Saturday, January 17, 2015

Help for the Disheveled

Imagine with me for a few minutes. Close your eyes and picture two people who wake up in the morning and make nearly identical mistakes in the process of getting ready to leave their homes. Person X therefore traipses out of his front door with both shoes on the wrong feet and both shoelaces untied, one sock missing, his fly unzipped, his shirt inside-out and buttoned up crooked, and a smudge of ketchup on one cheek. Person Y is in nearly the same condition, except that while he managed to put on both socks, his pants are on backwards, his shirttail is hanging out and he has a smudge of peanut butter on one cheek. Now imagine that a neighbor sees each person and says to each, “Yo dude! You look funny. Go back in your house and check yourself out in a mirror.” Lastly, imagine that one of the poorly dressed people is otherwise normal and the other is a clinical narcissist. How will each person react to the ungentle yet constructive criticism delivered to them?

I think it's safe to say that neither person will particularly like being criticized. Yet the more normal of the two persons will most likely respond constructively. He will be more likely to ask, “What do you mean, I look funny?” In other words, he will seek to know the details behind his neighbor's statement. As the neighbor elaborates on the pants, the sock, the shoelaces, etc., the more healthy person will beat a hasty retreat into his house for some serious grooming. And he will appreciate the favor his neighbor did for him in pointing out that he was not quite ready to be seen in public.

As for the narcissist, he is “extremely sensitive to personal criticism and extremely critical of other people. They think that they must be seen as perfect or superior or infallible, next to god-like...or else they are worthless. There's no middle ground of ordinary humanity for narcissists...Thus, no matter how gently you suggest that they might do better to change their ways or get some help, they will react in one of two equally horrible ways: they will attack or they will withdraw.” (Ashmun, 1998-2008). Thus the clinical narcissist will likely look at the criticism as an intolerable injury to his grandiose self. If he attacks (and far too often, such people do respond by attacking), it may well be a baseless, wildly over-the-top ad hominem attack which totally disregards the factualness of his neighbor's comment. (In extreme cases, it can turn into an ad baculum attack, summarized as “I'll beat you up if you criticize me!”)

This is a real shame for the narcissist, because all constructive criticism contains valuable information. Moreover, all people and entities composed of people need evaluation and constructive criticism from time to time (indeed, on a daily basis). Both we and the social units we create are imperfect, after all. As the Good Book says, “Reproofs of instruction are the way of life...” (Proverbs 6:23) By rejecting the reproof and attacking the reprovers, narcissists miss out on the healthy correction and improvement that results from listening to valuable information.

In the last several posts, we have considered the United States as an narcissistic entity – especially the public persona projected by the leaders, the wealthy and the media of this country. It is not surprising that we should expect the signs of clinical narcissism in the way this country and its most influential spokespersons have responded to criticism over the last decade and a half.

Some of that criticism has been scholarly, fact-based, and well-researched. I am thinking now of a long paper I discovered this past week, titled, “Symposium on the Psychology of American Exceptionalism.” The paper was published in June 2011, and in the table of contents are such provocative titles as, “A Psychoanalytic Approach to Exceptionalism in Foreign Policy,” “Extreme American Exceptionalism: Narcissism and Paranoia,” “Puritan Roots of American Exceptionalism,” “American Exceptionalism is Not Benign,” and “Delusion in Foreign Policy.” The paper also examines the unwillingess of the United States to acknowledge the limits of its power, and the stresses placed on the American psyche by the beginnings of the unraveling of that power.

The organization which published that paper is Clio's Psyche, whose website states that “Our mission is to enlarge and disseminate the related paradigms of applied psychoanalysis, political psychology, psychobiography, and of psychological history.” In short, they “...[apply]...psychology, in its broadest sense, or psychoanalyusis in a specific sense, to the study of the past.” The staff at Clio's Psyche are well-qualified to undertake such a study, with an editorial board consisting of several psychology PhD's and at least one person with an EdD who also have a solid grasp of history.

The paper I have cited delves the dysfunctional character of American narcissism and expounds some likely consequences of that narcissism. Yet I can guarantee you that most Americans won't read it even if they hear about it. Many of them will, however, go to the theater to watch American Sniper. This is an example of withdrawing from constructive criticism.

