Thursday, December 01, 2005

Conscience, Superego, and Huk al Berri

The psychoanalyst W.R. Bion developed a model of the mind that was a radical departure from previous psychoanalytic models, centering around the importance of truth as opposed to drives, repression, aggression, sexuality, etc. He did not conceptualize the mind in mechanistic terms, but more like an organism whose function is to metabolize and synthesize its fragmented elements into a coherent whole. It was his belief that the mind grew through exposure to truth. For him, therapy consisted of investigating the various ways in which truth either evolves or is blocked. People and groups evade truth for a variety of reasons, usually to avoid pain. And when they do, the consequences, both individual and collective, are catastrophic.

One area where Bion differed with Freud was over the nature and function of the superego, the part of ourselves that Freud believed was responsible for our morality. The problem with Freud's conception is that the superego will reflect the particular family in which one grew up and the particular society in which one lives. As such, the superego is not necessarily moral at all. It is essentially amoral, in that it may well punish the individual for morally good behavior and reward him for morally bad behavior, depending on the culture.

Here we can understand why the emphasis on truth is so vital. For in the Arab Muslim world, they are so inundated with vicious lies about America and Israel that it would be immoral for them not to hate us. In a racist or anti-Semitic society, the superego will actually demand that its members be racist and anti-Semitic. For example, the nazi movement in Germany was animated by extremely high ideals, without which they could not have engaged in their project to exterminate the Jews. Once the lie is established as truth, then the superego takes over, impelling the individual to act in a "moral" way, consistent with the implications of the lie.

Clearly, a casual survey of history will establish the fact that most of what people have believed down through the centuries has been untrue. We see case after case of corrupt superegos that sanction and condone slavery, witch hunts, racism, anti-Semitism, jihads, all based on one vital lie or another. All the superego does is enforce consistency between beliefs and actions. If the beliefs are false, then the actions will likely be immoral. People rarely believe they are evil, no matter how evil they are. You can be assured that bin Laden feels morally superior to you or I, which is what permits him to murder in the name of his "truth."

I believe that the conscience is not identical to the supergo. Rather, the conscience is nonlocal and universal, while the superego is local and particular. The superego is simply a mechanism we evolved in order to get along in small groups. In reality, morality is universal and transcendent, applicable at all times and in all places, such as "thou shalt not murder."

In his book Freud, Women and Morality: The Psychology of Good and Evil, Eli Sagan uses a wonderfully illuminating example from Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck is in the midst of a moral dilemma between what his superego wants him to do--return the slave Jim to his master, Miss Watson--and what his conscience is telling him--that Jim is a human being just like him, and that it would be evil for him to assist in re-enslaving him. First we hear Huck dealing with an attack from his superego as he considers returning Jim:

"The more I studied about this the more my conscience [actually, the superego] went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman's nigger that hadn't done me no harm, and now was showing me there's One that's always on the lookout, and ain't a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared."

Clearly, Huck is under assault by his tyrannical superego for violating the racist ethic of his culture. The omniscient superego ("watching all the time") slaps him in the face, accuses him of wickedness, and causes him to become immobilized with fear. He proceeds to write a letter telling Miss Watson where Jim can be found. But as he does so, his conscience--not superego--begins to nag him. He lays the letter down and "set there thinking":

"And went on thinking.... and I see Jim before me all the time... we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him.... I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me... and see how glad he was when I came back out of the fog.... and would always call me honey and pet me, and how good he always was... and he said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world... and then I happened to look around and see that paper."

Caught between guilt from doing something at variance with what the superego is demanding, and an awakened conscience telling him to do the right thing, what will Huck do?

"I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied it a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: 'All right, then, I'll go to hell'--and tore it up."

Huck revokes the lie, stands up to the superego, and makes the decision to do wrong, to "take up wickedness again" by helping to free Jim.

One can only wonder. How many in the Arab Muslim world are ready to give themselves over to sin by making peace with Israel? How many are prepared to bear the guilty attacks from the superego for treating women equally? How many will stop confusing the lies of the imam with the truth of God? How many will "go the whole hog" and toss a brick at al Jazeera?

Me? I done tore up my New York Times four years ago and been takin' to wickedness ever since. And it ain't been no easy road. Fact, if'n it waren't for old shrinkwrapped, I'd a-never knowed any lowdown evil headshrinkers, 'cept'n my own poor self.


LiquidLifeHacker said...

I didn't know that shrinkwrapped was old!(my illusion is shattered)

You are just tooo funny sometimes *evil headshrinker* Bob!Do you have tiny heads in your office? Any in jars? LOOOOOOOOOOL

Thing could you leave out the element of their fear? Because to understand how this mindset has grown and been kept in line is by fear! Its definately part of the equation. Their conscience is overidden by fear and intimidation while it takes no 'big lie' really anymore...just a rumor of one... and the spirit within them will act out the evil deeds that their 'superego' has groomed. But yeah...what society would say a good muslim is (one living in peace and not jihad) really a bad muslim in the eyes and mind of Bin Laden and the ideology that he spews. Bin is doing literally exactly what the quran commands. If the fear factor was removed and muslims felt a freedom to question it all without persecution, then IMHO, that would be the start of change. Until then...fear will dominate them and keep them in silence.

mees a guessin yoos nots knows dat der aint no thinkings in dat der islam cos it aint allowed cos if yoos thinks yoos coulds ask dem sums questins and dat aint allowed dem der mullahs wills has dat der fatwa ons yoos fer questins dat der allah cos der supersegos says dat der allah knows bests

ShrinkWrapped said...

I'm still trying to recover from "Peter Pandemic" and now, on my 54th birthday, Gagdad outs me as "old"...what will you young'uns come up with next for this old man?

D. Vision said...

I also somehow felt that the two of you were quite young (about my age--25). I think it is sort of instinctual, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, to believe that the person whose writing you see on the internet is from approximately the same age group, the same gender, and oddly, the same physical appearance (race, body type, weight, etc) as yourself.

Julian Biggs said...

bob - could you elaborate a little and explain the process by which those in a society like ours select between various cultural attitudes? in other words, how is that i used to be a liberal but then changed? why are some of the smart people i know still wedded to the kool-aid, but others not? is it some sort of blend of inertia and fear of the unknown?

Gagdad Bob said...

Julian, that is an excellent question. I shall put my heads together immediately in search of an answer. I used to think it was a purely psychological question, but it can't be that simple. Like you--like almost everyone--I also began as a leftist. I guess I'll have to start with analyzing my own awakening, and then seeing if it has any general applicability to others.

Julian Biggs said...

bob - if you can solve that riddle you will be the jonas salk of our age :-)

dilys said...
This somewhat contemplative piece from Der Spiegel by a German poet addresses the flight from truth by what he calls the Radical Loser. It apparently never occurs to the Radical Loser to assess the reality-orientation or pragmatic worth of his position, and perhaps change it.

The link came from LGF.

Anonymous said...

Dear Gagdad blog,
Sad top say Arabs don't need to be told lies about what we do to hate us, just see the bloodshed we bring them.