Freud and the Evening News – The Madness Within

A cursory glance at the evening news reveals a picture of humanity violently at odds with itself – the violence of ISIS, the unending war in Syria, and the erosion of democracy in the U.S. typified by the hated filled campaign of Donald Trump. But the everyday reporting of the major news channels hides a deeper division still – the division of humanity based on disorders of personality.   

With our thoughts, we make the world.

                                                           Buddha

A small proportion of every population – those with dangerous personality disorders – are responsible for most of the violence in our world. According to psychologist Robert Hare, around half of all serious crime is committed by psychopaths. Those with dangerous pathology make up around 5 percent of humanity but the universality of their destructive reach belies their minority status.

Throughout history, this dangerous minority – psychopaths, malignant narcissists, and people with paranoid personality disorder – has seized the rudder of human affairs and plunged societies into unimaginable horror time and time again.

People with these disorders attain power through various means, including violence, manipulation and deceit; but it is also undoubtedly true that the rest of us – the normal 95 percent – often willingly place power in their hands.

To hand power over our affairs to people whose psychology is guaranteed to deliver war, hatred, and division, is an act of madness. The fact that we do so repeatedly reflects the fact that disordered personalities can often appeal to the madness within us. And, as Freud made clear a century ago, there is madness within us all.

Freud’s Theory of Mind

The psychoanalyst Michael Eigen has written repeatedly about the fact that madness is an integral part of the human mind.

Freud’s structural theory saw our minds as comprising three basic parts – the id, the ego and the superego. The id is the seat of our primal impulses and desires. It is made up of our bodily urges and our existential terrors. In the absence of impulse control, the id would have us act on our moment to moment desires in ways that would make cohabitation with other people impossible.

In early infancy, in response to the constraints imposed by our parents and the outside world, the child’s ego begins to form to contain the urges of the id. The ego’s task is to begin to construct an acceptable narrative from the incomprehensibility of our inner and outer worlds that can guide our thoughts and behaviours. The ego enables us to make sense of ourselves and fit into the world around us.

The later development of the superego is also a psychic response to early experience. In Freud’s view, early childhood is a journey from an experience of omnipotence, in which the infant has its every need satisfied on demand, to the realisation that it is a separate individual, susceptible to annihilation if its needs are not meet by those on whom it is utterly dependent. This transition from omnipotence to existential vulnerability is too much for the infant to bear alone. To compensate, the baby sets up an image of the mother within its mind that becomes an integral part of its psyche – a presence which is always there to guard against the threat of annihilation.

This picture of our tripartite mind formed the basis for Freud’s view of human nature. It helps us understand what Freud meant when he said that the experience of childhood was a catastrophe from which we never recover – because the traumas of our early lives are written into the very structure of our minds.

photo credit: jef safi via photopin cc

photo credit: jef safi via photopin cc

The Great Demotions

Freud believed that this psychoanalytic model of the human mind was what he called the third great demotion in the history of science. In each of these major scientific discoveries, he argued, humanity had been knocked from one pedestal after another in terms of beliefs in our individual and collective self-importance.

The first great demotion occurred with Copernicus’ discovery that the sun, not the earth was at the centre of the solar system. The second demotion was Darwin’s discovery of evolution by natural selection. Not only were we not at the physical centre of the universe, mankind wasn’t even a separate creation, but had evolved from other forms of life.

With Freud’s formulation of the tripartite mind, governed largely by unconscious processes, came the third great demotion. Now, as Freud put it, the ego was not even master in its own house. Psychoanalysis undermined the illusion that we are in control of our thoughts and actions. Instead we were left with a picture of the human mind laced with myth and comforting delusion.

Madness and the Healthy Mind

In the introduction to ‘Becoming Freud’, Adam Phillips writes, ‘people [are] as much the survivors of their history as they [are] the makers of it. We make histories so as not to perish of the truth.’ [2]

One of Freud’s greatest legacies is the recognition that our minds are structured to protect us from perishing of the truth. And in order to protect us from too much reality, each part of our minds harbours a different form of madness.

The most striking form of madness in the normal psyche is the unconscious. In the book which laid the foundations for psychoanalysis, The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud laid out the rules by which the unconscious operates. These rules describe the very essence of madness – thoughts are depicted in the form of images, our minds jump from one seemingly random thought to another linked by unconscious association; time has no meaning so that events from past and present are presented at the same time; every image in a dream can have multiple meanings; and thoughts and feelings are often replaced with their opposite.

