Finding the Roots of Violence

Part of the joy of the blogosphere is finding connections to ideas that I was previously unaware of. Today’s discovery was the writing Arthur Silber has been doing about suicide, child rearing, morality, father figures, psychoanalysis, and more. The inspiration for this latest bit of writing was the recent suicide by prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Via Avedon Carol at the Sideshow.

At first I was unsurprised that prisoners who are being held without the hope of a trial would choose to take their life. I can’t imagine many situations that would be more despairing. Then I read the stories about the reactions of Admiral Harry, the commander, who claimed the suicides were an act of asymmetrical warfare, and the comment of Colleen Graffy that the suicides were a good ‘PR’ move. I was numb. A few years ago, before Abu Gharib, my jaw would have fallen to the floor after hearing these callous statements. Today my jaw barely moved; the standards have been set so low that surprise seems worthless.

George Lakoff has gotten a lot of mileage out of his ideas about strict-father and nurturing-mother frames in politics. Silber links these ideas to German psychologist Alice Miller, whom I hadn’t encountered before. Miller’s theory is that children fail to develop an authentic self when they are abusively disciplined by their parents. They see their parents as the authority figures and later in life transfer that respect for authority to the strongest thug who comes around.

This perfect adaptation to society’s norms-in other words, to what is called “healthy normality”-carries with it the danger that such a person can be used for practically any purpose. It is not a loss of autonomy that occurs here, because this autonomy never existed, but a switching of values, which in themselves are of no importance anyway for the person in question as long as his whole value system is dominated by the principle of obedience. He has never gone beyond the stage of idealizing his parents with their demands for unquestioning obedience; this idealization can easily be transferred to a Fuhrer or to an ideology.

From there it’s not too hard to make a critique of religion as just another substitution of authority, from fathers to gods. Silber glosses Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ in this light.

If you wonder why people refuse to give up a belief in God, why they are completely impervious when you point out the most obvious contradictions in their belief system, why they are perfectly content to accept what is easily shown to be nonsense, this is why: they have never escaped the parent who demanded obedience, and now as adults – since they have never developed an authentic, independent sense of self – they dare not question the goodness of their additional authority figure. But the underlying psychological mechanism is precisely the same.

And if you wonder why they become so angry when you point out the numerous inconsistencies in their beliefs, the obvious contradictions, the completely nonsensical nature of what they proclaim to believe, and why they may as well believe in the Easter Bunny – this is the reason for that response, as well. You are not merely challenging one particular belief: you are challenging their entire sense of self – or rather, their entire false sense of self. They have never been allowed to develop a true sense of self, and that is the real tragedy. The parent prevented them from developing one in the first instance, and now God does. Also, and this makes the tragedy even worse, they themselves now prevent themselves from doing so.

I know some very intelligent religious people, whom I deeply respect, and for them there does seem to be more to religion than authority. At the same time I’ve met others for whom Silber’s analysis of Miller is completely apt. The question for the immediate future is whether these two can ever be reconciled.

As a side note I wonder if a study has ever been made that compared the religious attitudes of children raised in single parent homes. Do children raised by single mothers have different attitudes toward religion than their counterparts raised by fathers or any other familial form?