Saturday, March 26, 2005

Civilization and its Discontents

Sigmund Freud's powerful book Civilization and its Discontents argued that human instincts are out of sync with modern civilization; that aggression and other instinctual needs were once absolutely necessary for survival in a dangerous world, but that today these archaic impulses impede our ability to live happily in the present day and age. Among other innovative ideas from this short, but important work, Freud posits that the same aggression that was once directed towards survival, in the modern era is frequently turned inward, to the Self, rather than outward toward the environment, and causes the psychological phenomenon of depression. In psychiatry we refer to this as "aggression turned inward".

Our brains and bodies were designed for the "fight or flight" response--when in danger or threatened in any way, we physiologically respond with a burst of adrenalin (a hormone more formally known as epinephrine, a catcholamine); and that compound initiates a series of biological reactions that prepare us to either run away from the danger or to stand and fight.

It can be argued that depression and its concomitant emotion despair can be conceptualized as the inability--particularly in modern times-- to be able to "run away" or "fight" in the traditional sense. How effective would it be for the individual, do you think, if--called on the carpet by his or her boss--that individual responded by decking the boss or screaming and running out of the room? Bereft of these behavioral options in civilized society, we are still confined to the physiological response that such scenarios engender. This leads us to the concept of "stress".

What we know about "stress" and its long-term effects on our bodies and minds more than confirms Freud's psychological hypothesis. Freud was not optimistic about this situation, and believed that civilization's "discontents" were an unresolvable fact of life.

In a way, I touched on this same issue, but with a slightly different perspective, a few posts back when I discussed some of the concepts of evolutionary psychology in "Biological Fantasies".

In that post I tried to point out that successful societies use human nature in constructive and creative ways (even the negative aspects of it) in order to remain successful, because if they are foolish enough to try to remake human nature into some "ideal" that humans cannot possibly live up to or by their natures even accept, then they are doomed to fail. Human nature is a product of a long interaction with a hostile environment and it bequeathed to us --for good or ill--our present capabilities. I should add, that the concept of human nature includes the hard-wiring of our biological and physiological selves.

It seems obvious that we humans need to understand the limitations our brain physiology imposes on us--both the strengths and weaknesses--as well as the opportunities and challenges of those limitations.

Thus, societies which integrate within their structure a way for human aggression and sexual fulfillment (per Freud) and our need for coalitions, heirarchical structures and individual property (per the evolutionary psychologists); and reasonable outlets for "flight or fight" (via biology) will succeed over societies that to a greater or lesser extent find ways to thwart the expression of human nature.

A society that meshes with human nature and, in particular, finds ways for the many negative aspects of that nature (e.g., envy, greed, desire for power, desire for wealth, aggression etc. etc.)to be sublimated in socially useful and/or harmless behavior--rather than attempting to crush or deny that they exist--will be a very powerful and successful society. But there will always be the discontents.

Putting aside for the moment that some people may well be genetically endowed with less resiliant physiologies when it comes to handling stress, which may predispose them to clinical depression or other psychiatric illness; the "discontents" can also come from two general groups.

The first group of people are those who are unwilling to accept their own human nature for what it is and who insist on "unattainable perfection" in themselves (thus leading to psychological depression). I see many such people in my psychiatric practice.

The second group pursues or enforces unattainable perfection in others (thus leading to utopian idealism and the promotion of societies that deny and repress basic aspects of human nature).

The first group suffer terribly, but impact primarily themselves and their immediate families. The second is responsible for much of the misery and suffering of humanity as a whole throughout history. Either wittingly or unwittingly they suscribe to the utopian ideal (although their own individual behavior may seem the opposite)and support or enable those who start out only wanting to eliminate the "negative" aspects of human nature, but who end up destroying large numbers of humans in the process.

Not surprisingly those philosophies that understand and accept human nature are those that support human freedom. Those that condemn human nature (or a part of it) will ultimately end up supporting tyranny and oppression against actual humans.

Victor Davis Hanson comments on this group in his essay "America's New Discontents":

Of course, a tenured full professor like Churchill (with no Ph.D., a fraudulent resume, a litany of plagiarism — and a six-figure salary!) would not want to live under the Taliban or al-Qaida. Nor would Michael Moore under the Baathists — if his current high life is any indication. Such virulent public anti-Americanism, however, served a psychological need to reconcile a leftist's own life of largesse, through either cost-free disdain for what produced it or (safe) sympathy for those who hated it.

The wages of cultural relativism were not limited to such extremists. Legitimate disagreement and necessary debate about invading Iraq were quickly overwhelmed by a deeper furor that grew out of decades of this fuzzy relativism.

Ted Kennedy pronounced that Abu Ghraib "reopened under new management." Yet, the senator must have known that a few rogue American guards were not comparable to the systematic genocide of Saddam Hussein.

John Kerry's campaign slurred Prime Minister Ayad Allawi as a "puppet" — although he was the victim of Saddam's Gulag and a democrat willing to risk his life for the promise of a free Iraq.

Bill Clinton also seemed fuzzy about the true nature of tyranny, and thus was clueless about murderous theocratic Iran. Recently he cooed, "Iran today is, in a sense, the only country where progressive ideas enjoy a vast constituency" — as if theocrats there allow truly popular government.

Other elites wished outright that we would fail in the Middle East. Perhaps our defeat would prove that in a postmodern world American force can only be counterproductive or destabilizing to multilateral protocols.

Thus it was not the slur of a Joe McCarthy clone, but President Clinton's own National Security Council member Nancy Soderberg, who recently lamented on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" of George Bush's developing success in the Middle East: "It's scary for Democrats, I have to say. … Well, there's still Iran and North Korea, don't forget. There's still hope for the rest of us. ... There's always hope that this might not work."

"Not work"?

How sad that our most educated and sophisticated cannot fathom that an Iraqi Kurd, an Afghan woman or a Lebanese shopkeeper simply wants the same freedom and opportunity for their children that so many of the most blessed — but bitter — in America either take for granted, feel guilty about or so cynically dismiss.

Of course, the Ward Churchills, Michael Moores and various and sundry others who VDH refers to, see themselves as the "annointed elites" who--by definition--do not possess the human traits that need to be supressed (although those very traits are remarkably obvious to anyone who takes the time to observe them for a few seconds).

As Hanson observes, in these people we have the American version of the new discontents of civilization. Individually they can be dealt with and even helped; but the large groups of them that come together to "improve humanity for its own sake" are much more difficult to manage. Freud may have thought of them as "unresolvable facts of life", but I think of them in the conglomerate as an omnipresent psychological cancer that eats away at real human progress.

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