Freud, Shame, and Crime
there anything shallower than depth psychology? Ever since Freud,
weve been taught to look deep for the causes of
crime and misbehavior in early childhood, in repressed memories, in
unconscious roots of
now enjoys the prestige astrology once commanded in royal courts.
Intellectuals adopted Freudian language quickly, warping even such disciplines as literary criticism. Shakespeare was a major casualty: Hamlet became a victim of the Oedipus complex. But faith in psychology has long since penetrated popular culture too. You still see its imprint in old Hollywood movies, where the psychoanalyst is presented as a sort of wizard peering into the souls of his subjects.
The quest for deep causes was abetted by other social sciences or at any rate by quacks speaking the language of social science. For a generation crime has been ascribed chiefly to socioeconomic factors, such as poverty and racism.
Not that there isnt some truth in all this. Freud did map out large areas of the psyche that had been previously unexplored. But his map now looks a little quaint, like those Renaissance maps where vast regions are described only with the legend Here be monsters.
But crime is due not so much to hidden motives as to absent motives. In normal people, the desire for respect is strong, and so is the corresponding fear of disgrace. When conscience doesnt do the job, the highly conscious dread of shame and of shaming ones family usually restrains people from wickedness.
Every culture knows this. Honor, respect, reputation, good name, saving face such everyday words express the understanding that we all want to be well thought of. That is why we resent insults so deeply, in spite of the jingle about sticks and stones. One of the oldest stories we have, The Iliad, is about the total breakdown of the siege of Troy after the Greek leader, Agamemnon, publicly insults Achilles, his greatest warrior.
What we now call a sociopath is simply a man who really doesnt care what other people think of him. He may be disconnected from his society as an individual, or he may belong to a small society a subculture, as we now say that is morally disconnected from the larger society. Either way, the larger society cant reach him, cant make him feel guilt or shame. It has to deal with him by force.
But force works only when crime is exceptional; you cant force a whole society to behave. In a multicultural society this problem is likely to get worse. The idea of a homogeneous society is now in disfavor; we are taught it is one of President Clintons most reliable platitudes that diversity and pluralism are our greatest strength.
Yet societies with a single shared culture, from Sweden to Japan, have the lowest crime rates. People in such societies know what to expect from each other and everyone cares what the others think of him; crime is more or less unthinkable, because it implicates not only the individual but his family. Today we are acquiring more cultures and building fewer families.
The fear of disgrace isnt a hidden motive, but its as strong as any supposed unconscious motive. In most people its probably stronger than the repressed desire to kill Dad and marry Mom.
Even liberal intellectuals have sheepishly edged away from their old Freudian explanations of human behavior. Most criminals arent very Freudian. The motives that drive them are pretty obvious; the problem is the motives they lack.
The psycho-socioeconomic explanations blame society for crime. But if society is to blame for anything, it is for failing to instill a due regard for society. The official voices of American society, misled by fancy theories, have helped break down the most reliable restraint on misbehavior: the notorious patriarchal nuclear family.
Ordinary people know all this by instinct; only people given to excessive theorizing are likely to miss it. But ours is a society that peculiarly honors those who are given to excessive theorizing. We call them experts. And were paying dearly for allowing them a veto over common sense.
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