Freud Explains Cancel Culture

From The Wall Street Journal:

There sure is a lot of moralism going around. Censorship, condemnation, excommunication, demands for apologies. There are even spontaneous chants of “Shame! Shame! Shame!” directed at the villain of the moment. I recently saw an ad for a psychology workshop that argued outright that people from “privileged” groups should “hurt” and “feel shame.” People are guilt-tripped for using disposable straws, liking a canceled song or speaking “ableist” words.

How did we descend from the libertine culture of the 1960s—“if it feels good, do it”—into a pit of endless shame?

Ask Sigmund Freud. He divided the psyche into three parts: the id (unconscious drives), the ego (the conscious self) and the superego (the site of moral ideals, inhibitions and shame). Freud saw mental health as the result of balance—being aware of feelings as they come and go, but not letting any one part of the psyche become too dominant.

A large amount of mental illness is attributed to an overactive superego. Cycles of harsh self-criticism can induce depression or push people toward drugs or alcohol. Inhibitions around things like cleanliness or public speaking can underlie anxiety disorders. Rigid prohibitions can contribute to sexual dysfunctions and eating disorders. Judgments, righteous anger and control can lead to interpersonal problems.

Some psychoanalysts argue that the superego, in its purest form, is linked to a “death drive,” which seeks to regulate all thoughts and feelings down to zero. This is the suffocating aspect of Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Fully internalized, it’s the logic of suicide.

The superego isn’t always ethical. Someone could feel intense shame for having something stuck in his teeth during a date and no guilt at all about cheating on his taxes. The superego is often irrational, though its pronouncements can feel as if they come from on high.

. . . .

How does all this fit into the transformation of the 1960s counterculture? In the 1960s, many figures on the left tried to abolish the superego (some consciously, others less deliberately), and this goal seeped into the entire counterculture. It wasn’t only the overthrow of “the patriarchy,” an anti-father ethos, or the shifting of sexual mores, but a deeper attempt to overthrow rules and gratify desire.

Obviously it didn’t work. Selfish desires are too destructive. Children need discipline; societies need laws. New rules emerged—rules that were somehow still opposed to the old rules but attempted to perform the same functions. The result is a patchwork morality that’s harsh in some places, absent in others and ultimately incoherent. If excessive sexuality is causing trauma and exploitation, rather than curtailing sexuality, activists demonize masculinity, deny the differences between the sexes, and eliminate due process.

Hypermorality is now everywhere. “Implicit bias” training attempts to purify the unconscious of forbidden thoughts. There are the extreme inhibitions of safety culture and the use of ostracization to target heretics. Then, there are grandiose moral ideals. Zero carbon. Zero gun crime. Zero pedestrian deaths. Zero tolerance.

There’s also the misattunement of moralization. Criminals get compassion while police are vilified. There’s sometimes more judgment of people who don’t wear a mask than of people who rob stores. Insults directed at white people or men are seen as the epitome of justice and wisdom, while even unconscious bias against other groups is seen as unforgivable.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

1 thought on “Freud Explains Cancel Culture”

  1. I am always bemused by people claiming to believe “cancel culture” is anything new. The blacklist of the 1950s is just the low hanging fruit here. Or perhaps Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” a classic novel about cancel culture formerly routinely read in high schools. To the extent that there is anything new going on, it is who is being shamed. People who always imagined such things only apply to Those People are surprised at being called out themselves.

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