd who report that they are shouted at (the “n” word) and glowered at simply for being present and even struck by Trump followers as the so-called “protesters” are led (again forcefully) from the arena, all lead one to suspect that the tendency of Donald Trump to encourage this sort of violence is the root cause of the entire problem.

To be sure, it takes two to have a fight, but when one side becomes violent because those who disagree with them are merely present this suggests that the tendency is already there and that the violence is simply a matter of course. It’s not hard to see which foot the shoe fits in this case. But the larger question is: why is this man so afraid of listening to those who oppose him? Or, more to the point, why is this man afraid to even allow those who oppose him to be present at his rallies? One does begin to realize that this man has a very thin skin indeed. Further, he is a bully and filled with hatred toward those who might happen to think he is wrong. He is never wrong — in his own mind at least — and it is the “true believers” like him who are most dangerous. Their minds are closed tighter than traps; they are convinced they have all the answers and that the ends justify any means whatever.

But, again, why this brew-ha-ha over protest? This country is founded on protest. It is not only protected by the First Amendment, it is the very life-blood of this country, the very thing our forefathers died to protect. The fact that the man, Donald Trump, fears those who protest against him is a sign of his stunted personality. The fact that his followers are quick to follow his lead and strike out against those who represent opposing views suggests another pathology. It suggests that there are those among us, growing numbers in fact, who are willing to follow wherever they are led. The world has seen such followers before and the damage and destruction they have left in their wake is clear for all to see. This is what is so disturbing about the violence at the political rallies of late. It’s not about the lies and delusion the leader exhibits — though this is indeed unsettling — it’s about the growing number of folks in this country who buy into his confused and even conflicting ideas and are wiling to swear allegiance to someone who wants only power for himself and uses others simply to guarantee that the power belongs to him and to him alone.

Protest is a good thing. It is absolutely necessary in a democracy if the system is to remain vital. As Thomas Jefferson said the country needs a revolution every fourteen years. Anyone who doesn’t see this is blind to history and fails to understand what a democracy is all about. But violence is not a good thing and it is not a necessary thing either. That one should lead to the other, as it has done in this case, must give us all pause.

Media Matters

I begin with a most interesting comment posted by “Media Matters” in which we are told about some large matters of unfairness with respect to the coverage the various political candidates get from the media:

The New York Times reported on March 15 that part of the reason Trump “wins primary after primary with one of the smallest campaign budgets” is that he “dominates” earned media — which includes “news and commentary about his campaign on television, in newspapers and magazines, and on social media” — giving him a “mammoth advantage” over other candidates. According to The Times’ report, Trump far outpaces other presidential candidates in free media coverage, noting that in February “he earned as much media as [Ted] Cruz and [Hillary] Clinton combined” . . .
Mr. Trump earned $400 million worth of free media last month, about what John McCain spent on his entire 2008 presidential campaign. Paul Senatori, mediaQuant’s chief analytics officer, says that Mr. Trump “has no weakness in any of the media segments” — in other words, he is strong in every type of earned media, from television to Twitter.

Over the course of the campaign, he has earned close to $2 billion worth of media attention, about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history. It is also twice the estimated $746 million that Hillary Clinton, the next best at earning media, took in.

I now turn to a comment I made earlier this year with respect to the “Fairness Doctrine” which has become a matter of mere historical interest, though one might wish it were still infect.  I noted at that time that the free exchange of ideas was guaranteed by the F.C.C. in 1949 as a result of what was then referred to as the “Fairness Doctrine” which guaranteed that both sides of controversial issues must be made public. This doctrine was rejected in 1987 by the F.C.C. under the leadership of Mark Fowler who had been a member of then President Ronald Reagan’s campaign staff and who argued that the doctrine violated the first amendment. As a result, the door was opened to the media to indoctrinate rather than inform — present a single point of view repeatedly and ignore opposing views; this gave rise to such abortions as Murdoch’s Fox News.

