Freud and Moral Responsibility

Morality is a social construct, but so are notions of identity and self. Upon reflection, psychology, a discipline I already hold in the lowest regard, is only the minutest subset of sociology. Without society, psychology would have nothing to study.

Sociology is more focused on structure and interrelationships whilst psychology concerns itself with the individual agent’s psyche. Sigmund Freud did recognise this by the taxonomy of id, ego and superego. It seems that by Freud’s reckoning, the id is a stand-in for volition, rather unconscious reactions, whereby the ego is more reflexive and tempered by the external world. Employing this model, in at least one way of thinking, the id represents the bare and authentic self whilst the ego is the accumulation of inputs.

Put in causa sui terms, the id is the result of inherited genetic temperament and the ego is the result of societal forces as interpreted by the id and any antecedent ego.

Remember, one function of the brain is as a Bayesian prediction engine that evaluates new inputs and forms a new sense of perceptual reality and fitness to operate in this universe.

Freud’s superego is ostensibly a part of the ego gone underground—, most of it operating beneath the surface. It’s what I’ll consider being the Nancy Reagan of the psyche—just say no*. It’s Jiminy Cricket. Apologies for not having more contemporary conscience references. I suppose my age is showing.

According to Freud, most of who we are is a social construct, save for the kernel of the id, the proto-self. The ego is the part almost—but not all—above the surface, manifest in consciousness. Conversely, the superego has the reverse configuration, existing almost entirely below the surface. One might even be tempted to argue that the portion of the superego above the surface has actually already been assimilated into the ego.

So, we’re animated sausages, skins stuffed with social cues. Some of these social cues are also moral codes, but many moral codes are inherently unstable and vary by context. And there are local and global morality sources. For example, most religious doctrine is local, so a text authored by a venerated leader in one area may not be venerated outside of that context. In some cases, the directive contains no moral content—don’t eat pork or shellfish or take Saturdays off—whilst others do—love thy neighbour as thyself. Still, they are all social constructs.

If one has no interactions with the other culture, these societies can coexist without challenge, but when a ‘take off on Saturday’ group intersects with a ‘take off Sunday group’, there may be friction, each chiding the other for their nonsensical belief in the manner of Dr Seuss’ Sneetches.

Given this, when discussing morality, we are forced into a structure built on shifting sand. The challenge is that some people believe this ground is bedrock, and power structures insist it is in order to leverage a more solid foundation to maintain power and control.

If we are in some milieu, we are then forced to comply with their norms and morés or be cast out or marginalised, perhaps even scapegoated as Girard might suggest.

Meantime, just take morality with a grain of salt and remember that as will all things human, there are flaws in the logic and outcomes. Also understand that even if these outcomes are flawed and you need to participate in that society, you probably need to remain under the radar—easier for some than others—, conform, play the eccentric, or perish.

* Apparently, Nancy could say no to just about anything except for giving blowjobs. Perhaps this is what saved Ron from the same fate as Bill Clinton, but who am I to say? No shame in that is my position.

Insurrection Bandwagon

There was a recent insurrection at the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC. I won’t take any more time discussing whether this is hyperbole or real. In the end, it doesn’t matter. It’s not relevant to the solution.

From the perspective of propaganda, it’s been an effective message. It’s gotten Trump haters and supporters to view Trump as a common enemy—some of them anyway. Some people and entities can’t performatively distance themselves fast enough or scapegoat him loudly enough.

Whilst I do feel that much of the hullabaloo is performative, I’m not going to focus on the performative aspect. This serves to amplify, but it’s not the central message. Instead, I’d like to frame this through the lens of René Girard’s mimetic theory of conflict and resolution.

Adopting Girard’s vantage, we can see each of mimetic desire, scapegoating, mimetic crisis, ritual, sacrifice, and culture.

Mimetic Desire

In a social context, mimetic theory is about creating in-groups and out-groups—and intentionally so. Groups have rules, by which membership is governed. Symbols are employed to amplify belonging and compliance. At it’s core, mimetic desire employs mimesis—imitation. Monkey see, monkey do.

