Towards a Qualitative View of Oppression and Harm

Towards a Qualitative View of Pain and Oppression.

The Left has lost some of its debates because of the way in which people have looked at oppression and harm. This may seem a bit vague so I’ll try to get more specific really fast.  I believe that a crude quantitative analysis of oppression – Group A suffered more, ergo we should expect A to be further behind in terms of income, advancement and assimilation – as opposed to a more refined, qualitative analysis of oppression – Group A suffered particular affronts which impeded the ability to make money – has undermined the Left.  First I will examine this phenomenon in the context of race; then I will explore this process in mental illness.  I invite readers to try to find other areas of life in which common quantitative metrics may have harmed the Left.

At the end of the 1960’s, as the Nation’s interest in progressive change seemed to flag and whites grew leery of the continued demands of the civil rights movement, those with a more conservative bent began to compare the travails of blacks with those of Jews, Irish, Italians and other “white ethnics.”   They noted that many of these white ethnic groups had suffered poverty and that the Jews and the Irish had suffered intense political persecution as well – the Irish at the hands of the British and the Jews during the Holocaust, and before that in the pogroms and persecutions of Tzarist Russia, and so on.

Conservatives made this argument smugly and aggressively:  The Irish made it.  The Italians got out of Little Italy, and the Jews are storming through the professions.  If the white ethnics can make it, the blacks should be able to make it.  And if the blacks can’t make it, then they are not as deserving a minority group, or lack the initiative or intelligence to succeed and compete in a literate, urban world.  The comparisons were made most starkly and bitterly with regard to blacks and Jews.  (The people who made these facile comparisons between blacks and Jews constituted the first wave of neo-conservatives.  The second wave of neo conservatives made their claim to fame by urging us to go to war in Iraq.  Interestingly enough, these second wave neo-conservatives were not only the ideological children of the first wave of neo-conservatives; they were also the actual biological children of the first wave of neo-conservatives, and I have often thought that John Podhoretz is published only because his Daddy was Norman Podhoretz. I could discuss the lineage of other mediocre neo-conservatives, but I don’t want this to degenerate into something smacking of gossip.)

In any event, as the energy and elan of the Left began to decline at the close of the Sixties, Jews and Blacks, who had once been strong allies on the Left, were at times at each other’s throats.  All too often they seemed to be competing with each other for the title as the most victimized group in history.   Both groups had a lot going for them in this very sad contest:  Blacks could cite hundreds of years of slavery.  Jews could cite the Holocaust.   (As a Jew, I always thought that the physical eradication of  a people took all comers)  And so we fought, and while we were divided, Richard Nixon and the right won.

It is my belief that Jews and Blacks were arguing about the wrong thing.  The important question was not quantitative, how much they had suffered, but rather qualitative:  What were the ways in which they had suffered and how did different forms of suffering create different behavioral patterns which could either thwart or invigorate one’s will to overcome.

For example, blacks were often ridiculed and taunted with the adjective stupid.  Blacks were said to be ape-like, less than fully human, and possessing of meager intellects.  Jews, in the course of being hated and castigated, heard something very different: They were told that they were conniving, clever and bright at business and poised to make a mint.  One of the strongest defense mechanisms, according to Freud, is our tendency to identify with our oppressor, and to adopt the oppressor’s point of view, e.g.,  Women will believe that they are inferior when men tell them so.  Supposedly, we ease the pain of being oppressed when we make our oppressor’s beliefs our own.

Now apply the dynamic of identification with the aggressor to blacks and Jews.  The black hears that he is stupid, he identifies with his aggressor, and when school time rolls around he approaches the material with a sheepish, defeatist air, the confidence knocked-out of him before he has even started.  When the Jew hears that he is clever and swift, he will tend to believe what the gentiles have told him and this will buttress his esteem and confidence and may serve as an impetus to commercial and academic gains.