Clearly, Donald Trump is being covered in the media to a far greater extent than any of his opponents.  As suggested, this does go a long way toward explaining the hold he seems to have on American voters. Even those who hate the man find themselves drawn to stories about his latest outrageous behavior — not unlike the way we are all drawn to a train wreck. It’s morbid curiosity, I suppose. In any event, the Trumpet is getting free media coverage while others (such as Sanders) are lucky to get a brief mention. As a result, it would appear, he is kicking butt on the Republican stage. This claim of a causal relation here is strengthened by the consideration that those in the media hesitate to hold Trump’s feet to the fire on any of  the main issues. Nor do his opponents. Thus he sails along unchallenged, filling the air with empty platitudes and bromides that will not cure any of our ills whatever. This may change in the general election. We shall see. But even then the media will determine what we see and hear

And this is the heart of the matter. I have mentioned in previous posts (as have others) that the “news” has become mere entertainment. What this means is that the media are going to broadcast those matters that matter to people: they want to sell air time or please their sponsors. The formula is not “fairness” it’s “give them what they want,” and a citizenry brought up on violent entertainment and video games wants something that gets their attention and holds it for a moment or two — one can scarcely hope for more than that these days.

So when the chickens at last come home to roost, we can blame the citizenry for the success of no-minds like Trump. But we had better reserve some of our criticism for the media which are determined to give us what we want while, at the same time, they manufacture our desires according to the dictates of their sponsors.

Three Favorites

My blogging buddy Keith suggested that his readers list the three most popular posts each of us has written since we started writing them and I thought it might be fun. I note, however, that mine are not as uplifting and positive as are Keith’s. But I will list them and comment anyway.

I will start with my personal favorite, as far as I can recall, and that is “Lincoln’s Hope,” which had a number of “hits” but not as many as the top three.

The top of the list, by far is a post I wrote about Freud and Violence which I wrote in February of 2013 and which continues to get 20-30 hits a week. It has had 1,990 in all and that amazes me. The only thing I can figure is that a great many college students are copying the post and submitting it to their psychology professors for class credit! I hope they received the grade they deserved! On a more serious note, I expect there are a great many folks who, like me, seek to understand a phenomenon that has become all-too-common of late. I hope the post helped. I know that, like my posts generally, it helped me sort out some stray ideas and make some sense of a topic that I seek to understand better.

The next one is “The Big Bang, Science and Ethics” which I wrote after a particularly interesting and funny eposiode of my favorite “sit-com.” It addresses the question of just what science is at a time when so many people reject the findings of science when it shakes their favorite convictions and when so many confuse science with technology — which it is not.

The final one, also written in 2013,  is “Road Rage” which I wrote after a particularly nasty confrontation with a driver of a red pickup on a county road nearby when my wife and I were stopped admiring the wild turkeys in a field nearby. It made me think of all the rage there is on the roads and, indeed, in the world at large. This is a particularly disturbing fact at this time of the year when we like to think that we all hope for peace on earth and good will among all human beings. In any event, that’s what I wish to my readers, rage or no rage.

 

What’s Real?

One of the latest signs of the decay of our civilization is not the widespread playing of video games, as such, but last year’s mega-competition in Seoul, Korea which was viewed online by 27 million people worldwide involving teams of players engaged in the complex, and violent, game of “League of Legends.”  The winners take home a large, garish trophy and $1 million in American dollars. This year’s finals are scheduled for “several cities” in Europe in October and the number of viewers is expected to be even higher.

It’s not enough that we know the watching of violent games tends to leave an impression on young minds that imitate what they see. It is not enough that we know the games engage only half the brain and leave the other half — the analytical half — undeveloped, thus shrinking language skills and making thought difficult at best. It is not enough to know that the games can (and do) become addictive. It is not enough to know that the young begin to develop a weak “reality principle,” as Freud called it, an awareness of what is real and what is not, and can become lost in a make-believe world.

Now the games have become organized to the point that there is large-scale competition for the first prize that will encourage the kids to spend even more time on the games than they already do. What we have here is the combination of two negative influences, playing electronic games and the measuring of success in dollars and cents. These trends are already in place in this culture, to be sure, but now that the games involve huge amounts of money, are watched streaming on computers around the world, and are being covered on such TV networks as ESPN, the trends will almost assuredly become unstoppable.

Indeed, John Anderson, one of the senior talking heads on ESPN recently commented on the League of Legends competition semi-finals (which was carried on ESPN3 and outdrew several major sporting events in this country). He started out by saying that he had been encouraging his son to put away the gaming devices, read a book or go outside, ride his bike, climb a tree, or even open a lemonade stand. But now he is “reconsidering his parenting skills” in light of the amounts of money involved in winning these games. To which I simply say, don’t do it John. You have the right idea and should not give in to the forces of temptation that will almost certainly lead your son into a dead-end. There’s not much future in store for someone whose only skill is manipulating a toggle switch — except, perhaps, as an operator of heavy machinery or, worse yet, drones designed to kill and maim the “enemy” as identified by his superiors, i.e., to follow orders and do what he is told. The games when played blindly will lead to real blindness to the world.

