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