Similarly contrast the ways Jews lived in Tzarist Russia (After Poland had been partitioned by the Prussian, Austrian and Russian Empires, at the close of the Eighteenth century,  the  bulk of Europe’s Jewry were subjects of the Tzar.) with how blacks lived in the Old South.  In Tzarist Russia, discrimination against Jews was clear and explicit and had been this way at least as far back as the 16th Century, when the Domostroi, a book which took upon itself the ambitious task of instructing Russians on the proper way to be good Russians and members of the Orthodox faith, was written.  The Domostroi flatly said that one should have little to do with Jews, and be leery of them, for killing Jesus Christ.  Jewish children were confiscated from their homes and forced to fight in the Tzar’s armies.  And Jews had no political or civil rights to speak of – then again, almost no one had any rights in Tzarist Russia; the serfs were not freed until the 1860’s.

In any event, the Jews, in the course of being hated, were fully segregated from gentiles. They were more segregated than blacks had ever been in the Old South, and, ironically, this had a salubrious effect on Jews.

For example, if two Jews had a dispute, the conflict would be resolved by a Jewish Court.  Jews of course had their own system of education, paid for by Jews.  When the State was desirous of garnering tax revenues, the task of tax collection was delegated to Jewish officials.  (Of course, some of this self-government was often corrupt and even monstrous.  For example, in the Nazi era, the Germans established Judenrats, or Jewish Governments, to organize the oppression of the Jewish people and sometimes the leaders of the Judenrats tried to save their own skins by handing over a heavy bounty of Jews to the killers.)  But Jewish self- government in Europe was only at times destructive and it did teach the Jews a worthwhile lesson:  In the course of organizing their own schools, courts and charities, Jews gained the confidence to manage their own lives.

In this country, there were no such things as black courts or black policemen to handle intra-black quarrels.  Blacks went before the Nation’s and States’ criminal and civil courts, unschooled in the proceedings, on their own and very much at sea.  None of this buttressed black self-confidence.   (Because Jews benefited from total segregation, I have often sympathized with SNCC, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, and other black radical groups which argued for a certain measure of segregation, such as when SNCC, in 1966, ousted its white members.  I think it is fair to see this not as an instance of black racism toward whites but rather as a protective measure necessary to prevent the total evisceration of black self-esteem.   For example, if a black child has no relatives who are educated, and he comes to school and finds that all his teachers are white, his prospects for academic attainment are, I think, decisively minimized.)

In the Courts, blacks were beaten down and cheated and this facilitated the growing pauperization of black America.  I say growing because contrary to the common assertion that life has been getting better for blacks over time, in large stretches of our history the status of blacks declined.  For example the acreage owned by blacks steadily dropped from its reconstruction peak to at least the end of the Great Depression.  Also, the law did more than oppress blacks; it also rewarded blacks, in very concrete ways, if they lived up to white stereotypes.  For example, in many of the states of the old confederacy, and for many years after Lee surrendered, a white person could not assert contributory negligence if a black person sued him for personal injury.

Let me explain.  A black pedestrian sues a white car driver for hitting him on the road.  The white car driver will want to assert contributory negligence against the Pedestrian.  He will want to say that the pedestrian did something stupid to contribute to the negligence which resulted in the accident.  For example, a car driver might want to say that the pedestrian ran into the car or wore all black clothing in the middle of the night and was, accordingly, contributorily negligent.  However, in much of Dixie this argument could not be made. The Southern Courts held that blacks were too stupid to walk across the streets with any sense and therefore it would be unfair to penalize them, with a finding of contributory negligence, if they walked into a speeding car. This is akin, perhaps, to what Freud called the secondary benefits of a neurosis, i.e., sometimes a patient will not overcome his neurosis because people “cut him some slack” for being disturbed.

Also, the conditions in Eastern Europe never made Jews doubt themselves, and their worth, the way in which conditions in the South knocked down the pride and resilience of blacks.   First, Jews had their own religion.   Blacks got the religion of their slave-masters and this, in and of itself, can have many psychopathogenic results.  If our slave master gave us a religion that we in fact love, then that slave master might, in some ways, know what is good for us and may be a benevolent man because he wants us to be saved.  And as soon as black men credited white people with wishing them well and praying for their salvation, they must have been tortured by ambivalent feelings toward the white man.  However, if the black man were to succeed, he could not be saddled and confused with these ambiguous sentiments.  A certain clarity of outlook must prevail if one is to succeed and I would go so far as to say that one must fully despise the white man’s system if one wants to bring down his slave society; so long as a part of one feels affection for the dominant caste, one’s battles will be ill-fated.

