Sunday, June 1, 2014

Karen Horney and Jean-Paul Sartre on the psychology of vindictiveness and violence

Elliot Rodger’s killing spree and the video and manifesto he made explaining his motivations brought to mind not only Joan Smith’s work on misogyny but also some of the ideas of psychiatrist Karen Horney and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

Horney’s writings about neurosis, particularly concerning the “arrogant-vindictive” type, whose “main motivating force in life is his need for vindictive triumph” (Neurosis and Human Growth, 197), are especially enlightening. While Horney didn’t like constructing typologies or using them for anything but the most general heuristic purposes, she provides an excellent description of the characteristics of this type, for which Rodger provides a near-perfect case study. For example:
[T]he expressions of vindictiveness may be checked by considerations of prudence or expediency, but they are counteracted very little by feelings of sympathy, fondness, or gratitude. In order to understand why this process of crushing positive feelings persists later on, when people may want his* friendship or love, we have to take a look at his second means of survival: his imagination and his vision of the future. He is and will be infinitely better than ‘they’ are. He will become great and put them to shame. He will show them how they have misjudged and wronged him. He will become the great hero…, the persecutor, the leader, the scientist attaining immortal fame. Driven by an understandable need for vindication, revenge, and triumph, these are not idle fantasies. They determine the course of his life. Driving himself from victory to victory, in large and small matters, he lives for the ‘day of reckoning’. (203)
[W]hat perhaps contributes most to his callousness toward others is his envy of them. It is a bitter envy – not for this or that particular asset, but pervasive – and stems from his feeling excluded from life in general. (211)
Jean-Paul Sartre’s fictional and nonfictional writings about violence are also surprisingly helpful in understanding the psychology of killers driven by misogyny and other forms of group hate. His short story “Erostratus” is actually told from the point of view of a spree shooter named Paul Hilbert. Hilbert is terrified of and at the same time has a grandiose disdain for humans and human society.

Before his crime, Hilbert sends over a hundred copies of a letter-manifesto to humanist writers. It reads in part:
I suppose you might be curious to know what a man can be like who does not love men. Very well, I am such a man, and I love them so little that soon I am going out and kill a half dozen of them: perhaps you might wonder why only half a dozen? Because my revolver has only six cartridges.

…Soon I am going to take my revolver, I am going down into the street and see if anybody can do anything to them. Goodbye, perhaps it will be you I shall meet. You will never know then with what pleasure I shall blow your brains out. If not – and this is more likely – read tomorrow’s papers. There you will see that an individual named Paul Hilbert has killed, in a moment of fury, six passers-by on the Boulevard Edgar-Quinet.
“Erostratus” appears in The Wall, a collection of short stories published in 1939 which also includes “The Birth of a Leader,” the story of the path by which one young man comes to join a fascist youth group. We see Lucien Fleurier’s struggles to define his identity. He fails until he encounters a violent rightwing group, where he at last finds an identity: he is an anti-Semite and part of the French patriarchal, landowning tradition. He finds a solid core of identity to cling to in his hatred (“…he thought, ‘I am Lucien! Somebody who can’t stand Jews’”), belief in the alleged rights deriving from his social position (“[Lucien] drew into himself for an instant, thoughtful and holy, and the words came of themselves. ‘I HAVE RIGHTS!’ Rights! Something like triangles and circles: it was so perfect that it didn’t exist…”), and sense of patriarchal entitlement and superiority:
[H]e would go and live in Férolles. Somewhere in France there was a bright young girl like Pierrette, a country girl with eyes like flowers who would stay chaste for him: sometimes she tried to imagine her future master, this gentle and terrible man; but she could not. She was a virgin; in the most secret part of her body she recognized the right of Lucien alone to possess her. He would marry her, she would be his wife, the tenderest of his rights. When, in the evening, she would undress with slender, sacred gestures, it would be like a holocaust. He would take her in his arms with the approval of everyone, and tell her, ‘You belong to me!’ What she would show him she would have the right to show to him alone and for him the act of love would be a voluptuous counting of his goods. His most tender right, his most intimate right: the right to be respected to the very flesh, obeyed to the very bed. ‘I’ll marry young’, he thought. He thought too that he would like to have many children; then he thought of his father’s work; he was impatient to continue it and wondered if M. Fleurier was not going to die soon.
This is all connected to acts of brutality, and the reader is left to assume more violence will follow as the movement Fleurier has joined gains power.

