Wednesday, May 09, 2012


It's been an interesting last few days. Different events weave themselves together in a common narrative. First, I was getting my car serviced the other day. (And it will have to be back in the shop later this week or by Monday for new transmission fluid lines). While there, I met an interesting woman who was a photo researcher, and knew some people that I was acquainted with. She told me about a book she'd seen on the authoritarian personality. I've studied the authoritarian personality in graduate school. It was Dr. Art Pressley at Drew University who said in his class on Psychology and Violence that "statistically, authoritarian personality types become police officers or ministers." However, I was reminded of the reverse aspect of authoritarianism--the tendency to be obedient to specific instructions, and the ability to disassociate personal responsibility and compassion when following orders.

 This, along with the fear/cognitive dissonance factor, is a huge variable when looking at why anyone can take something like Fox News seriously. There is an unconscious fear of life that people try to conquer via strict control. We all want control of our lives to a certain degree. But many people cannot face the unknown without specific, direct, and forceful instructions. Or, they like to have power over others by giving those instructions. Those who are compassionate may be seen as "weak" and "wishy-washy" because they openly admit that a situation has no specific answer, and that life is more chaotic and unexpected than following neat, orderly patterns. A "template" is desired, and something as complex as life does not have a template. It goes back to what Joseph Campbell said: If your life is going along smoothly, it is probably someone else's life", or someone else's expectations for you. If you are dissatisfied, bravo. You are recognizing that you can stand up and have your own influence, and not merely do what others tell you.

The more uncertain things are, the worse this gets. There was a book written in the 1980s called the "Lucifer Principle" by Howard Bloom (not to be confused with literary critic Harold Bloom). Bloom examined patterns in civilization, and came to the conclusion that societies that were hell-bent on chastising people for their morals were societies in decline. He gave the British Empire's decline as an example, and the poetics of Henley and other fin-de-siecle poets who were a response to the Rossetti's, Wilde, Swinburne, and other "racy" Victorians, blaming their morals for Britain's decline, and certainly the whole "Hail Britannica" nationalism expressed by these counter-writers was indicative of that response. The national myth was unraveling, and someone had to be blamed. Not unlike what's happening in the U.S. now. My friend's fiance posted a video of the Oprah Winfrey show from 1986, featuring Tipper Gore and Jello Biafra among others:

For those of you who don't remember, one of the big 1980s controversies in America was the founding of the PMRC, the "Parents Music Resource Center". Mrs. Gore, then-wife of Senator then Vice President Al Gore, argued that music should be rated in the same way movies and TV were rated, so that parents could be aware of explicit content. Regardless of what she said, the result was a blacklisting by certain artists by the record industry, or forcing them to re-write songs to "clean them up" for the market. Jello Biafra was the singer for the Dead Kennedys, which has been one of my favorite groups over the last 20 years. He did briefly attempt a political career, and also had success with spoken word projects. The Dead Kennedys always come to mind for me when I think of Johnny Ramone's definition of punk: "It's warped-out surf music." Just listen to "Too Drunk to F--k", and you'll hear that in the guitars.

An interesting call comes in during part 3 of this show--a woman gets angry at Biafra because his music caused her son to "pull a knife on his father". Biafra takes a shot at her for bad parenting, and no one will ever know if she was as great as a parent as she seemed to think. Nonetheless, blaming bands for antisocial behavior is really a distraction from the issue. If punk or metal music actually caused this kind of psychotic or criminal behavior, then every child, teen, or twentysomething adult (or older) who heard it would pick up a weapon and start attacking. The fact remains that this just isn't true. It's a convenient scapegoat. For anyone to engage in that type of behavior, something else has to be wrong--whether its a chemical imbalance caused by an archetypal imbalance or something else, the music is merely a reflection, not the cause.

Which brings us back to the Shadow. Between the increase in the xenophobic authoritarian and the idea that we must censor or curb things that are "immoral", both point to a deliberate attempt at repression of things that we don't want to acknowledge are natural. With teens who are experiencing hormonal tsunamis, there needs to be a balance, and this does not involve repression. It involves a means of expression (and creative things like music, art, and writing are great safe ways to express), balanced with a dose of rationality. But it also requires validation, and not treating teenagers like they're psychotic criminals. There has to be understanding of where they are in their development, and space for them to develop. Very disturbing behavior should be addressed (e.g., killing small animals, or other violent behavior towards others), otherwise they should be left alone with whatever music, reading, and style of dress that they choose.