In addition, we must consider the value placed on intelligence.  I do not mean to say, as so many people have said, that Jews revered intellectual pursuits.  That is known and it’s been said with such frequency that the assertion can prompt an attack of narcolepsy.   Jews did more than value intelligence; Jews defined intelligence differently.  Whereas in most civilizations going to school is a matter of students passively taking instruction, having their head crammed with facts the importance of which is rarely explained, Jewish education seeks to teach the child to ask questions and to adopt a curious, explorative outlook on life.  The Jews were not merely the people of the book; they were the people of lots of books in addition to the Old Testament and many of these books interpreted the Old Testament in a multiplicity of ways.   Jewish thought will take a proposition enunciated in a long drawl in five bold, unnuanced sentences and affix myriad interpretations to the words.  Judaism is, in a sense, the anti-fundamentalist faith not because we don’t believe in the Bible but because we have so much respect for language and how the most definite-sounding words are incomplete and subject to interpretation.  Very simply, Jews had a culture that readied them for academic competition.  As I understand it, blacks, by contrast, had a religious training which brooked little dissent and debate and was given to hearty and loud affirmations in the form of resounding Amens.  This mental posture may make one pitifully vulnerable in a secular school.  (This fundamentalism might also help to explain what I have often perceived as the intellectual torpor of the entire South, white and black, where the only two respected academic majors appear to be football and cheerleading.)

In any event, allow me to summarize:  The left has lost a lot of energy and credibility because people have said that since many white people were oppressed as much as blacks, black problems cannot be ascribed to white oppression.  However, the relevant question is not how much a person has been hurt but rather if he has suffered the sort of harms that prevent recovery.

Mental Illness:

In the 1960’s, the most respected doctors, and the doctors who had appeared to have history on their side, posited an environmental etiology, or cause, for mental illness.   Freud held that many emotional disorders had their origin in intra-familial conflicts, and after the atrocities of World War Two, we had a healthy skepticism of the notion that behavioral traits were inborn.  To hold that behavioral traits are innate is quite congruent with the notion that race is destiny, and World War Two mad us realize just how deadly racism is.

Whereas Freud often found that neurotic conflicts had their origins in the anal and Oedipal stages of development, in the post war era some doctors said that psychosis, as well as neurosis, had an environmental cause and that the cause dated back to the twilight of life, to the oral stage and to pre-verbal stages of development.  R D Laing, who was a hero to many schizophrenics, said that schizophrenics were the scapegoats of their families.  Laing, in my view, was the avatar of the left wing view of mental illness.  He saw the mentally ill as oppressed people and he hit the nail right on the head:  Every time a stupid sitcom or other item of our debased popular culture makes fun of the mentally ill – the only group it is still considered appropriate to bash and denigrate – it is saying see how funny it is to see someone who is miserable.  And miserable people usually are just very lonely people.  And so laughing at someone for being mentally ill is really laughing at someone for being lonely and, when you get right down to it, is akin to laughing at someone for having lost a limb to cancer.

However, in the 1970’s we seemed to tire of the argument that mental illness can be explained by social factors or the familial constellation.  First, a multiplicity of scientific discoveries allegedly buttressed the proposition that mental illness was biochemically determined.  (We tend to exaggerate the extent to which these discoveries actually proved that certain genetic quirks caused certain mental aberrations.  For example, one cannot say that because a certain physical finding correlates with schizophrenia, the physical aberration causes psychosis.   It is quite possible that the psychosis caused the physical aberration and that the psychosis came about because of environmental factors.  For example, when we see a man with large pectoral muscles we do not ordinarily infer that the man possesses the gene for large pectoral muscles.  Rather, we assume that something in his environment – such as lots of bench-pressing coupled with adequate nutrition – gave him large pectorals.  So what came first, the chicken or the egg,  the mental aberration or the physical deviation which correlates with the mental deviation.)

Second, in the 1970’s, when liberal and avant guarde thought fell out of favor in broad segments of the populace, when Spiro Agnew railed against a left whom he said was composed of “effete, intellectual snobs,” some people clamored for “common sense,” and in the field of mental illness, this meant the application of a crude quantitative analysis.