John’s instincts were sound. His son should read a book or go outside and play. Be a young man and grow in mind and body. Don’t become a slave to greed and ignorant of what is going on around him. A weak reality principle, as Freud would say, makes us susceptible to delusions and imaginings that take us further and further away from those around us and the things that are truly important in a good life. It also makes us more prone to violence.

Freud’s Take On Civilization

In a number of my blog posts I have made much of the importance of doing whatever we can to preserve Western civilization. And this at a time when the word “civilization” has come under fire. We have become aware in recent years that so-called “civilized” peoples have committed all manner of atrocities against so-called “uncivilized” or “barbaric” peoples — many of whom are superior in a great many ways to the civilized people who look down on them and seek to colonize and exploit them. This is true, of course. But there is much more to be said on the subject that has been ignored in our tizzy to right past wrongs, and, despite its shortcomings and the greed and avarice of so many of its leaders, civilization is highly desirable and preferable to its alternative in which lives, as Thomas Hobbes said, are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

No one has studied the strengths and weaknesses of civilization more carefully than Sigmiund Freud who defines it in the following way:

“. . . the word ‘civilization’ describes the whole sum of the achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors and which serve two purposes — namely, to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relations.”

Now, as Freud is quick to point out, in “adjusting” our mutual relations with other humans in civilized society we pay a price. We give up many of our freedoms and we develop various neuroses. It would appear that our animal ancestors, and presumably more primitive people, are happier than we are because they have greater freedom. They have no “hang-ups” as we would now say. But this is something of a fiction, as Freud goes on to point out, because in primitive cultures only the men at the top — and certainly no women — have all the power and the rest of the society simply does as it is told. And there are numerous tribal taboos. So the freedom that a few may have is bought at a price paid by the majority of the rest of the culture. Civilized men and women, on the other hand, not only lose their freedom, they have many “discontents” to live with. We pay a price.

In the end, Freud suggests, the price may be well worth paying. There are three major benefits from civilization that are stressed in Freud’s excellent book Civilization and Its Discontents. There is, to begin with, the development of character. Without social restraints and the need to accommodate one another persons would not develop character. We find this in children who, when allowed to behave in any manner they wish, suffer character flaws. Unlike neuroses, character flaws cannot be corrected through therapy: they are permanent. These people are spoiled and unable to undertake and finish difficult projects. They wander aimlessly through life with no apparent purpose or goal.

This brings us to the second benefit of civilization, which is what Freud calls “sublimation,” borrowing a word from Nietzsche. This word means the ability to restrain ourselves and redirect the energy that would otherwise express itself in aggression toward others and channel it into creative outlets. As Freud says in this regard,

“Sublimation of instinct is an  especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic, or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life.”

In a word, by sublimating what he called the “cathexis” of energy that would otherwise be spent needlessly or even violently, civilization, for all its faults, makes it possible for humans to create and grow intellectually and emotionally, to create and invent.

And this brings us to the third benefit of being civilized persons, and that is the suppression of “powerful instincts” that would otherwise result in violence toward our fellow humans. As history has shown, and which we are finding out for ourselves of late, this benefit has not been fully realized. Humans, even in so-called civilized societies, are still given to rage and the release of aggressive instincts toward their fellows. But, Freud would insist, this release of impulse is of lesser extent in civilized societies than in primitive ones since law enforcement helps to restrain aggressive impulses. What we are finding out is that law and order are less effective than we might hope and as increasing numbers of people become armed with deadly weapons and numbers of those pledged to enforce the laws break them resulting in increasing disrespect for law itself we can look forward to even greater violence in the future. As Freud would have it, civilization is a battle between the impulse toward happiness (pleasure) and the aggressive instinct. In his words,

“This struggle is what all life essentially consists of, and the evolution of civilization may therefore be simply described as the struggle for life of the human species.”

In the end, there are discontents in civilization, to be sure. But there are benefits that help to humanize us. As we lose those benefits we become less human, more like “our animal ancestors.” This is why I point to such things as the loss of good manners which, in itself, seems trivial, but is in fact, together with the growing disrespect for the law and those pledged to enforce the law, a sign that the ties of civilization are loosening and we are slipping back into a more primitive way of life — the life of our “animal ancestors.” Surely, this is something to be aware of and to seek to avoid.