 Punk has always been about questioning authority. This doesn't sit well with authoritarian types. But it's a natural process--there should be a push-pull between cultural ideas. Whatever you believe should be challenged. If it's not, then you are blindly following something, and it doesn't lead to any personal or societal growth. This same woman who was angry at Biafra said that her son's psychiatrist blamed the music for his condition. That psychiatrist should have been stripped of his or her credentials. And clearly they never read D.W. Winnicott, the authority on juvenile psychology. Winnicott goes into great detail about the ways in which adolescents push boundaries, and how it should be handled. (Hint: not the way this mother and psychiatrist handled it.) It makes me think of the ending to that crummy but amazing B-rate movie starring the Ramones, "Rock and Roll High School".

 If a developing adolescent is left to their own cultural devices, they will likely integrate those into a meaningful adult life. If they are repressed, you have a greater possibility of stunted psychological growth, and extreme behavior in younger adults may come out of this. While this is an extreme example, many serial killers lead incredibly repressed lives in the name of "preserving their morals". It is an extreme, but it is instructive of the danger in trying to lock down the expansive psyche too much in the name of fear of difference. A more normal response to repression is hatred of others who are "different". This is hardly a moral response, as far as I'm concerned. Morals are merely an excuse, like "national security".

 It is very hard to be someone of your own. Society is against it, in spite of the value placed on "individualism". Any attempt by parents to mold their child into something they want them to be will inevitably fail. Somewhere along the line, if the child has any mind at all, they will realize they've been living a lie.

I don't mean to say that parents shouldn't try to educate their children in right action and behavior--obviously this is a parental responsibility. But anyone should be wary of putting their own agenda, lost dreams, and fears onto their children. It's impossible to do this perfectly, but from what I've seen, the key is space to grow. Plants kept in a small container, animals kept in small cages--they don't necessarily grow, or their growth is stunted. The biggest fallacy out there is that we must protect our children from some big, bad monster that is Life out there. Children have to take risks, get hurt, make mistakes--even make life decisions that you don't like. Otherwise, they never realize their potential as human beings. There is no protection from "Life".

 And of course, I'm repeating myself when I say, "why should you protect yourself from Life"? Often we are running away from uncomfortable or challenging experiences. Challenges are like initiations that make you a better person. While we don't scarify and beat young boys moving from childhood to adolescence like aboriginal tribes did, there are different forms of scarification. And they're not abuses--they are a normal part of living. To quote Campbell again: "Life is an opera, only it's one that hurts."

Embracing the darkness of life doesn't mean caving in to meaner impulses. It means having an awareness of them, and integrating them productively into our lives. All of the arts afford us an opportunity to do this meaningfully and without harm.


RoboPA said...

Great post. I'm actually working on a post along a similar line. My thesis for the post, based on some thoughts I came across reading Jung's essay on the Transendent Function, is that people's inability (due to unawareness or fear) to dialog with the unconscious parts of themselves leads them to not be able to make room for the unconscious/shadow of the other. Instead, the other is seen as the enemy. It's easier to project our shadow and hate it in another than it is to learn to face and integrate it within ourselves. When we make room for those parts of ourselves that want a voice, it's easier to sit with the other and allow them the space to be different.

Brigid N. Burke said...

That sounds like an excellent thesis. I know that Hillman thought the transcendent function was missing in the case of manic depressives, who could not mediate the Senex/Puer polarity in the unconscious. Have you read "Jungian Psychiatry" by Heinrich Karl Fierz? Some great case studies there, combining pharmacology (which Jung does recommend in some cases where the transcendent function fails) with traditional Jungian therapy.

RoboPA said...

No, I haven't read that, but it sounds interesting. The confrontation with the unconscious does require a healthy ego to act as a container for the transcendent function to operate, so I could see Hillman's point. I haven't read Hillman or archetypal psychology in general, but I know his thought is influencial at the school I had been considering (Pacifica Graduate Institute).