Here, society is the prevalent in-group. From their perspective, this is the us of the in-group versus the them of the out-group. Girard noted that us versus them is evident in many contexts—whether in the wild or otherwise—, and it can be exploited. It’s about creating a flag to rally around—in this case literally, figuratively speaking.

The mechanism of mimetic desire is to coalesce the focus on some object. From the positive dimension, the desire is to belong, but mimetic desire doesn’t have to be positive. As in this case, it can be negative. The masses have assembled for a common cause of vilifying one Donald J Trump.

Mimetic Crisis

The insurrection is the mimetic crisis. It broke the rules. It’s unclear how all of the many rules that were broken in the four preceding years were able to fly under the radar. To some extent, the US government is constructed of two nearly equal in-groups. They each belong to the institution of institutionalised government and so-called Republican ideal as an expression of modern Democracy. They share some common beliefs, but this sharing diverges dimensionally and methodologically. The telos are multi faceted, and each group prefers different facets—and the facets desired by the public are different still.

At first—to borrow from Kübler-Ross—, there was denial by the Trump-aligned party of sycophants. These Trump-aligned Republicans (read: Neoconservatives; UK: Tories) were also aligned with the outgroup, leaving them vulnerable to ostracism. Meanwhile, the Democrats (read: Liberal/Neoliberal; UK: Labour) secured the moral high-ground and control of the larger in-group. They painted themselves as the adults wearing big boy trousers (over their Pull-Ups).

Scapegoating

Scapegoating is instrumental in mimetic theory. It’s a mechanism to build solidarity and cohesion through exclusion. Narratively, it operates to distinguish acceptable behaviour versus unacceptable. In almost all instances, scapegoating is an object to project blame.1 The remaining members have received the signal.

Here, we have two entities to scapegoat 2: the insurrectionists and the Instigator in Chief, soon to be ex-president, Donald Trump.

Ritual

Ritualistically, scapegoats need to be bear the brunt of the anger of the in-group and associated friends and family. There are procedures to follow. These rituals play out in the House in the form of impeachment, and in the Senate in the form of conviction. For the uninvited guests, the traditional court system ritual

Part of the outrage is performative ritual. Certain entities are checking the boxes suggested by their PR teams. These same entities had nothing to say for the past four years as they’ve enriched themselves at the expense of the American public and world, but this was the last straw. They vowed to cut off support and funding —until they don’t, but by then no one will be any the wiser. People have both short attentions spans and memories.

There is no requirement whatsoever that rituals produce anything. As hard work is its own reward, ritual for the sake of ritual is all that’s necessary. Rituals needn’t be authentic or heartfelt. Simply mime the parts, and you’re all set. Plus, you get full credit—participation points just for playing.

Sacrifice

One ritual is to sacrifice the goats, but we need only exile the offending members. In Christian lore 3, there are actually two goats—a sacrificial goat and an emissary goat—the scapegoat. The sacrificial goat is, obviously, sacrificed—burnt offerings—, but the emissary goat was released into the wilderness, taking with it all sins and impurities. This is the excommunicated, the shunned.

Culture

Where performatism really comes in, is cultural signalling. People and other entities work overtime to signal they are on the winning side. This includes everything from Oscar-winning performances to cringeworthy Razzie-candidates. Those in the public eye tend to go overboard. It’s good to remember that an empty vessel makes the most noise.


  1. The notable exception to this scapegoat-blame relationship is the Christian Christ myth, where Jesus acted as a scapegoat but was without blame.
  2. Trump and the Scapegoat Effect, The American Conservative, David Gornoski, September 1, 2016.
    An interesting article discusses the Trump-scapegoating phenomenon that also mentions René Girard’s work.
  3. Leviticus 16:21–22

Mimetic Desire

People influence one another and, when they’re together, they have a tendency to desire the same things, primarily not because those things are rare but because, contrary to what most philosophers think, imitation also bears on desire. Humans essentially try to base their being, their profound nature and essence, on the desire of their peers.

