Sunday, January 25, 2015

The best books I read in 2014 – psychiatry, psychology, sociology

To clarify - these aren’t the best books of 2014. In fact, precisely none of them were published in 2014, and some were published decades ago. They’re the best books, from whenever, that I read in 2014. Technically they span the fields of psychology-psychiatry, history, philosophy, and fiction. But they’re all relevant, in a variety of ways, to enduring questions and to our current troubles.

First, psychiatry and psychology.

For several years I’ve described the harmful pseudoscience of biopsychiatry, and I have every intention of continuing to do so. One frequent response that saddens me probably more than any other is the plaintive question, “If this is false, what’s the alternative?” This question has become increasingly troubling to me as I’ve learned more about this great humanist, feminist, antiracist, anticolonialist, antispeciesist, anticapitalist tradition of psychological-psychiatric writing and activism which draws connections between liberation and psychological well-being. Decades of work and insights have been shoved aside, misrepresented, and forgotten, a situation sadly exploited by psychiatry and pharma. So it’s important to me to continue to talk about these books – to reclaim this neglected tradition and to begin to suggest alternatives.

Karen Horney’s New Ways In Psychoanalysis

is a fair, measured, fruitful examination of Freudian ‘theory’.1 What lends this and other works by Horney their power and relevance is their solid grounding in humanism, humility, compassion, and genuine curiosity. Even the most theoretical sections, furthest removed from therapeutic concerns, never give the impression that Horney is engaging in criticism as an intellectual game or that her arguments are exercises in spite, oneupmanship, or territory-staking. (In fact, there’s no indication in her analysis of the personal costs of her dissent with Freudian orthodoxy; these struggles are described in Susan Quinn’s A Mind of Her Own, which is also an absolutely worthwhile book.)

In this as in all of her works Horney is intent on preserving what she sees as the most plausible and useful ideas of Freudianism while discarding those that are empirically unfounded and ideological – particularly those precursors of Evolutionary Psychology that claim culturally specific traits as biologically fixed and immutable. I think it would be most useful to read New Ways alongside Fromm’s Greatness and Limitations of Freud’s Thought, Beyond the Chains of Illusion, and The Revision of Psychoanalysis. Horney and Erich Fromm lost – at least in the short term of several decades – the battle for academic inclusion and public recognition with the (other) Frankfurt theorists and orthodox Freudians, but it’s never too late for a renewed recognition of their contributions.

Alice Miller’s Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society’s Betrayal of the Child

is an angrier book than Horney’s. It draws broadly from Freudian fundamentals in developing an argument about childhood abuse and its effects while condemning Freud for what Miller sees as his betrayal of children. I find some of Miller’s claims in this and other books wildly over the top and reject her suggestion that mothers should act as slaves to children (to be sure, developing a positive model of care and nurturing in a sociopolitical context in which care and nurturing are culturally and institutionally disempowered is complicated and difficult, but her demands on mothers are outrageous); but the book’s original insights outweigh these problems.

Like Fromm, Horney and Miller explicitly recognize the political and ethical implications of their psychological arguments. In the preface to the 1998 edition of Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, Lloyd deMause cites Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner’s 1988 The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe

as support for Miller’s arguments about the powerful personal and political effects of the treatment of children. The Altruistic Personality is an extremely insightful work and one which I’ve never seen cited in discussions of the roots of altruism or authoritarianism. It’s valuable as research in historical sociology, especially given that the window in which such a study could be conducted has since passed. And it’s valuable as a work of social psychology concerning the roots of morality and altruism and particularly the role of parenting in the development of the political personality.

The Oliners and their international team conducted extensive empirical research on the question of what led some non-Jews to rescue Jews (and others not to) during the Holocaust. Their concluding chapter, which I found most interesting, discusses the significance of their findings for understanding moral courage. They challenge the cultural script about the Moral Hero (a script which, not coincidentally, resembles the standard one about the Scientific Hero). This script holds that moral courage is a form or expression of autonomy and independence, born of parenting that instills noble principles and the toughness necessary to defend them. It’s a narrative that rests on sexist arguments (which can be found even amongst more humanistic writers like Fromm) about a mother’s role being purely nurturing and thus leading to egocentricity and moral laxness in the child if not complimented by a father’s inculcation of courage, independence, and dedication.

The near-exclusive emphasis on alleged “autonomy” and “independence” in beliefs about the foundations of moral courage is rooted in male supremacy – valued qualities like moral courage and rationality have long been seen as having their roots outside of the lesser-developed “feminine” sphere, dominated by impulsive and unreliable emotion and “animal” nurturing, and in fact are presented as the result of transcending this sphere and entering into complete autonomy and independence. The narrative, which unfortunately also pervades the animal liberation movement,2 claims the roots of morality in rational, abstract thought and “higher” principles. (It’s of course easy to see how such a narrative underlies the “civilizing” pretext of imperialism and colonialism.)

The Oliners’ findings lead them to very different conclusions about the roots of courageous altruism. “The importance of relationships in our analysis of what motivated altruistic rescue behavior during the Holocaust,” they describe, “contrasts with the emphasis on autonomy cited by numerous others as the basis for moral behavior generally and rescue behavior particularly.” In The Authoritarian Personality, for example, “Moral courage is…the conspicuous characteristic only of the independent, autonomous, ego-integrated liberal.” They suggest that
the emphasis on autonomous thought as the only real basis for morality continues to enjoy widespread acceptance. The lonely rugged individualist, forsaking home and comfort and charting new paths in pursuit of a personal vision, is our heroic fantasy – perhaps more embraced by men than women but nonetheless a cultural ideal. His spiritual equivalent is the moral hero, arriving at his own conclusions regarding right and wrong after internal struggle, guided primarily by intellect and rationality. It is this vision that underlies much of Western philosophy and psychology.

