January 22, 2007
Is repression necessary for a functioning society? Does the individual have to conform in order to be healthy or is conforming merely the appearance of health? Which is more important—the subjective inner truth or the objective truth of society? Perhaps the answer lies in the ever-elusive idea of balance.
What brings up these topics? I just finished reading two very interesting books that seemingly contradict each other completely.
The first book was The Inanity of Normality by Arno Grun. Grun is German, which I think is important in as far as his cultural perspective. He tackled not only Nazism but American politics as well. His approach was pretty objective and fair I thought. He neither defended nor attacked any specific authors or theorists. His argument was well drawn and stood on its own without excessive citation, which is more than I can say for the second book. One Nation Under Therapy by Sommors and Satel was fatally flawed, yet unfortunately it was the one book that was more widely read and quoted!
The thesis of The Insanity of Normality is the idea that society is inherently full of crazy contradictions and that there is more danger in accepting these contradictions than there is in questioning them. “Normal” people tend to kill off any conflicting feelings in order to fit in. In sacrificing their inner truth this makes them more prone to becoming a sociopath or psychopath. Psychopaths mimic emotions and fit into society. They are capable of appearing normal and that is precisely what makes them so dangerous. Schizophrenics are at the opposite end of the spectrum. They cannot accept society in all of its hypocrisy, so they withdraw from it completely. They turn inward in order to maintain a sense of self. Insanity then, is a protest. It is a rebellious way of life. Arno recognizes that schizophrenics are indeed ill, but he believes that so-called normal conformists can also be very ill and because they go largely unrecognized and unhealed, they are worse off. He views self-hatred as the reason for any sort of violence and destructiveness. If a normal person is fairly well adjusted and capable of compassion they are not a threat. A person who is filled with repressed anger or who has completely numbed themselves to their pain is a person who will torture and kill when sanctioned by society. If these so-called normal people are anti-social then they may strike regardless of any moral or illegal implications. Overall, Arno stresses the need for balance. He says, “Truly, responsible actions and genuine humaneness are possible if there is an autonomous self that interrogates the internal and external world. In this possibility lies the hope for our future.”
One Nation Under Therapy attacks what the call “Therapism.” The authors are responding to legit issues. The crisis of the public schools is one that does need attention. Empty self-esteem does create narcissism and educators who protect student from ANY stress at all are doing more harm than good. The schools have lost their focus on academics and that does need changed. However, I disagree with most everything else that they say! Sommors and Satel believe that repression, not expression, is important. They cite studies showing that dwelling on your past and your feelings can lead to actually feeling worse. While excessive focus on feeling can swing toward depression and even schizophrenia, that doesn’t mean one should sacrifice their inner truth either. Repression isn’t the right word for what is needed. It is the wrong approach. Repression implies that the inner world is less important. It implies that one can control their feelings or forget them when convenient. This sort of psychic death is what Arno warns against.
One should try to refrain from obsessing too much. Getting involved in various extra curricular activities or community activities is important for a healthy balance. Emotions do have their time and place though. Rather than repress them, one needs only to find a proper outlet for them. Reading and writing can help someone work through some genuine issues. However, self-pity and focusing on counterfactuals (the what if’s) do serve only to perpetuate the negative feelings. Therapy or therapeutic activities can help heal in right time and place—which is probably not during school hours. Sommors and Satel seem to believe that medicine is perhaps a better tool than talk-therapy, but even medicine is met with some skepticism. Although not explicitly stated, they basically believe that philosophy, sociology and religion have a better chance of improving our lives. Christian morals and ethics, or even some sort of secular set of morals and ethics, are better suited for our children than psychotherapy.
They also believe that criminals need to take responsibility for their actions. Understanding the reasons behind their actions is a pointless endeavor in Sommors and Satel’s view. Lock the criminals away and forget about them! Punishment seems to be favored over any sort of rehabilitation.
Overall, they have a rather bleak view of society that feels jaded and frustrated at best. I didn’t get a good feel for what they viewed as a solution. The book felt like a backlash for the baby-boomer rebellion. It is an extreme reaction without balance in my opinion. I really hope that society doesn’t swing to another extreme. We do need a balance, which is what Arno works towards.