“Mimetic Desire: Shakespeare Rather than Plato.” When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michel Treguer, by René Girard and Trevor Cribben Merrill

Although I have some reservations—or at least reserve some latitude—, I tend to agree with Girard. Desire is a social construct. Desire is separate to needs. Desires are wants. As accomodated in Economics, we don’t need what we want, but we want what we need. We desire what we need.

we don’t need what we want, but we want what we need

What Girard is essentially saying is that I want what I want because you want it. This is independent of value in an economic sense. Memetically, the value of an object increases relative to the perceiver simply because another person wants it. In my reckoning, I’d separate want from desire or at least elevate desire to a higher degree of wanting.

Girard termed this triangular relationship between subject (you), object (the thing), and the mediator (the influencer) mimetic, to mimic. I suppose some of this might be considered to be memetic, but I also suppose that memes serve to simplify rather than serve as a distinct transmission vector.

circa 2016

My question is—exacerbated during this pandemic—how does this operate in isolation? I consider myself. I am not an ascetic by most definitions, but I am somewhat of a minimalist. My only ‘vices’ are my computer and my guitars. I used to be a professional musician—though most of that was spent on the other side of the console—and I was a Gibson snob. From the perspective of emotional desire, I still am. There is a certain nostalgia, but I don’t play out anymore, and I’m not seriously recording, so I don’t need the same perceived quality of an old Gibson.

Guitarists know that different guitars give different sounds. I’ve owned as many as 10 guitars at a time, and each had its purpose. Some was feel. This guitar was for Blues, this was other for Grunge, and that was for Jazz…and that for Fusion and that for a retro sound. This one had a fast neck, and this one sustained for days. This one was tuned à la Keith Richards, sans a string, to an Open G, and the was set up for Drop C, and of course there was the Standard-tuned one for good measure

Jason & Me circa 2012

Did I need 10 guitars? No. Did I need 1? Not really—not unless I wanted to be a musician, desired to be a musician, so the degree of freedom was l, given this other desire. Having 1 guitar for a guitar player is not the same as a painter with only one colour of paint, but it almost feels like it. It’s certainly a convenience, and it allows players to express themselves artistically.

The question isn’t why I desired a guitar, but why I wanted to be a musician, and of all the instruments, why the guitar—and why did I prefer this genre over that. I’ll admit that my tastes are rather eclectic, but all that says is that I mimic eclecticism or eccentrism. My parents are not eclectic. Most of my friends are mainstream whitebread people—none I’d deem eclectic.

I’m rambling. Just because I don’t remember the source of my desire doesn’t mean there is no source. Perhaps it’s a composite source. I can’t say. Perhaps the outcome I’m naming, say eclecticism, is incorrect, so I am seeking the wrong source.

circa 2004

My point was that I don’t need a Gibson to be satisfied. First, I’ve already owed them, and I don’t have the same performative needs. But I still want to play, and I still want to exercise some artistic freedom, so I still have a few guitars.

To wrap this up, I’ll leave with an unpaid mimitec endorsement of Harley Benton guitars. The last guitar I purchased was this Harley Benton Black Paisley TE70. It’s very fit, and I picked it up for about €200, which included shipping and handling. They are German-built. When I was a kid, a guitar at this price range would have be borderline unplayable and won’t sound shite-like. These aren’t €1,000 instruments, but you’d be hard pressed to find a 5x value differential. They are build solid and have been given extra care not previously seen in down-market instruments. If I wanted to spend another €200, I could upgrade the pickups and for a bit more swap out the electronics to bigger potentiometers—but I won’t. I was planning to splurge and spend €50 on locking machine heads. Nope. Good enough. At €200 a pop, I could afford all sorts of configurations, but even that desire has waned—at least a bit, at least for a while.

circa 1984