Chickens and Eggs

One of the most difficult things to establish is the relationship between cause and effect. Which came first? And can we say with certainty that the one that came first is the cause of the second? To establish cause and effect, one would have to show that, say, A comes before B and B would never  have happened without A. Further, it would have to be shown that every time you have an A you have a B. Logicians say B if, and only if, A. The reason the cigarette manufacturers, for example, were so successful for so long in denying that smoking causes lung cancer is that many folks who do not smoke get lung cancer and some folks who smoke do not get lung cancer. For years it was known that there was a correlation, but that alone does not satisfy the strict requirements. Eventually, the correlation was so high and so prevalent, it could no longer be denied — especially when it was revealed that  the tests conducted by the cigarettes companies themselves showed a very high correlation between smoking and lung cancer.

In this regard, I have always wondered about the correlation between entertainment and the development of a taste for violence in this country. In a word, does watching television increase the desire for violence in the young, or do the kids already crave violence and television simply “gives the kids what they want?” Can television, for example, actually manufacture “wants.” I suspect it can. Further, I do think we all have a hidden desire for violence. Freud thought it showed itself in humor: we laugh to release unconscious violent, even sadistic, impulses (think of the pie in the face or the chair pulled from beneath the unsuspecting sitter). It’s possible that watching violence over and over increases this desire. Quite possible. After all, were all learn by imitation.

If we take the case of football in this country as an example, we can see some interesting factors that may help us decide the question one way or the other. Professional football has now surpassed baseball as the nation’s favorite sport. As we know, football is filled with violence, whereas baseball is not. That may be part of the appeal of football, though it is difficult to say. But, then television networks such as ESPN discuss football year around, even during the off-season. When there are no games, they discuss the draft, outstanding college players who might “declare” for the draft, free-agency, the latest instance of domestic violence involving yet another football player. And so forth. To be sure, there are other athletes in other sports who engage in domestic violence, but I am talking about the amount of air time that is given to discussions about football and football players and the undeniable fact that the sport has grown by leaps and bounds — as have the incidents of violence in our country. There certainly appears to be a correlation.

The number of fans in football has grown drastically in the past few years. That’s a given. There is more time on television devoted to football in the past few years. That’s also a given. The question is whether the networks are simply giving the fans what they want or whether the industry is indeed manufacturing a desire for more football. Which comes first? And which causes the other? To help answer this question, I turn to a related sport, namely, soccer.

Soccer has never been as popular in this country as it is the world over. Soccer season overlaps with football, for one thing. For another, there seems to be a lot of time when nothing much is happening, and there really isn’t much violence. But I note that in the past few years ESPN has given more and more time to soccer, covering Olympic soccer (amidst much jingoistic hype) and lending increasing amounts of air time to showing highlights (especially moments of violence on the field) to international soccer and the professional soccer league in this country; they are clearly promoting the sport. Recently, 60,000 fans showed up for the inaugural match between two professional teams in this country. That number of fans for a game of soccer is astonishing. Is it just possible that the desire to watch a soccer match has been manufactured by the television networks?? I suspect the answer is “yes.”

But, the cause/effect relationship is very hard to establish, as I noted at the beginning. So I can’t say with assurance that the networks are manufacturing desires in their audience. But the correlation is interesting and worth watching. If the networks start showing more and more women’s basketball and the interest in that sport starts to grow, we might have even more reason to suspect a causal relationship. But, then the women who play basketball aren’t nearly as violent as the men and that might detract from the interest the typical fan might otherwise have in these sports. Perhaps, the folks at ESPN need to encourage a bit more bashing and thrashing to help things along –as in, say, cage fighting. Clearly American audiences want to see violence. The only question is whether the networks have nurtured and encouraged this desire and made it stronger.

Losing Our Faculties

When philosophers first started exploring the human mind in a study that eventually became psychology, there was virtual unanimity that the human mind was comprised of a number of “faculties.” This eventually became known as “faculty psychology,” which, I am given to understand, is no longer accepted by all members of the psychology fraternity. I, however, find it most helpful in attempting to understand myself and my fellow humans.  Two of the human  faculties that have received a great deal of attention over the years are memory and imagination and much of the effort in the schools in bygone days was devoted to developing both of these faculties. But no longer.

Students are seldom asked to memorize passages from poetry or literature or even the times-tables in arithmetic: it is all available on the student’s i-pod. Whatever needs to be known can be looked up and there seems to be no need to develop the child’s memory, which is a shame, since memory is an integral part of human intelligence. But even more to the point is the lapse in attention to the human imagination, which is an essential part of being human. I have touched on this before, but it bears repeating. Besides, I have another point to make.