“Erostratus” and “The Birth of a Leader,” like the other stories in The Wall, are portraits of lives in bad faith. Sartre understood the roots of prejudice and violence in terms of attempts to flee from the freedom and responsibility inherent in the human condition.

The human condition is characterized by a freedom to define ourselves. We aren’t created by any God or other transcendent process that gives us an immutable identity, position, or rights over others. We have no destiny that externally gives our actions meaning or justification. This freedom carries great responsibility for the choices we make (and choosing not to act is just as much of a choice with just as much responsibility). Sartre believed that we’re under powerful psychological pressure to evade this freedom and responsibility, and that we do this through various forms of personal and political bad faith.

While bad faith can take any number of forms, Hilbert and Fleurier represent a similar form: the attempt to flee the human condition by creating or adopting a hostile identity and through violence.** In his 1945 “Portrait of the Antisemite,” he provides a nonfictional account of the process he fictionalizes in “The Birth of a Leader.” The anti-Semite runs from freedom and responsibility. The intense fear and anxiety created by the human condition give rise to a desperate longing for a given and immutable identity and position, for a global or cosmic order or teleology which justifies one’s actions. People create and claim such identities and orders, but deep down, Sartre suggests, it’s a belief in bad faith – ultimately, they know they have chosen it, but won’t let themselves be fully conscious of this fact.

Anti-Semitism, Sartre contends, is one means of constructing a bad-faith identity: “By adhering to antisemitism, [the anti-Semite] is not only adopting an opinion, he is choosing himself as a person. He is choosing the permanence and impenetrability of rock, the total irresponsibility of the warrior who obeys his leaders – and he has no leader” (345). “[T]he Jew’s existence,” he writes,
simply allows the antisemite to nip his anxieties in the bud by persuading himself that his place has always been cut out in the world, that it was waiting for him and that by virtue of tradition he has the right to occupy it. Antisemitism, in a word, is fear of man’s fate. The antisemite is the man who wants to be pitiless stone, furious torrent, devastating lightning: in short, everything but a man. (345)
To return to the fictional Lucien Fleurier, Hazel Barnes argues in Humanistic Existentialism (1959) that
every decisive action is the result of Lucien’s own desire to escape from a freedom which terrifies him. His bad faith – like all bad faith – consists in his refusing to accept a true view of himself as a combination of being and nothingness and in evading the responsibility of free decisions, whether with respect to the past or the future.

…Lucien has chosen himself as a man who will live as though he is an in-itself (albeit a highly privileged one) in a Serious World. The innate rights of the Gentile and of the industrialist and of the male are all manifestations of a single attitude. So were Lucien’s earlier responses to religion (though but lightly touched on in this story) and to psychoanalysis – all of them attempts either to flee from himself or to pin himself down as though he were classifiable once and for all – like a thing. (65)
To retreat into anti-Semitism is to flee from the reality that both identity and morality are humanly constructed and unstable. The anti-Semite displaces morality into a Manichean framework in which Jewish people are inherently evil in order to eliminate the burden of responsibility. He chooses to believe that Jews are behind wars and economic struggle:
The antisemite is afraid of discovering that the world is badly made: for then things would have to be invented, modified and man would find himself once more master of his fate, filled with agonizing and infinite responsibility. He localizes all of the evil of the universe in the Jew. (338)
This bad-faith belief provides some measure of escapist psychological relief:
This external model relieves him of the necessity of seeking his personality within himself; he has chosen to be all outside, never to examine his conscience, never to be anything but the very fear he strikes in others: he is running away from the intimate awareness that he has of himself even more than from Reason. (334)

