Tuesday, 5 August 2014

VIOLENCE AND SOCIETY” Part III: Psychology -- Culture of Narcissism, Culture of Violence



From the outset, I want to state my own preference for the approach of Carl Jung to the problem of violence, namely, his rejection of any specific approach to field as all-encompassing, and instead pursuing everything from biological and psychological theories, combing them with all disciplines in order to arrive at a broader understanding.  In my view, the all-encompassing or inter-disciplinary approach, including psychology, is the best way to proceed. Anumber of universities in the US have interdisciplinary programs in psychology dealing with violence, focusing on trauma, community support, refugees, human rights, community support, and social integration. All within the realm of what is politically acceptable, rather than critical of the underlying causes of violence and trauma in society. 

The scholarly journal of the American Psychological Association, Psychology of Violence deals with individual and family violence, leaving out the most significant form, namely institutional that causes by far the greatest harm in society on a massive scale. Not that there is anything wrong studying assassinations, suicide, sexual violence, family and workplace violence, gang violence and bullying, and treating patients in hospitals, prisons, etc. for this is exactly what the therapist is supposed to do. Nor can the psychiatrist or psychologist trained very narrowly for a purpose solve society’s violence problems that properly belong in the domain of government policy.  In this third part of my essay on violence and society, the purpose is to examine the many constructive contributions of psychology as well as its shortcomings.

Considering that 220 million died as a result of government policies ranging from war to genocide in the 20th century, and considering that 170 million of those were civilians, psychology as a discipline owes it to society not to exclude the larger picture of violence when analyzing the psyche of the war veteran postal worker that randomly kills his fellow workers and then kills himself. The psyche of the postal workers, of the high school student playing video games and deciding to use his father’s gun to kill his parents takes place in a given social and political setting, and is hardly an isolated incident that can be explained solely by looking into the emotional history of the troubled teenager. In short, the psychology of violence must be placed in its proper context, in order to be fully understood, because the individual committing an atrociously aggressive act did not come down to earth from Mars.

There are of course books and articles dealing with the psychology of mass violence, and some do a fine job with the topic. More so than Freudian psychoanalysis social psychology and even cognitive make important contributions to our understanding of the complex problems of violence and society. Just as other disciplines recognize the cultural differences in the definition as well as the quantitative measures of violent incidents, given the under-reporting in many traditional societies, researchers in psychology confront some of the same problems as other social scientists.   

Like philosophers, sociologists and others, after 9/11 psychologists trying to analyze extreme violence fell into the same “terrorism” trap that official Washington offered as journalists, rarely scratching the surface and questioning the political assumptions intended to promote a policy. To e fair, it is easy to secure funding for research either as part of an independent institution or a university if the researcher appears to be following the Washington-directed line on terrorism, and not as easy to secure research funding if the project proposal hints at a position contrary to official policy. Beyond the mechanics and politics of research funding, there is the reality that researchers in the field reflect the views of the dominant culture and fall in line with established views of the discipline and society because this is how they were educated and conditioned by society. 

Although psychology confines itself mainly to individual aggressive behavior, the various branches of psychology study violent behavior manifested in all human endeavors, from family quarrels to protracted tribal, ethnic and national conflicts, holocaust and genocide.  This is largely because of Freudian influence as we see in Civilization and Its Discontents, where he argued that: “It is clearly not easy for man to give up the satisfaction of this inclination to aggression.  They do not feel comfortable without it.” Dismissive of the Marxian argument of private property and class system as the root cause of violence, Freud insisted on the sex drive and sexual relationships as key to the problem. In a work published just after WWI erupted, Freud wrote about his disillusionment with governments and brutality of human beings. However, he never deviated from his basic theory about the sources of aggression as we see in his later works, despite the poignant exchange he had with both Carl Jung and Albert Einstein on such issues. While Jung had moved beyond Freud to formulate the theory of the “collective unconscious” and Einstein was a pacifist and Socialist who took into account the class structure in analyzing the causes of violence, Freud remained unconvinced. 

