Turn on CNN any night of the week and you’d think you were watching “Escape from Evil, the Movie”. It’s not about theory any more. It’s not an armchair discussion. The armchair is at the controls of a tank. Case in point — after writing that last sentence, I clicked over to check my email and found a link to the breaking story of a suicide bombing in Istanbul staring back at me from the top of the page. The picture on this page is from that story. If I want a different picture, I’ll be able to check again tomorrow and find a new one, with a new story behind it. Carnage, masked men waving automatic weapons in the air, American crowds demanding “no entry” for Muslims, the body of a refugee child who died trying to escape the war zone – the pictures are easy to find — too easy. So what has this got to do with Ernest Becker? Everything.
Becker’s central point in Escape from Evil, that our need to deny our own deaths and helplessness is the driving force behind the eagerness with which individuals allow themselves to be carried away by group ideology, with destructive results, has seldom been so clearly in the headlines. The line between religious, political and ethnic groups has been blurred to the point of irrelevance. Accusations that Islam is a “political system masquerading as a religion” are answered by Jihadist fears that Western economic and political muscle will spell the end to their “way of life” (a term that signals dangerous ground whenever it is used). All sides concerned believe that they are doing God’s will, substituting concepts such as “Liberty”, “Freedom” or “The American Way” for the Supreme Being in the slightly more secular West. Either way, it’s all about identity, what Becker called the “hero project.” The individual becomes a hero by sacrificing all for the group, killing its symbolic enemies and risking or losing their own life in the process. The fact that one can deny their own death by literally, actually dying is probably the hardest piece to grasp in this scenario, but the most important if we are to understand it.
A. Review of the Humanistic and Existential Themes
Themes in humanistic and existential psychology focus on the essential nature of man, as descriptive rather than explanatory or applied theories, and on the innate potential for growth through self-awareness. Self-awareness is achieved through sincere open introspection, building on insights and realistic perspectives that go hand in hand with client empowerment. Incongruences between values and actions are points of conflict, of inauthenticity, that produce stress and diminish functioning in a person’s life. To align values and actions, individual motives are examined in context with values and priorities, adjustments are made to these based on insights and the individual lives a more authentic existence. Often, the incongruity is caused by a reliance on external validation, approval, or fears related to alienation. Inevitably, the person must consider his or her roles in society as subordinate to the essential character of being. This depth of philosophical examination leads to ultimate questions about the human condition, the essential nature of humankind, personal meaning and purpose in context with the cosmic or collective, and finality of life.
Freedom is tied to a minimum trust in oneself, such as confidence in capabilities and acting on them independently. Freedom is expressed through creativity, health, love, individuality, being and becoming, all in the face of external limitations. The idea is to express self in spite of obstacles, to orient the mind to potentials of empowered thought and action rather than the restrictions of life. Anxiety repression is a disempowering force that draws the mind into a downward spiral of complexes and dysfunctional behaviors. Experiencing unconditional positive regard builds client courage and confidence to strip away an extraneous outmoded self-concept and roles. The client is then able to reengage creatively between the outer and inner worlds and the inevitable anxieties caused by confronting life paradoxes.
Instead of saying someone died, some folks a century ago might say he “went to the happy hunting ground,” or he’s gone “to join the Indians.” The euphemism referred to the closing of the American frontier in the late 19th century. The saying made the near-extermination of native Americans sound regrettable but also humorous. Like the 20C fad for westerns, the euphemism was a way of acknowledging but taming guilty violence.
The phrase sounds quaint now, but its spirit is alive today in the wish that all immigrants were socially dead and gone. Media have pumped up Donald Trump’s vow to rout the aliens who want “our” land. It’s one of the oldest American myths. Vowing to make America great again, Trump’s campaign follows the formula of Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West” show.