They argued like this:  Mr. A grew up in Darfur, and watched his family be annihilated and Mr. B grew up in a concentration camp, and now they are both successful business man in America. By contrast Mr. D has only suffered from the sort of quotidian conflicts one can sustain in suburban America, but Mr. D is psychotic.  Applying their crude metrics, apostles of a biochemical theory of mental illness said that since D suffered so much less, and became so much sicker, this proves that D’s sickness was inborn.  If his sickness was inborn, his oppressors, whether they be family members or the surrounding community, can be exculpated of guilt.  His sickness is the product of his defective genes.  This is akin to blaming the victim and is the right-wing view of mental illness.  (Some people might argue that there is no right wing and no left wing view of mental illness and that there should only be science, and I would agree about the importance of science — but I would combine science with compassion.  Also, the primacy of science does not exclude politics, which insinuates itself into everything.)

We would do well to apply a more refined, qualitative view of suffering.   If one was the victim of horrendous brutality in Darfur or a concentration camp, the experience of course burns and stuns and singes the mind forever.  However, it can also give the victim what I call a unifying rage:  A furious desire, which summons up and unifies his energies, to get back at his persecutors by being successful and even, on occasion, happy.

And what of Mr. D, the individual who grew up in suburban tranquility and is now psychotic.  The crude quantifiers would say that the relative benignity of his background – let us assume that he was never beaten or starved – coupled with his grim diagnosis means he was genetically destined to be mad.  But, again, they are missing the point.  They would never, ever for an instant realize that in certain situations it is better to be hated, and reviled, in one’s childhood than to be loved.  It goes like this:

Suppose one’s parents were extremely pathogenic but at the same time loving and kind.  Because his parents loved him it will be harder for that person to expunge the pathological aspects of his background.  If his parents loved him, it will be harder for that person to reject all of the unwise and delusional counsel they gave him.  If, however, one’s parents were both pathogenic and abusive, it will be easier for the child to “vomit-up” the pathology instilled in childhood.  And so in this instance we can clearly see that a quantitative analysis is not the least bit helpful.

And the question isn’t really whether you were hated by the Germans who tortured you, or harmed by your parents who merely chastised you, but rather if you hate yourself.  If your injuries made you hate yourself, your injuries, no matter how seemingly slight, will be exceedingly malignant.

Some people, in the course of trying to quantify harm, might bring up the issue of  psychotherapy.  They might argue that since D (The person who grew up in suburban tranquility and became psychotic), had psychotherapy, the psychotherapy should have negated all of the harmful effects of his bad childhood rearing and that D’s continued maladjustment establishes his genetic inferiority.  In doing so, they are accrediting psychotherapy with powers and abilities it has never been shown to have.
For example, a study showed that neurotics (That terms betrays that this was an old study.  The current diagnostic manual doesn’t use the word neurotic.  The study I am speaking of was executed by Eysenck and its findings were published in 1954) who went to classical psychoanalysis had a 44 percent rate of recovery whereas neurotics who received no therapy at all had a two thirds rate of recovery.  This study plainly proved that psychoanalysis serious impairs the possibility of improvement.

The study’s findings are not at all surprising considering the speculative nature of so much of psychoanalytic thought. Whereas in physical ailments there is something palpable and corporeal and thoroughly real that you can get your hands on, whether it be an appendix or a cyst or lymph node, there is something exasperatingly elusive of so much analytic thought.  For example, can we really believe that a little boy in Vienna, named Hans, thought his Father wanted to castrate him – when in fact Little Hans never said any such thing and this was simply Freud’s presumptuous interpretation — and that because little Hans harbored this fear every little boy in the whole world has the same fear.  And if a system of treatment is an edifice built on foundations like this, why should we be surprised if analysis has such a lousy record of healing.

In any event, I do not mean to abjure the worthwhile goal of trying to assuage emotional pain; I merely aim to stress that psychiatry is still in its infancy and has a long way to go.

In any event, in mental illness, as in disputes about white ethnics and blacks, quantitative means of evaluating pain have proved to be a great disservice, and  tiresome, ancient arguments over who suffered the most pain deflect us from the goal of overcoming pain and oppression.
Copyright, David Gottfried, 2013

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