Complaint Department: Do Sick Cultures Produce Sick People?
He says that I commit "the same logical error that ShrinkWrapped" makes, which at least places me in illustrious company. That is, "You cannot make a jump from cultural personality styles to individual psychopathology. There are far more shame cultures on the planet than guilt cultures, which we assume to be superior... Mediterranean cultures, including Moslem, are normatively paranoid and shame-motivated."
In other words, there are more shame cultures than guilt cultures, so therefore the latter cannot be deemed superior to the former. It's all arbitrary--perhaps even just the usual ethnocentrism that causes one to inevitably think that one's own culture is superior to others.
We could go further and say that the majority of cultures throughout human history have practiced human sacrifice. It is an absolutely universal practice that appeared all over the globe. As such, we cannot say that individuals from cultures that refrain from human sacrifice are any different from those, such as the Aztec, who systematically murdered some 20,000 sacrificial victims a year, cutting out the beating heart of the victim and drinking their blood in order to appease an angry sun that might otherwise extinguish without a constant supply of fresh blood. It's just a different belief, that's all. In the Aztec world, Jeffrey Dahmer would be just a regular guy.
Slavery was also universal. Thus, we cannot say that there is anything different in the personality makeup of someone whose empathy causes them to instinctively recoil at the thought of enslaving another human being, vs. someone that has no such empathy and thinks slavery is a wonderful idea.
I assume that you and I cannot even contemplate what it would be like to have sex with a child--we can't even go there, so to speak--but we are no different that the ancient Greek men who were emotionally incapable of loving women, and instead used young boys as their sexual outlet. Just a different cultural practice, that's all. Sex is just an instinct. Its object is of no consequence, be it a goat, a child, a woman, or a watermelon.
In the ancient world, the Jews were mocked and ridiculed because of their oddly humane treatment of women and children. In fact, it is my belief that it was precisely this humane treatment of women and children that caused Jews to create psychologically healthier people and to rocket ahead of other human groups. This is why, on a per capita basis, they have contributed more to human progress than any other group, despite the most horrible treatment from other groups. But the view expressed by my reader would suggest that, for example, there is no difference in the mental health of the average Palestinian vs. the average Israeli. One believes life is sacred, the other worships death. Just a different belief, that's all.
In fact, that's exactly what the reader says: "Mediterranean cultures, including Moslem, are normatively paranoid and shame-motivated." In other words, if someone from a Muslim culture is a paranoid anti-Semite and has dysregulated shame, it's normal. There is no judgment a psychologist can make one way or the other as to the general mental health of the individual. He even favorably quotes Nietzsche's famous cliche that "In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule." As if culture is anything other than human personality writ large, and personality a private culture.
The reader goes on to say that wife abuse is indeed "normal" in Iraq and Iran. But "Normal is a statistical concept, not a statement about good or bad." He refers to the famous Milgram Experiment, apparently in the belief that it means that, just because people do bad things, we cannot judge them as bad. It seems to me that this is missing the deeper meaning of the experiment. After all, how do we even know that the subjects of the experiment did something bad if we do not a priori know that it was bad?
I could conduct a similar study and easily prove that a significant majority of human beings are not operating in Piaget's highest stage of cognitive development, formal operations. Does this mean that the ideas of a concrete operations thinker are just as valid as those of someone in formal operations? As a matter of fact, that is exactly what the average postmodern academic would say. It is arrogant for us to distinguish between nuclear physics vs. Indian rain dancing, or psychotherapy vs. going to the hajj and stoning satan to rid yourself of demons.
The reader states on the one hand that while he believes in unconscious motivation, he also believes that personality is "probably heavily genetic in itself, develops and is shaped by a cultural as well as a family context the way a sapling grows towards the sun." Such a view flies in the face of the most cutting edge research on early attachment and its role in most all forms of psychopathology.
In other words, it is hardly as if a child comes into the world with no objective needs at all, and that his personality will more or less turn out the same no matter how he is treated. I know that this is the dominant academic view, and that there is a lot of bogus feminist research trying to prove that mothering and attachment have no major impact on a child's psychological health, but I couldn't disagree more. It is proven to me every day in my clinical practice. Of course there are some temperamentally resilient children who seem to survive unscathed despite having been abused. But does this mean that it's okay to abuse children, and that there is no psychological difference between someone who abuses children and someone who recoils at the thought?
By the way, I see patients from virtually all cultures around the world, so I have rather intimate familiarity with how a particular culture distorts and warps the personality in more or less permanent ways. It is not so much that this or that culture merely produces this or that kind of personality. Rather, I am able to readily discern how a given culture produces a certain type of character pathology. Does it mean that all individuals from the culture are mentally ill? Of course not. But there is no question that it makes it more likely. Of this I am utterly convinced.
As I may have mentioned before, as a psychologist looking at culture and history, I am not particularly interested in ignorance, which, after all, can afflict anyone and is perfectly understandable. It simply means that you don't know something. What is far more interesting from a psychological standpoint is what I call motivated stupidity, that is, the widespread belief in some patently false belief based on underlying emotional need.
I believe the attitude that dismisses the crazy beliefs of the Muslim world is another example of the hard bigotry of no expectations. It causes real damage, because it panders to the worst in human beings and lets them off the hook. It is like a bad therapist who simply supports a patient rather than interpreting, clarifying, and sometimes confronting.
For example, I believe the Palestinians receive no criticism from the left (and the world community at large), not because they think so highly of them, but because they have think so badly about them--in fact, they actually have no expectations whatsoever about them. In other words, it is not because the Palestinians are so wonderful that they are immune from criticism, but because everyone knows that it would be absurd to hold Muslims to the same standards as Christians, or Jews, or Zen Buddhists--to any standards of decency at all, really. No one is shocked at the barbarity of the Islamic world, whether it is committed by terrorists, or perpetrated in the name of the Saudi or Iranian governments. Imagine being foolish enough to have any moral expectations of the Chinese, or the Palestinians, or the Saudis, or the North Koreans. We expect them to behave barbarously. And they never fail us. And when they do behave in their predictably bestial way, it is never their fault. It is either overlooked completely, or blamed on some provocation, some "underlying cause."
My reader and I have just carried on a dialogue in which we were able to observe culture in an abstract way by standing "outside" of it and looking at it the same way that a scientist observes the material world. Is this not in itself inherently superior to cultures that cannot stand outside themselves and view themselves from the standpoint of another? Or is the developmental acquisition of such objectivity no better than being hopelessly immersed in the subjective and emotional, like a child?
I think you know my answer.
By the way, I believe this reader has his own blog. If he has a response, I will be happy to direct you to it.