For thirty years Bill Cody made a living by restaging the white American hero’s conquest of the frontier, the nation’s biggest real estate deal. In reenacting the Indian wars, the show’s pageant battles magically undid Custer’s last stand and the shameful slaughter of Indians. The replay turned murderous greed (“the only good Indian is a dead Indian”) into celebrity appearances and a paycheck for a reluctant but impoverished Sitting Bull.
What better way to celebrate the holiday season than to give some thought to scapegoats? We cope with the darkest time of the year by loading up undying “ever” green trees with a symbolic harvest of ornaments and lights that reassure us spring will bring more life. Unlike the greedy One Percent, Santa Claus delivers generous wish-fulfillment. In the Christian story a scapegoat is born who forgives everybody.
The idea of the scapegoat is an astounding psychological tool for managing morale. Humans have been persecuting “enemies” for ages. It’s how we’re built. You feel guilty or ashamed or merely inadequate, and your group helps you to blame yourself. So you find a scapegoat to carry off the bad qualities in yourself. You may speed up the process by helping the scapegoat suffer and die. Perhaps the whole group lends a hand.
A scapegoat, then, is a tool for taming or expelling self-hatred. From birth, we want to be better than average. Society rewards heroes and stars. But it’s a treacherous dream. If everybody’s a star, then nobody is. And if you can’t be altogether perfect no matter how hard you try, you’re faulty. If self-esteem is ambivalent this way, it’s hard to respect the middle. This is why the Greeks recommended the “golden mean” to each other while fighting to the death to be heroes.
An Interview with Brad Peters
Brad Peters is a clinical psychologist and a part-time professor of psychology at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, NS. Currently, he is teaching a personality psychology course which touches on Ernest Becker and existentialist psychologists, helping broaden students’ conceptions of what it means to be a person. In addition to his private practice and teaching, he maintains a blog, Modern Psychologist, and can be found at www.modernpsychologist.ca.
Thank you for agreeing to share some of your experiences teaching Becker with us! To start, how do you think Becker fits within the contemporary psychology climate?
Psychology is interesting in how it tries to define itself. It wants to study the human mind – how we think, feel, and act- but it simultaneously has a philosophy of science that aims to be objective and empirical. Mainstream psychology doesn’t really leave a whole lot of room for the first person subject – for the first person perspective. I’m very anti-reductionist when it comes to persons and psychological phenomenon; I believe that any attempt to understand the human being has to be done in such a way that we don’t lose our ability to see the whole of what that means.
If you’re not in the line of fire, terrorism can be a stimulant, like caffeine. It’s psychosomatic. Mind and body send alarm signals back and forth, converting flight to fight and pumping up the daily grind to invigorating readiness. Terrorism makes the map of everyday rules and inhibitions feel unsafe—but fresh. Vigilance fixes on shock jocks and politicians that give you permission to hate a particular enemy.
Many people enjoy fear. Day One at the gym makes you feel weak, but you enjoy building muscle. No Pain, No Gain. The more TV you watch, the more you overestimate how dangerous your neighborhood is. But the TV faithful enjoy the delusion of discovering danger. Fear and hatred focus the mind. Since there’s safety in numbers, you can join a crowd that feels as you do. As Howard Stein and Vamik Volkan have demonstrated, we need enemies for our group—“us”—to bond.
You don’t want to be too safe, because then you’d be back in the daily grind. Too terrified, and you might be paralyzed or lose control. This is why, whether you know it or not, there’s a quality of play about hot button issues. In play you can be serious and unserious at the same time. Like irony, it can be subtle, even invisible. And it keeps things conditional, so you can always “walk it back” later.
In Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, one of the least appealing characters is a fellow named Lebedev, a man who could pontificate on any topic. I was reminded of Lebedev following a recent discussion I had with a friend on the topic of climate change. My friend pointed out that, although he didn’t claim to understand the science of climatology, he did think Michael Crichton’s novels expressing skepticism about human-caused global warming made sense.