…[A]bove all, this naïve dualism is eminently reassuring to the antisemite himself: if it is only a matter of getting rid of Evil, it means that Good is already assumed. There is no reason to seek it in anguish, to invent it, to debate it patiently when one has found it, to prove it in action, to verify its consequences and finally to saddle oneself with the responsibilities of the moral choice thus made. (340)
Such a worldview, in which the roots of all evil are located in a category of people, is inherently and necessarily violent and destructive:
[The antisemite’s] emphasis is on destruction. It is not a question of a conflict of interests but of the damage that an evil power causes to society. Behind the bitterness of the antisemitism is concealed the belief that harmony will be reestablished of itself once evil has been ejected. His task therefore is purely negative: there is no question of building a society but only of purifying the one that exists. (339)

…When he has fulfilled his mission as the sacred destroyer, the Lost Paradise will rebuild itself. For the time being the antisemite is absorbed by so many duties that he has no time to think about it: he is forever on the verge, he fights and each of his outbursts of indignation is a pretext which distracts him from the anguished search for the good. (340)
As this suggests, “the end of the struggle can only be an act of sacred destruction” (339). But in their day to day existence, even when not (yet) calling for the deaths of Jewish people, anti-Semites reveal a destructive and murderous intent. The expressions of hate and practices of discrimination, “the measures which they propose and which are all aimed at [the Jew’s] debasement, his humiliation, his banishment, are the prerequisites of this murder which they are contemplating: they are symbolic murders” (343).

Sartre views anti-Semitism not as the result of individual pathology or disturbance but as necessarily a social phenomenon. According to him, anti-Semites are generally too fearful to act independently. “This sentence: ‘I hate the Jews’,” he offers, “is a sentence which is said in chorus…” (335). And he indicts the armchair anti-Semites, who might not be members of fascist organizations or personally engaging in violence but who support the most violent and extreme through their willing conformity. Having completed his portrait, Sartre says:
If many people who willingly admit to hating the Jews do not recognize themselves, it is because they do not detest the Jews. They do not love them either. They would not do them the slightest harm, but they would not raise their little fingers to protect them from violence. They are not antisemites, they are nothing, they are no one; and since in spite of everything, one must appear to be something, they murmur, without thinking of evil, without thinking at all, they go about repeating some formulas which they have learned and which give them the right to enter certain drawing rooms.

…For antisemitism is distinguished, like all the manifestations of an irrational collective and tending to create a conservative and esoteric France. It seems to all these feather-brains that by repeating at will that the Jew injures the country, they are performing one of those initiation rites which allows them to feel themselves a part of the centers of warmth and social energy; in this sense antisemitism has retained something of the human sacrifice.

…Simple reflections, reeds bent in the wind, they would certainly never have invented antisemitism if conscious antisemitism had not already existed. But they are the ones who, in all indifference, insure the survival of antisemitism and carry it forward through the generations. (343-344)
As Sartre recognized, the choice of living and acting (including violently) in bad faith could potentially take a variety of individual and social forms depending on a person’s historical and particular circumstances. Hilbert’s and Fleurier’s choices are fundamentally similar. The difference – that Hilbert turned against all of humanity and became a spree killer while Fleurier would rise to a position of leadership in an anti-Semitic fascist organization – differed due to the options available in their specific times and places.

The choice of despised groups on which a bad-faith identity and morality is built is arbitrary. As Sartre notes, “The Jew is only a pretext: elsewhere it will be the Negro, the yellow race…” Indeed, in later years he would analyze colonialism and antiblack and anti-Asian racism in the same terms. The particular characteristics of the movements from which this bad faith draws are also shaped by the social environment. As Hazel Barnes writes:
[W]hile the existentialist cannot consistently represent environment as a determining force, he does not ignore it. Man is in-the-world. If his own free choice gives form to his way of life, still the situation in which he finds himself provides the matter or content. If Lucien had been brought up in the home of poverty-stricken fundamentalists, his bad faith might have manifested itself in Communism or in religion. (Humanistic Existentialism, 65)
The rights and position Lucien claims aren’t invented by him, but are part of his culture. His form of bad faith is encouraged by the movement in which he becomes involved and broadly supported by the social system.