Defensive aggressive behavior is found in many species other than humans. The sources of human “defensive aggression” are part of the species’ survival instinct as well as environmental conditioning. While some animals are well known indiscriminate predators, humans are the only species known to derive emotional gratification, egotistical satisfaction and even pleasure killing, torturing, and injuring its own species for sport/entertainment, ideology and even for no apparent reason owing to a complete void in the individual’s moral compass. 
This phenomenon raises the question whether as Sigmund Freud contended, human passion has a need of expression toward others in an aggressive (violent) manner in order to overpower the rival. According to Konrad Lorenz, the desire to overpower the other through the use of some form of violence is sadism. The underlying wish to inflict pain on a subject, injure or even destroy according to Erich Fromm stems from learned behavior, largely because we live in the age of materialism. People feel more comfortable and even love material objects, dead things that cannot possibly cause harm them, than they do with people who have a will and can be the source of conflict, violence and pain. 

In the 1920s, Freud developed the “death instinct” theory, arguing that it can be even stronger than the love or life instinct. Freud attributed aggression (violent behavior) to built-in stimuli seeking outward expression. As I have noted in parts one and two of this essay on violence, there have always been scholars who insisted that violence in humans is innate, and Freud simply builds on this assumption, as does Lorenz in his work On Aggression (1966).  B. F. Skinner and behaviorist psychologists agree with Freud to a degree that indeed violence or aggressive behavior that is at the root is innate and must seek expression. Skinner and the behaviorists, however, argue that human behavior is molded.  

In the 1970s, Fromm argued that at the root of the culture of violence is sadism and necrophilia, both terms defined in much broader terms than the very narrow that clinical psychologists use for patients with the affliction. The attraction with lifeless objects, technology replacing humans has been an outgrowth of the advanced civilization based on the commercialization of mechanical objects substituting human contact and satisfying human needs. At the core of a culture rooted in necrophilia, seeking comfort from dead things rather than relying on human interaction, is the desire to manipulate control and feel like the subject with the ability to do anything including destroy without consequences. 

Millions of people spend most of their time with lifeless objects, including computers, telephones, video games, and TV, while avoiding direct contact with people with whom they interact through mechanical gadgets as though the other is a an alien from out of space. The mechanical devices as substitutes for interacting with humans and nature has reached epidemic proportions around the world, but especially in the advanced countries where people even have “virtual love” via their gadgets. The psychological dependence on the computer, cell phone, TV, and mechanical devices of various types means that people are incapable of knowing what it means to be humane, or even human, given they are extensions of their devices.  It is no wonder teenagers injure or kill for a cell phone belonging to the other child. In a culture of necrophilia human life is cheap, violence is just another way to secure the techno gadgets society values, and the commercial world reminds people that without the lifeless mechanical objects they are nothing in this world that operates mechanically through virtual reality.      

Violence as self-hatred externalized is another dimension that some analysts have observed particularly among minority groups, the so-called black-on-black crime. In the absence of social justice in the real world, and only promises of a better tomorrow through conformity and hard work, some disadvantaged groups, the poor among the majority and minority community, find solutions through violence. This is as true in the poor black communities of American inner cities as it is of many parts of India where there is a resort to violence against women and each other among the poor and unemployed. This is also a widespread phenomenon across Europe, Canada, US and Australia where there have been studies on the trends. 

The psychological profile of the immigrant individual resorting to crime is not much different than his counterpart in the majority community, even with cultural differences taken into account. Once we go beyond the superficial right-wing xenophobic rhetoric about immigrants as the source of violence in society, we find that the causes of violence among immigrant groups is no different than the majority, namely, poverty, unemployment, low-level of education, and much harsher prison sentences by courts to these groups than to a middle class person of the majority community having committed an even greater crime.  

The question of how psychologists see minority individuals committing crime in comparison with people of the majority community doing the same. According to the American Psychological Association, there is recognition among its members that blacks have a very high percentage male and youth unemployment, as well as probability of winding up in the criminal justice system. While the APA considers the economic and social factors of blacks winding up in the criminal justice system and seeing an analyst, the proposed solution is greater co-optation of this minority group into the majority mainstream so they would be less violent.
This means more black psychologists given that they constitute a mere 2% of the total in the profession, more therapy intended to “help” blacks conform to the very institutional structure responsible for lack of social justice, and overall more psychological services in the black community to reduce violence. 