Now, to say Michael Crichton had remarkable talent and intelligence is a bit of an understatement. He graduated from Harvard summa cum laude, sold 200 million books, had colossal successes in television (ER) and film (Jurassic Park), and he won an Emmy, a Peabody, and an Academy Award. And this is only a partial list of his awards and accomplishments.
Unfortunately, however, therein lies the problem. People with that kind of success tend to have great difficulty in recognizing their limitations, and often have Lebedevian proclivities. Nobel Prize winners are notorious for this human foible. William Shockley (transistor) and James Watson (DNA), for example, both claimed there was strong evidence that some races were inherently less intelligent, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Linus Pauling thought vitamin C could prevent many human ills. Other Nobel laureates have similarly ventured far afield to weigh in on topics about which they know very little.
“K1F” Kirby Farrell
If you’d like to be rescued from death, vote for me.
That’s the gist of a video clip Huffington Post put on Facebook. In it a presidential contender promises prospective voters in a New Hampshire tavern that he favors treatment for addiction. Within a day or two, more than two million people called attention to the clip. Whew.
Pundits at opposite ends of the spectrum praised the candidate’s pledge to favor treatment over punishment for addiction. Although treatment would cost money and conservatives loathe Medicare and Obamacare, a conservative blog called the candidate’s plea “riveting stuff,” and promised that “You won’t be able to take your eyes off of it.”
What makes the video spellbinding? For one thing, at a time when marketing strategists have reduced politics to bumper sticker slogans, the candidate ruefully describes his mother’s addiction to cigarettes and her eventual lung cancer in her 70s. Then he issues a challenge: nobody said, “Well, she deserved it, let’s not give her chemotherapy.” So why do so many people object to giving treatment to drug and alcohol addicts?
He values his mother’s life, he vows, as he values the lives of all addicts— and also babies saved from abortion. No doubt the candidate brought in abortion because it’s a hot button issue for conservatives. But there’s more to it than that.
“k1f” Kirby Farrell
We’re social animals, with an instinct for group competition that’s evolved to intensify solidarity, as in team spirit. Cooperation to win makes the group stronger and insures survival. Heroes, families, and tribes compete in order to expand, lead, and dominate others. In civilization, where strangers live together, the emphasis is usually on team sports that act out warfare without the bloodshed.
In rampage killing, the symbolic quality of sport breaks down. Opponents become enemies. Defeat means death. Almost all rampage killers role-play the warrior-hero. When they dress in combat fatigues and use military weapons, psychiatry calls them pseudo-commandos. They convince themselves they’re revenging or rescuing what’s right. Police said the killer in Oregon had “a philosophy of hate,” as did Dylann Roof murdering black churchgoers, and Anders Breivik in Norway. A neighbor of the Roseburg killer reports that, “The way Chris [Mercer] carried himself was like ex-military almost—combat boots, camo pants, white shirt, brown shirt. Every day it was the same thing.” As in a war, he had body armor and was “armed for a long gunfight.”
“k1f” Kirby Farrell
If a story can be spoiled by knowing “the ending,” then the ending is likely to be an entertaining surprise, the answer to a puzzle or the punchline of a joke. If the surprise comes to you like the flash answer to a riddle, bringing closure, then it seems to come from intuition or “the unconscious” or magic. But the spoiler alert is warning us that the surprise has the contrived quality of a trick. Once you know it, it’s dead.
The Yiddish term schtick describes an easy, crowd-pleasing routine that usually has a clichéd or gimmicky quality. We’re ambivalent about schtick. It can be a habit that makes life gratifyingly easy. You sign off with a smiley face or xxxx kisses although that schtick could mean anything from “Have a nice day” to a heartfelt “I love you.” The cliché is boilerplate, a rubber stamp: a cut-&-paste substitute for more personal or even intimate meaning. As schtick, the sign-off allows you to enjoy a facsimile of closeness. It’s also a labor-saving device, sparing you the sweat or anguish of deciding how you really feel about this relationship at this moment.