There are some serious problems with Sartre’s work, including the reproduction of some of the ideas he explicitly rejects (or should reject) – essentialism, sexism, and particularly homophobia. He also attributes to a universal human condition several psychological features - anxieties, fears, desires - that are actually products of a particular culture (of which his own philosophy forms a part) and economic and political system. But these don’t erase the value of his understanding of the embrace of toxic and violent worldviews in terms of the evasion of freedom and responsibility.

Both Horney and Sartre, then, offer frameworks that might be useful in understanding violence – individual and collective - but which avoid the simplistic individual/political and mad/bad dichotomies. These frameworks recognize the intersection of the individual-psychological and the political without reducing either one to the other. Neurotic and bad-faith “solutions” grow from individual and culturally bound experiences, and the specific forms they take are also shaped by society, but they involve individual choices and purposes.

An important question arises: What did Horney and Sartre think were the possibilities for positive change, at both the individual and social levels? Can we prevent the emergence of such characters and movements, or turn individual people from this path, and if so how?

It’s tempting to wonder what would be the outcome if someone like Rodger had been treated by a therapist of Horney’s caliber, or just read her books. Horney herself recognized the difficulties involved in treating arrogant-vindictive sorts of neurotics, but counseled sympathy:
In analysis it gradually appears that the grapes of life, though he has declared them sour, are still desirable. We must not forget that his turning against life was not a voluntary move, and that the surrogate for which he exchanged living is a poor one. In other words his zest for living is stifled but not extinguished. In the beginning of analysis this is only a hopeful belief, but it proves justified in many more instances than is usually assumed. Upon its validity hinge the auspices for therapy. How could we help him if there were not something in him that does not want to live more fully?

…[I]f the analyst inwardly rejects him, he cannot be productive in his analytic work. The analyst will, however, have the necessary sympathetic and respectful understanding when he realizes that this patient too, despite his protestations to the contrary, is a suffering and struggling human being. (Neurosis and Human Growth, 211-212)
Horney shared with other humanistic psychiatrists and psychologists the belief that there was, at least in the vast majority of people, including those caught in the arrogant-vindictive spiral, a core that wanted to live and love fully, which could be cultivated and ultimately defeat harmful and self-defeating patterns.

It’s also clear from her socially informed explanations and therapeutic approaches that she didn’t regard neuroses, even in extreme cases, as biological illnesses (as today’s biopsychiatry falsely holds of “mental illnesses”). Neuroses were pathological in the sense that they led away from self-realization and positive relationships with the world and in regressive and destructive directions. They were patterns of thought and behavior that drained energy away from positive engagement toward the world. In Escape from Freedom (1941), Erich Fromm describes
an important difference between neurotic and rational activity. In the latter the result corresponds to the motivation of an activity – one acts in order to attain a certain result. In neurotic strivings one acts from a compulsion which has essentially a negative character: to escape an unbearable situation. The strivings tend in a direction which only fictitiously is a solution. Actually the result is contradictory to what the person wants to attain; the compulsion to get rid of an unbearable feeling was so strong that the person was unable to choose a line of action that could be a solution in any other but a fictitious sense. (153)
In Horney’s view, the unbearable psychological situation and the compulsive reactions were far more than superficial, and could persist, with devastating consequences, throughout a person’s entire life. They certainly involve the brain, beyond the basic fact that everything in our psychology and behavior involves the brain. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch, knowing what we do of neuroplasticity, to assume that Horney would have seen neuroses in terms of gradually emerging and complex changes to the brain that distort perceptions, emotions, and responses, leading away from healthy or positive patterns and forming a whole self-perpetuating system or mental world. These systems are difficult to uproot but ultimately amenable to change, particularly if the cultural and political context is conducive to healthier solutions (and conversely harder to change when they’re supported by the surrounding culture).

Though she recognized the significance of cultural and social factors in individual psychological formation, Horney’s suggested interventions remained largely at the individual level. In contact with and influenced by cultural anthropologists of her day, she recognized that observed psychological tendencies couldn’t be universalized. After reviewing some comparative evidence about varying definitions of what’s psychologically “normal” or healthy, she concludes:
The effect of all this is to confirm what some sociologists have repeatedly asserted: that there is no such thing as a normal psychology, which holds for all mankind.