Take sex. In reading Balzac’s Cousin Bette recently the point was driven home by the circuitous way the author has of describing the wiles of his very sultry and sexy protagonist Valérie Marneffe who, while a married woman, manages to entertain three lovers at the same time. She is a remarkably beautiful and talented woman! But Balzac merely suggests this; he does not lay it all out there for us to lap up. He relies on the power of suggestion and the lively imagination of the reader to construct the complete picture while provided with mere hints. That’s the way things were done in his day — the nineteenth century — even in France! Take the following description of Valérie’s seductive attentions to one of her lovers, the wealthy and very bourgeois Célestin Carvel. He appears before her deeply troubled by a scene he has just witnessed and Valérie is determined to get his mind back on more important things, namely, herself. As Carvel enters her bedroom, Valérie is having her hair combed by her maid.

“Reine [her maid] that’ll do for today. I’ll finish my hair myself. Give me my Chinese dressing-gown, for my Monsieur looks as rum as an old Mandarin. . . Valerie took her wrap, under which she was wearing her vest, and slid into the dressing gown like a snake under its tuft of grass. . . .[Later] she struck a pose in a fashion that was enough to lay Carvel wide open, as Rabelais put it, from his brain to his heels; she was so funny and bewitching, with her bare flesh visible through the mist of fine lawn.”

You get the picture — I hope. Here we have a sketch that the writer presents to the reader allowing him or her to fill in the details. It is sufficient to create an image that Balzac wants and it is very effective. But it relies on the reader’s imagination. Without that, there is no picture. And this is true of art generally: it requires an effort on the part of the reader or spectator to complete the picture, whether it is drawn, painted, or written — an effort of imagination.

But we are no longer asked to make that effort. The above scene would be written today in lurid detail in an effort to shock and stimulate — but not to ask the reader to imagine. The writer or painter, or photographer, sets it all out there for the viewer to see in graphic detail, the more vivid the better. This is certainly the case when it comes to sex and violence, but it is true generally of the media today that seek to sensationalize all human emotions. Lost is subtlety and suggestion. Lost, too, is the sense of mystery that surrounds the unmentioned. The human imagination is in danger of becoming flaccid, emaciated, unable to stand on its own, much less run and leap. As Henry Adams would have it, “. . . the feebleness of our fancy is now congenital, organic, beyond stimulant or strychnine, and we shrink like sensitive plants from the touch of a vision or spirit.” And he noted that long before i-pods and video games!

But so what, you might ask? The answer is that the human imagination is necessary for the possibility of ethical behavior. This is something that is seldom noted but which is worth pondering. The so-called “Golden Rule” which lies at the heart of so many religions and ethical systems requires that we imagine the effects of our own actions and treat others as we would imagine they might treat us in the same circumstances. Without imagination there can be no sympathy, much less empathy, which many would regard as central to ethical actions. We do the right thing by others because we can imagine ourselves in the same straits and we care enough to act to relieve their suffering. Again, without the imagination, there can be no action.

Thus while the entertainment industry works hard at devising new tricks to present to masses of viewers the latest in technical expertise and trickery, they threaten to render impotent the human imagination. Not only will art suffer in the end (as it has already) and our lives become shallow, we are in danger of losing our faculties — not only memory, but, more importantly, imagination. The mental faculties are like muscles: they need to be exercised to gain strength.

Must-See TV

Recently just prior to commercial break on ESPN’s “Sports Center” the anchor person spoke over a clip of several NHL players going at one another on the ice. She told her audience: “Five fights going on at once? Now that’s must-see TV. Stay tuned.”

ESPN also likes to show clips from a program being run on another network that focuses attention on the pressures on little boys, ages 6 or 7, in an organized youth football league. It shows the coaches screaming at the boys and admonishing them to take out their opponent. “Use your helmet. Get him out of there.” It also shows the coaches verbally and physically abusing the boys and the boys politely responding with “yes, sir” or “no, sir.” The NFL has been critical of the show, though one of the talking heads on ESPN’s “Around the Horn” charged the NFL with being hypocritical, for promoting violence and ignoring the complex and costly issue of concussions among football players. But, seriously, doesn’t ESPN warrant much of the blame? They routinely highlight violence in sports. It draws the audience and sells the products that keep the show on the air.

I haven’t watched the aforementioned show about child abuse and don’t plan to. But many will. I imagine it will be a big hit (pardon the pun!).

And we wonder why this nation is prone to violence. Seriously?