This so called primary process form of thinking is most readily observed in dreams, but it is happening within our minds even while we are awake. It forms part of what the ego has to deal with each and every moment in formulating the comprehensible narrative familiar to us as conscious thought.

The ego too has its own form of madness. As an entity devised to shield us from too much painful reality, it has developed an array of defences to protect us from acknowledging thoughts and feelings that are too difficult for us to bear. Among the defences we all use are disavowal (denying responsibility for our actions), projection (blaming others for thoughts and feelings we ourselves possess), and splitting (seeing others as either all good or all bad).

And finally, the superego is itself a form of madness – it is the illusion of the presence of another, even though the other isn’t there. The superego can also take on qualities that bear little relation to reality, persecuting us for transgressions out of all proportion to the harm they cause; frightening us into inaction when action would develop our minds and enhance our growth.

The consequences of the madness within us all, which protects us from having to bear too much truth, can be seen clearly not only in our individual personal histories, but also in the histories of nations.

Our inability to acknowledge the pain of past actions results in denial and blame, feeds communal paranoia, and fuels an exclusive sense of victimhood on all sides. Truth-tellers who puncture our comforting myths quickly become the targets of our fear and loathing for disturbing our dysfunctional but consoling illusions.

Stories to Change the World

Adam Phillips writes that the ways in which we have been taught to know ourselves have become the problem rather than the solution.

The unacknowledged madness that is integral to the functioning of a healthy human mind leaves us vulnerable to exploitation by those with dangerous psychological disorders. In times of danger, when inconvenient truths threaten our already fragmented psyche, psychopaths, narcissists and paranoids offer us a simple narrative that sooths our confusion and restores our fragile identity. They allow us, as Phillips puts it, to take refuge in plausible stories. Unfortunately those plausible stories – based as they are on scape-goating, denial and victimhood – result in us handing power to the dangerous minority among us who relish violence and hate.

The result of us placing power in the hands of the disordered minority is the madness we see in the world around us every day – war, sectarian hatred, sexual exploitation, mass slavery and gross inequality. It can be seen in the tragedies that occur when world leaders pursue childish fantasies of conquest and domination.

A better future, as Freud knew well, requires a different story about what it means to be a person. It requires stories that do not rely on the myth of the hero winning out over others against the odds (a myth that psychoanalysis sees as an attempted self-cure for our flagrant vulnerability). It requires stories that do not determine a life’s worth by measures of worldly success. It requires stories that acknowledge the fragmented nature of our lives and the pain we have caused to others and to ourselves.

Until such stories become the basis of our cultures, we will remain in thrall to those who are destroying our world.

[1] Robert D. Hare, Without Conscience: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us, The Guilford Press, London, 1993:43

[2] Adam Phillips, Becoming Freud, The making of a psychoanalyst (Jewish Lives), Yale University Press, 2014:7

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One thought on “Freud and the Evening News – The Madness Within

  1. Ian-
    This is a wonderful article. It explains many phenomena I observe in myself and my country’s foreign policy. For instance, we see the U.S. constantly pointing fingers (projecting) at Russia, Syria and Iran for human rights violations and criminal behavior, while the U.S. is the greatest violator of international law and the main source of state terrorism on the planet. Yet the American people, for the most part, conveniently believe the lies and propaganda our psychopathic government serves up on a daily basis. If this is not madness I’m not sure what is.
    We see the same the same relationship between Israel and Palestine. While the Israeli government condemns Hamas for terrorism, it unleashes disproportionate violence and terror in Gaza on a people that are defenseless.
    All the time, the people of the U.S. and Israel fall back on the mythologies of exceptionalism and righteousness to rationalize this behavior. At the same time, our collective madness allows us to “‘enjoy” our “way of life” without having to look at the hypocrisy and actual costs “in blood and treasure.” The psychological costs reflected in the hundreds of thousands of military personnel that will suffer with PTSD for the rest of their lives and those that could not live with the realities and choose suicide are too easily hidden behind our fantasies of heroism and freedom.
    Now, with the insanity reaching nuclear holocaust levels, we all need to work towards international wellness.

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