Religion, Fundamentalism, Gnosticism, BLM: Part VII

Fundamentalism refuses ambivalence and complexity, denying that its doctrine may be modified by the evidence of science, or of the senses, and classifying individuals as wholly good or evil, elect or reprobate, oppressed or oppressor, by reference to one or two criteria. Such refusal gives it the quality of a child’s fantasy made deadly: a game of Cowboys and Indians played straight-faced and with live ammunition.

There is reason to believe that our age has a special appetite for this fantasy: in Christopher Lasch’s famous argument that ours is a “culture of narcissism,” he noted the congruence of the personality disorder and fundamentalism. To mention narcissism introduces some complexity here, since popular, especially political, discourse is now so littered with narcissism and its techniques that the term is losing all precision and nears trivialization. To understand the issues Lasch’s use of narcissism was meant to clarify, it may be helpful to begin with the thesis of David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd.

Riesman submitted that American “social character” was in the process of significant change by the middle of the 20th century: the “inner-directed” or “economic man” of the 19th century was being displaced by an “other-directed” character type. The inner-directed make decisions and set goals by reference to an “internalized” scheme of rigid values. In work they are driven—embodying Weber’s “Protestant Ethic” they are essentially producers rather than consumers—and in politics, systematic and moralizing, but they are more comfortable dealing with technical or intellectual problems than those of personnel. They respond to failure with guilt. In contrast:

“What is common to all the other-directed people is that their contemporaries are the source of direction for the individual…The goals toward which the other-directed person strives shift with that guidance: it is only the process of striving itself and the process of paying close attention to the signals from others that remain unaltered throughout life…As against guilt-and-shame controls, though of course these survive, one prime psychological lever of the other-directed person is a diffuse anxiety.” 

Riesman’s distinction between inner-directed producers and other-directed consumers, and his judgment that the latter were becoming the dominant American type, have been widely accepted. Less satisfactory to many were his speculations as to why this change in social character occurred. Lasch, to my mind, improved upon this aspect of Riesman’s analysis in his study of the family, Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged.

The internalization of values characteristic of inner-direction is, according to Lasch, associated with a child’s “identification” with his parents. Identification requires discipline, in the fullest sense of that word, which is to say, the transmission of meaningful skills accompanied by both correction and affection. With the modern economy’s division of labor, most of the family’s traditional skills—labor, food production, education, child care, etc.—have been outsourced. Under these circumstances, little discipline—except in the limited and negative understanding of the word—can take place within the home. This pattern of socialization, Lasch says, in words recalling Riesman, encourages:

“the development of personality traits more compatible with totalitarian regimes than with democracy: a strong attachment to the peer group; a marked fear of being alone; more or less complete alienation from the past (since as Bruno Bettelheim notes… ‘there is no permanence in human relations except with the peer group’); a strong concern with personal ‘authenticity’ in relations with others, unmediated by conventional forms of politeness or even by respect for the other person’s individuality; and a lack of introspection and of a highly developed inner life.”

By the time Riesman began work on The Lonely Crowd, psychiatrists had already noted “a shift in the pattern of the symptoms displayed by their patients,” analogous to the shift from inner to other direction: the “classic neuroses treated by Freud” associated with the repression of instinct typical of the inner-directed, “were giving way to narcissistic personality disorders” characterized by the “diffuse anxiety” common among the other-directed. This suggested that the analysis of Haven in a Heartless World could be profitably supplemented by the psychiatric literature:

“Freud always stressed the continuity between the normal and the abnormal, and it therefore seemed reasonable, to a Freudian, to expect that clinical descriptions of narcissistic disorders would tell us something about the typical personality structure in a society dominated by large bureaucratic organizations and mass media, in which families no longer played an important role in the transmission of culture and people accordingly had little sense of connection to the past.”

Countless YouTube self-help videos, use in political invective, and speculation over whether Megan Markle betrayed narcissism in her Oprah interview, have made familiar many of the characteristics and techniques of narcissism, for example, grandiosity, lack of empathy, gaslighting, projection, victim blaming, triangulation, etc. Most of these may be helpfully subsumed under two related traits of narcissists: intolerance of ambivalence, and difficulty distinguishing between subject and object. Both imply, in a word, limitation: ambivalence, limitation of the world, and identity, limitation of the self.

Ambivalence and identity are forced upon the infant at birth. Psychoanalysis posits that a child’s loss of the Ouroboric sufficiency of the womb is highly traumatic, and that the way society manages this trauma “produces a characteristic form of personality, a characteristic form of psychological deformation, by means of which the individual reconciles himself to instinctual deprivation and submits to the requirements of social existence.”

The inner-directed negotiate ambivalence and identity by discipline—a making order of the chaos of the world and self—allowing them a partial but meaningful mastery of limitation. The narcissist, to be sure, masters skills, but without internalization of values, these remain without valence or meaning. Unreconciled to unmanageable limitation, the narcissist is dominated by a rage which he conceals from himself by means of dualistic fantasies, maintained at enormous expense by manipulating himself and others. In other words, the inner-directed accept Solzhenitsyn’s axiom that the line between good and evil passes “right through every human heart,” and get to work, but the narcissist, on some level, hysterically maintains that he is wholly good, and that all good is contained in him. 

“If later experience fails to qualify or to introduce elements of reality into the child’s archaic fantasies about his parents, he finds it difficult to distinguish between images of the self and of the objects outside the self. These images fuse to form a defense against the bad representations of the self and of objects, similarly fused…A child who feels so gravely threatened by his own aggressive feelings…attempts to compensate himself for his experiences of rage and envy with fantasies of wealth, beauty, and omnipotence.”

The “dualistic reductionism” typical of Black Lives Matter and other fundamentalist groups is consonant with this narcissistic schema. Religious dualism, Lasch wrote, “institutionalizes” the “primitive and regressive defenses” characteristic of narcissism “by rigorously separating images of nurture and mercy from images of creation, judgment, and punishment…Gnosticism carried this denial [of ambivalence] to its most radical conclusions.” The other traits of fundamentalism—experience of the world as corrupt and alien, dogma invincible to science, and absolute judgment heedless of context—repeat this denial.

Also in this series: 

Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Part VI

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