While no one would disagree with the need to reduce violence, all of the underlying causes are left untouched by psychologists who other than psychotherapy and medication, offer conformity as the solution. In short, conformity instead of social justice is not much different than what white masters offered slaves who demanded freedom from bondage.  It is really not at all surprising that the poor and minorities, especially in the US, turned to religion to help them cope in a world devoid of social justice, hoping they may secure it in the next life. It could be argued that throughout history, religion has done a far greater service to the poor and minority communities in so far as keeping justifiable violent tendencies against their unjust environment than psychology and psychiatry can ever possibly accomplish. After all, psychology and psychiatry are a bourgeois fix for the middle class and its problems, having very little to offer to the poor.

No one expects psychologists to magically erase violence among the poor and minorities that make up 80% of the prison population; nor does anyone expect psychologists to bring about social justice in society. Like medical doctors, they narrowly focus on the specific problem, provide a prescription, and psychotherapy intended to de-program the individual from the reality of his miserable existence into the promise of the “American Dream”, or the bourgeois capitalist dream of consumerism. The question is whether psychologists in analyzing violence have the whole picture or the mainstream institutional assumptions and solutions. Therefore, in trying to help individuals on the periphery of society they are selling illusions and conformity to an unjust system; and that is deemed “helping the patient”. Not that I would be against some medication to an individual highly dangerous to himself and others, but for random or incidental violence among the masses, is the psychologist doing more damage than good.  

Violent behavior and its symptoms which may include depression, eating disorders, and anti-social acts must be treated and that is what psychiatrists and psychologists are asked to do. The profession itself has identified more than 200 definitions of aggression and violence, and even the term “aggressive” has positive connotations in the US when used in the competitive sense, but negative in most other countries. Not only does this raise issues of cultural relativism, but there is the question of psychology’s limits in helping patients with a cure, short of reducing them into vegetables by prescribing drugs. Recent literature on the subject of what the field can offer includes greater attachment and love that both children and adults need to feel to those around them.  An even greater challenge for the profession is to help the individual develop self-esteem, a conscience and empathy by providing a secure and positive environment.

While love for the self and love from others is key, this too is extremely difficult because if it existed then the individual would not necessarily resort to violence. Besides the institutional or state-sponsored violence, the contradictions in a modern self-described democratic materialistic society accounts for the dysfunctional individual turning to violence. On the one hand, society promises materialism and begs the individual to be a consumerist in order to be happy. –  the extra car, TV, computer, etc. On the other, a segment of society is unable to take part in the consumerist culture to the degree that the middle class is able to do. At the same time, there is the rhetoric of quality for ALL, when in reality society is a socioeconomic pyramid with the masses at the bottom of the pyramid trying to reach higher but finding it difficult.

The modern individual does not derive a sense of self and identity from inner qualities based on traditional values, but from external mechanical sources, from material objects that define the individual and with which he identifies.  In Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Jung argues that the root causes of much social and political violence takes place once people have no way of integrating components of their psyche.  It is not uncommon for the individual promoting (as a policymaker or military officer)or carrying out violence as a soldier of serial killer to rationalize violence, to demonize the victim on the basis of good-evil dichotomy, and to engage in denial.  Much of this behavior is due to the fact that in a culture of materialism and narcissism, self identity is shaped by the mass market that creates the mass market-oriented self.   

The individual’s psyche in modern society is shaped by a market-based culture where the individual feels as an extension of the commodities as those she/he owns. The materialistic/hedonistic culture combined with the liberal ideology of individualism entails that the individual has no communitarian or collective identity as is the case in traditional societies today in much of Asia and Africa, or as it was in pre-Industrial Europe. The culture of narcissism is encouraged by the technological-scientific revolution in constant state of flux and by the prevailing forces of atomistic ideology. This explains the disposable culture and violence in modern secular society. 

Given that self-experience is divorced from social experience, something not prevalent in traditional societies where the individual’s identity was shaped by family, tribe, and community, means that the convergence between the collective experience and thus collective responsibility, on the one hand, and individual experience, on the other, have eclipsed. Whether at the individual level – a crime or at the state-sanctioned level, as in war - violence becomes easy if not permissible owing to the absence of convergence between community and individual consciousness. Therefore, we have in modern techno-scientific society the distinction of a necrophilia-oriented culture steeped in materialism, hedonism and atomism all of which make violence much easier for the individual in search of a soul as Carl Jung argued. 

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