My anguish at the terrorist attacks last week in Paris has aroused some passionate intensity. Here is my response, which is more in the form of an op-ed piece than my usual expository postings.
As much as we despise the murderous maniacs of the Islamic State, they have, like us, a human psyche. The essential features of the psyche are remarkable similar across all races and national boundaries. Even the psyche of the mentally ill is similar to those in normal people, though, of course, the emotional dynamics of the former are more conflicted and intense. To some degree, everyone is challenged by inner conflict in the psyche, and most people are in the dark concerning these psychological dynamics that instigate emotional misery and behavioral self-defeat.
Before discussing those deeper dynamics, let’s consider a wider perspective on the human capacity for destruction. The mayhem produced by the Islamic State might be the leading edge of a growing disunity and disruption that is manifesting in the psyche of a great many people, producing a sweeping epidemic of destructive behaviors. Haven’t technology’s worst side-effects become the terrorism of nature? Isn’t capitalism, as it has mutated, terrorizing labor and the poor? Is it not fitting to suggest that America’s widening political divide is becoming a kind of terrorism of democracy? Perhaps rank ignorance and widespread narcissism are terrorists of civic virtue.
This Age of Anxiety is convulsing now as terrorism and climate change magnify the stress. A new report finds that middle-aged white Americans are, in increasing numbers, dying from suicide and from drug and alcohol poisoning. Describing the report as a measure of our “existential despair,” Nobel Prize laureate Paul Krugman says “the truth is that we don’t really know why despair appears to be spreading across Middle America.”
Psychology would be expected to offer answers and solutions, but, unfortunately, it falls drastically short. It has wandered off in many directions and produced a variety of pet theories and methods. These theories tend to say, in effect, that mitigating circumstances and external factors explain away our stress, anxiety, despair, anger and hatred. According to modern psychology, powerful influences on the outside—poverty, toxic parenting, rigid belief systems, oppression, malice, and discrimination—are leading causes of individual and collective dysfunction. Modern psychology also attributes our dysfunction to genetics, biochemistry, brain hardwiring, and evolutionary adaptations, all factors over which we have little control.
This contention absolves people of personal responsibility. It leads people to believe that the real or alleged ignorance, insensitivity, and malice of others are largely responsible for their negative emotions. This contention gives predators and terrorists of all stripes some leeway in justifying their anger, rage, lust, greed, violence, and quest for retribution. For Islamic State fanatics, the contention provides an escape-clause, a way in which they can legitimize their psychological defense of blaming the West for their self-created inner mayhem. The contention makes it easier for all of us to feel helpless, hopeless, and fearful to the drifting currents of our time.
The theorizing of modern psychology refuses to accept an essential basic truth about human nature, a truth that gives greater self-regulation and personal power to everyone who possesses it. This truth—that our negative emotions arise through the clash of unconscious dynamics in our psyche—ought to be as well established in everyone’s consciousness as 2+2=4. That truth, confirmed in classical psychoanalysis but largely denied because of widespread unconscious resistance, informs us that our dysfunction and self-defeat arise out of inner conflict in our psyche.
If the essentials of this knowledge were widely disseminated, potential terrorists would understand that their hatred is produced entirely within themselves and that it’s totally misplaced when directed at others. If the basics of this knowledge had been taught to them during their school years, many of them would likely have accepted the knowledge and now be wiser for it. With grounding in this basic truth, they would not be so hateful and mindless.
What are some basics of this knowledge? We all have a particularly vicious aspect in our psyche that we have been reluctant to recognize. It’s most commonly known as the inner critic, though classical psychoanalysis refers to it as the superego and identifies it as the hidden master of the personality. Even when it is recognized by modern experts, the extent of its brutal, primitive nature is not usually appreciated.
The superego constitutes a force of biological aggression that is redirected toward ourselves and then, because we’re unable to contain it all within, rebounds against others. This biological aggression becomes an inner bully that can terrorize us with scorn and mockery as it attacks our unconscious, subordinate ego, the seat of inner passivity. The weaker we are emotionally, the more we absorb this aggression which intimidates and belittles us. On an inner level, people fail to stand up for themselves against the harassment of the superego. Most people are defensive in their dealings with others to the same degree in which they’re defensive to their superego. (I’ve written a great deal about this inner conflict in my books and in many of the posts on this website.)