These limitations, however, are more than compensated by the opening up of new possibilities of understanding. The essential implication of these anthropological considerations is that feelings and attitudes are to an amazingly high degree molded by the conditions under which we live, both cultural and individual, inseparably interwoven. This in turn means that if we know the cultural conditions under which we live we have a good chance of gaining a much deeper understanding of the special character of normal feelings and attitudes. (The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, 19)
The possibilities for a true social-psychological analysis using Horney’s concepts, though, were somewhat narrowed by her working at and focusing on the individual level (as a clinical psychiatrist) even as she recognized the role of societal conditions in the formation and content of neuroses. Also, while she was at the forefront of the neo-Freudian movement away from an exclusive focus on childhood in understanding psychological formation, this didn’t go far enough. Influenced by Freud even as she rejected many of his central concepts, Horney located the roots of “arrogant-vindictive” neurosis and other neuroses primarily in childhood and family experiences, though she did appreciate – more than most at that time (or since) – that these psychic patterns could be shaped by culture and the treatment of different categories of people (men and women, for example).

Nor did Horney realize the possibility of extending her ideas about neurosis beyond individuals. There’s good reason to resist a simplistic equating of individual and societal tendencies. Caution concerning “diagnoses” of cultures or movements or the application of conceptual frameworks developed to understand individual psychological patterns to social groups is well warranted. But, as I said several months ago, “This doesn’t mean…that Horney’s concepts don’t have great applicability for understanding cultural and political dynamics and how individuals are formed in conditions of oppression.” As long as it’s done cautiously and with intellectual rigor, I see no reason Horney’s ideas can’t be fruitfully applied at these other levels.

In terms of explaining the existence of these forms of bad faith generally and why certain people fall prey to them, Sartre veers, in “Portrait” and elsewhere, between a suggestion that hateful-violent bad faith emerges, like all forms of bad faith, from basic problems of the human condition on the one hand and simplistic Marxist and, frankly, often sexist and homophobic claims about which people succumb to the worst forms of bad faith on the other. While he offers a rich descriptive psychological analysis of bad faith itself, he doesn’t provide a satisfying explanation of, for example, why some French people became collaborators and others Resistance heroes.***

Because his explanations are lacking, his solutions – in theory, at least – are also weak. In practice, Sartre supported struggles against oppression – particularly Marxist and anticolonial movements – as struggles against collective, violent forms of bad faith. He sometimes had utopian expectations for these movements: existing forms of bad faith would no longer be a problem following national liberation or “after the revolution.” However, his political advocacy showed a real appreciation of the relationship between domination and oppression on the one hand and the most destructive forms of bad faith on the other. Furthermore, he thought, correctly in my view, that raising consciousness through writing could make more people aware of their bad faith and the psychological roots of their participation in oppressive and violent systems. While many of his works seem to demand almost superhuman powers to live consistently in good faith, he did provide models of good faith and encouraged the cultivation of habits to resist the temptations of bad faith.

* All of the works discussed in this post, written in an earlier era, use the patriarchal male pronoun and other sexist language. My reproducing that language shouldn’t be taken as an indication of approval.

** Hilbert uses a gun to commit mass murder, but it’s important to understand how Sartre saw the meaning of guns in this sort of thinking. In Sartre’s view, a gun is significant not just as a weapon capable of mass killing but in terms of what it represents for bad faith. A gun, to Hilbert, was a material metaphor for his desired image of himself as a hard, inhuman substance. In one passage, we see the coincidence between Hilbert’s emotional response to a gun and his sense of self: “I felt a strange power in my body when I went down into the street. I had my revolver on me, the thing that explodes and makes noise. But I no longer drew my assurance from that, it was from myself: I was a being like a revolver, a torpedo or a bomb. I too, one day at the end of my somber life, would explode and light the world with a flash as short and violent as magnesium.”

*** Or indeed any recognition that some Resistance activists might have been acting in bad faith. In contrast, Horney appreciated that “many persons may have a severe neurosis who according to surface observation are adapted to existing patterns of life,” while others may appear deviant or abnormal but not be neurotic at all.

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