Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Guilt, projection, and the psychology of resentment in Freud, Tolstoy, and the Bible

In a recent post, Norman Geras quotes a passage from Tolstoy that expresses a brilliant insight into human nature:
In the footsteps of both Tacitus and Jane Austen, Tolstoy. This is a passage from his Hadji Murad:
[Czar] Nicholas frowned. He had done much evil to the Poles. To justify that evil he had to feel certain that all Poles were rascals, and he considered them to be such and hated them in proportion to the evil he had done them.
Norm drew that quotation from a piece in the Forward by Austin Ratner.  After quoting Tolstoy, Ratner continues with the following reflections:
Tolstoy’s inspiration for this idea may have come from the great Roman historian and psychologist Tacitus, who said, “Proprium humani ingenii est odisse quem laeseris,” or, “It is characteristic of human nature to hate the man you have wronged.”  [....]
In other words, the motivations for feeling resentment and doing evil can include, paradoxically, "a rather surprising element of misguided conscience."  As Ratner correctly observes, "the psychology of guilt management" can be dangerous and harmful, "not only to ourselves, but also to others."
Sigmund Freud would not have been surprised to see conscience behind bad behavior. He spent his career studying the ways that conscience causes us to avert our eyes from certain of our own thoughts, and the ways that this sort of “repression” can sometimes do more harm than good — not only to ourselves, but also to others. In his 1916 paper “Some Character-Types Met With in Psycho-Analytic Work,” Freud describes one type, to which he gives the name “Criminals From a Sense of Guilt.” While that short segment does not cover Tacitus’s or Tolstoy’s ground — it doesn’t touch on bigotry at all — it does supply a useful title to a general principle of psychology that’s highly relevant to bigotry: the notion that guilt can cause crime in addition to preventing it. What an idea!
And our mental processes are sufficiently ingenious that we don't necessarily have to project our guilt onto the ones we've harmed.  There may also be all sorts of other possible targets for deflecting guilt (and shame, and even embarrassment) away from ourselves.
The term “scapegoat,” which is by now a commonplace in explanations of racism, has to do with, of course, guilt — what else? It furthermore derives from the traditions of the ancient Jews — who else? Today, we use the term to mean a person or a people blamed for something he/they didn’t do. It’s invoked almost in a sense of mistaken identity or sloppy detective work. Yet the origins of the word itself in the book of Leviticus point directly back to the psychology of guilt management. What William Tyndale translated as a “scapegoat” in 1530 was a reference to an actual goat in primitive Jewish atonement ritual; the goat was magically bestowed with the sins of the Jewish people and then shooed into the wilderness to carry away the sins. In one of Leviticus’s creepier dalliances with paganism, the Lord decreed that the scapegoat should specifically be dispatched to an angry demon of the wilderness named Azazel (who is thenceforth scarce in the Bible but does turn up in Marvel Comics as an ancient mutant enemy of the X-Men).  [....]

Such magic acts derive from a condition of blindness, a refusal to look with the rational mind. The Freudian irony is that the courage to look upon and acknowledge a sense of guilt instead of invoking goats and demons to dispel it, helps forestall criminality of a much more damning kind. [....]
Then again, projection and displacement are often less painful, more attractive, and more emotionally satisfying responses.  Facing reality, including emotional realities, is often tough and unpleasant.

—Jeff Weintraub

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