The more passive we are to our superego, the more self-aggression we absorb from it. The more we absorb this aggression, the more likely we are to feel moody, anxious, fearful, indecisive, fatigued, depressed, and even suicidal. The primary conflict in the human psyche takes the form of this oppressor-victim dynamic. A great deal of worldwide neurosis is attributable to it.
The inner dynamics create a vicious circle. The more aggression we absorb from our superego, the weaker we become (often through addictions, compulsions, and chronic failure). The weaker we become, the more viciously our superego attacks.
Some people unconsciously align themselves with the superego, and they come under the influence of its insensitivity and viciousness, thereby adopting aggressive posturing. However, through inner conflict they remain passive on an inner level. Other people are more aligned emotionally with the passive side of their inner conflict. They’re more gentle and unassuming, but they’re unable to tap into the assertiveness or healthy aggression that would create more balance, harmony, and prospects for success.
The superego is particularly vicious in some people, and it can create in them the impression of being hated. As they absorb the vicious aggression, deposits of self-hatred accumulate within their psyche. This self-hatred can be quite unconscious, so that only its symptoms arise into consciousness. Symptoms include a judgmental attitude, rage toward others, and a high degree of self-righteousness. This self-righteousness, which often seizes hold of religious or secular dogma in an attempt to rationalize itself, is a desperate, self-defeating attempt to manifest moral superiority, to feel right and good in order to compensate for repressed self-hatred.
The self-hatred is often too intense and painful to be contained within oneself. As if releasing a safety valve, people begin to project it out into the environment as disdain and hatred for others. The self-hating person sees others who allegedly deserve to be on the receiving end of his hatred. The projection serves as a psychological defense that denies one’s self-hatred. To make the defense work, the individual needs to become convinced, often to an escalating degree, that those others deserve to be disrespected, hated, and perhaps also destroyed for their supposedly vile nature.
The more passively someone absorbs self-aggression, the more this person is compelled to up the ante to “prove,” as a psychological defense, that others, and not himself, are the source and cause of the negative feelings he harbors in himself. The individual is now creating an inner world that is sympathetic to his fantasies of revenge and destruction.
What we recognize here is the power of negative self-aggression to create self-hatred and, subsequently, a cynical or hate-filled view of the world. This produces, for both Islamic State terrorists and terrorists in sheep’s clothing, a complete lack of compassion for people, animals, and the planet.
Individuals who terrorize others can also be under the influence of extreme self-centeredness or egotism, a lingering effect of infantile megalomania. This megalomania, the sense of being a powerful little being at the center of existence, is an infantile delusion that provides some counterbalance for the infant’s profound physical helplessness. Through megalomania, the baby feels that his or her impressions and desires are unquestionably valid and legitimate.
The folly of egotism feeds the righteousness of the fanatic. In egotism, individuals are inclined to gratify their impulses, feel entitled to their desires, and overrate their points-of-view. Egotism itself is an evolutionary waystation on our trajectory toward a deeper connection to our authentic self. Because egotism is an unsatisfactory substitute for the self, it serves not just as a crutch but as a lever to maximize whatever satisfaction that can be leveraged from one’s false self. Being unquestionably “right” is one such method of self-delusion and self-aggrandizement. The more egotistic the individual, the more he’s apt to depend on righteousness as an illusion of power to fill this inner emptiness. Violent or stubborn defiance, another symptom, is a desperate attempt to feel some form of power to cover up the underlying sense of powerlessness inherent in the passive side of the psyche.
Our world is awash with untamed egotism. Depth psychology attacks and undermines this egotism. The ego is shocked to realize the degree of its ignorance concerning the unconscious mind and the dynamics of the psyche. The ego is then offended by this knowledge because it feels belittled by it, as indeed the knowledge does demote the ego. Vital self-knowledge is often experienced as the defeat or collapse of our sense of self—but that impression mostly derives from desperate resistance trying to protect the threatened ego. Great insight produces humility, and humility connects us to others and to our authentic self. Humility makes us better people because it bestows wisdom and compassion upon us.
This essential knowledge is not being taught in our schools, not even in the best universities. We risk drifting deeper into mindless mayhem without it.