…In a culture that values individualism and rational thought most highly, a morality rooted in autonomy is considered most praiseworthy. Those who behave correctly – ethically, in fact – but do so in compliance with social norms or standards set by individuals or groups close to them or because of empathic arousal are presumed to be in some way morally deficient. That few individuals behave virtuously because of autonomous contemplation of abstract principles – a finding that has been reiterated in numerous studies including Adorno’s and our own – has not deterred advocates of independent moral reasoning from advancing it as the most morally admirable style.
Instead, they find the roots of the moral courage of rescuers in nurturing family and social environments. “Although no one developmental course inevitably produces an extensive person [one more likely to act with moral courage],” they suggest, “we can provide a composite portrait from the significant differences that distinguish rescuers from nonrescuers.” Basically,
It begins in close family relationships in which parents model caring behavior and communicate caring values. Parental discipline tends toward leniency; children frequently experience it as almost imperceptible. It includes a heavy dose of reasoning – explanations of why behaviors are inappropriate, often with reference to their consequences for others. Physical punishment is rare; when used, it tends to be a singular event rather than routine. Gratuitous punishment - punishment that serves as a cathartic release of aggression for the parent or is unrelated to the child’s behavior – almost never occurs.

…Simultaneously, however, parents set high standards they expect their children to meet, particularly with regard to caring for others. They implicitly or explicitly communicate the obligation to help others in a spirit of generosity, without concern for external rewards or reciprocity. Parents themselves model such behaviors, not only in relation to their children but also toward other family members and neighbors.

…Because they are expected to care for and about others while simultaneously being cared for, children are encouraged to develop qualities associated with caring. Dependability, responsibility, and self-reliance are valued because they facilitate taking care of oneself as well as others. Failures are regarded as learning experiences, with the presumption of eventual mastery, rather than inherent deficiencies of character, intellect, or skill.
A “benevolent cycle of warm parents, lenient with respect to discipline, and modeling caring behaviors” (similar, of course, to the parental ideal put forward by Horney) leads people to develop a basic trust in the world, ontological security, the ability to form healthy attachments, an openness to different people and experiences, a willingness to take risks, a sense of effectance, caring skills, and an experience of being an active part of the world. Altruism doesn’t result from a rational weighing of principles but rather forms a habitually ingrained way of being in and experiencing the world.3 And naturally, “A prototypical developmental course can also be outlined for those who are resistant to altruism, an orientation more typical of those whose lives have been characterized by constrictedness” - the childhood environment of nonrescuers in general was quite different from that of rescuers.

(A few important clarifications to limit the scope for misinterpretation: The Oliners, as mentioned above, don’t suggest that different forms of parenting automatically or inevitably produce different types of children, such that anyone who’s been raised in a “constricted” or abusive environment is destined to be a moral coward. They’re revealing patterns, not absolute cause-and-effect relationships. Further, they find that altruism-encouraging environments don’t vary by class. Finally, they note that when they speak of children’s developmental environments they aren’t talking narrowly about nuclear families, and that older people important in a child’s life who encourage and model caring and nurturing behavior aren’t necessarily parents, much less exclusively mothers.)

The political implications of the Oliners’ work are enormous. People are increasingly making connections between children’s development and political attitudes and identities. Although Oliner and Oliner don’t say much about how different parenting practices emerge from cultural and political ideologies, others (including, importantly, Alice Miller) have explored authoritarian parenting and pedagogical movements and their mutually reinforcing relationship with authoritarian politics.

The Oliners’ work fundamentally challenges the reactionary rationale for authoritarian parenting: that nonauthoritarian parenting produces “soft,” narcissistic children of weak moral fiber. In light of their findings, this has it exactly wrong.

1 I don’t use scare-quotes to indicate a categorical disdain for all Freudian ideas. I just prefer in such contexts to hold to stricter definitions of terms like “hypothesis” and “theory.”

2 I’ve referred to Brian Luke’s excellent chapter on this topic in Animals & Women; Luke expands on these arguments in his 2007 Brutal: Manhood and the Exploitation of Animals.

3 Oliner and Oliner don’t, it should be noted, claim that abstract thought and principles negatively influence morality, though they do suggest that this approach doesn’t necessarily lead to moral attitudes and acts toward others – indeed, “[i]deology, grand vision, or abstract principles may inure them to the suffering of real people” and “[t]hose who argue that principled people are less subject to the vagaries of circumstances have little empirical evidence to support this claim.” In general, they hope their research findings will help to introduce some balance to the standard narrative:
Just as there are multiple styles of cognition and affect, so there are multiple styles for arriving at moral decisions. The virtue that may arise out of attachments, care, and affiliations with other people is no less meritorious or reliable than that which arises out of autonomous abstract thought.

…Empathy and concern with social norms simply represent alternative but equally profound ways of apprehending moral claims… According to our study, they are the most common ways. Like principles, they too can inspire heroic moral courage.

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