But what about the other narcissistic response, consisting of attack of critics? There has been an abundance of ad hominem attacks against America's critics over the last fifteen years – even though those critics had every right to criticize. However, I will consider only two critics, because they epitomize the nature of American attacks against any who criticize the U.S. The first critic is Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia. He is a member of the indigenous (non-European) Bolivian population, whose presidency instituted many policies designed to end exploitation of indigenous peoples, to prevent the privatization of Bolivian natural gas, and to more equitably distribute the country's wealth. He was also a vocal critic of U.S. policies in Latin America. As a result, the U.S. did all it could to brand him as a criminal, to manipulate Bolivian politics to expel him from power, and to cause the secession of wealthy parts of the country controlled by white Bolivians. The Bush Administration even attempted to use Peace Corps volunteers in Bolivia to spy out that nation's vulnerabilities.  However, it doesn't seem that anyone in the U.S. government ever tried to evaluate the validity of Morales' criticisms.

The other example - one of the best examples of U.S. ad hominem attacks against a critic - is the example of the good Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Pastor Emeritus of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Reverend Wright preached a sermon, titled, “Confusing God and Government,” at that church on the 13th of April in 2003. That sermon was heard by a large audience on that day; yet it's safe to say that that audience was not even one thousandth of the population of the United States, most of whose citizens did not even know of this sermon until Fox News and the campaign of Hillary Clinton turned part of it into a six second sound byte containing a now-famous invocation.

Let's talk about that invocation. Before we do, I want to talk about the proper use of the word “damn.” That word is typically regarded as profanity these days (one of the lightest “cuss words” in our now long-since-tarnished lexicon). But the original meaning of the word is to consign someone to the worst possible punishment. To damn a person is therefore much worse than condemning them to earthly capital punishment. This is why polite society has taught that that word must be used carefully, only in justified cases, and not indiscriminately – just as police should be (but often are not) careful in the use of firearms – not indiscriminately shooting unarmed people of color, for instance.

Reverend Wright's invocation was an invocation of damnation. Specifically, he said, “God damn America!” Was his invocation justified? That question was never asked by the critics from the American right wing in 2008, which is not surprising, given that that right wing is now trying to impose a belief in American exceptionalism as a litmus test to determine who is a good American. Instead, Wright was characterized as a hater, a racist, whose criticisms ought to be therefore taken as invalid as a matter of course, no questions asked.

But let us examine the elements of Reverend Wright's invocation now. His invocation consists of three parts:

  • God damn America for killing innocent people!
  • God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human!
  • God damn America as long as she tries to act like she is God and she is supreme!
Has America done these things? Yes, yes, and yes! Is there a judgment for these things? Based on the things I've read, I say Yes! According to the Good Book, the ultimate judgment will be damnation. But of the final outworking of that damnation, no mortal now alive has any first-hand experiential knowledge. Therefore, I will not say much more about it. However, I would like to comment on the beginnings of damnation, namely those consequences which begin the moment a person begins to choose evil, the consequences encapsulated by such Scriptures as “The wages of sin is death,” “The soul that sins shall die,” and “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows, that he shall also reap.”

The consideration of these consequences involves much more than easy, careless, lazy moralizing. Rather, the consideration of these consequences involves the careful observation of the ways in which invisible spiritual realities begin to manifest themselves in concrete, physical daily life in much the same way that invisible ionizing radiation affects living tissue. This observation takes an observer past the surface of life as reported by American mainstream media, leading instead to dry and dusty analyses, studies and reams of data describing the deterioration of the American body politic, the consequences this nation is reaping from having chosen inflexibly to be a certain kind of people. From the data one can see trends; from the data one can also find illustrative case studies. One particular case: we are now seeing the decompensation of George Zimmerman, the Florida Neighborhood Watch vigilante who shot an unarmed Trayvon Martin in 2012. Now it is coming out that Mr. Zimmerman has had a long history of violence, starting years before his murder of Trayvon, and including incidents where he punched the father of one of his girlfriends, threatened a motorist with a weapon in a road rage incident, and threatened a girlfriend with a shotgun. Now he's going to jail. But the authorities in Florida are treating him with a surprising amount of gentleness, and his lawyer is appealing to the public (and the judiciary) to treat him with gentleness in light of all he has been through. Who knows, maybe he will get out of a conviction and have further opportunities to terrorize everyone who crosses his path. And he will also have further opportunities to destroy himself.

As long as mainstream American society continues to give itself a pass and refuses to take constructive criticism on board, its member will continue to suffer the accelerating consequences of being a dysfunctional people. Looking at the ways in which mainstream America is now suffering, I have to say I'm rather comforted. Maybe I shouldn't be. But I've been really angry over the last several months. Now it seems that my prayers are being answered. Wright isn't the only one who has said “damn” lately.

But maybe, in spite of all I have said, there are those readers who are not yet willing to receive some constructive moral criticism concerning our "great" country. Let me take you straight to the Source then, and leave you with one last quote from the Good Book, from the Old Testament book of Zechariah, which says, “The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying, “Thus has the Lord of Hosts spoken, saying, ‘Execute true judgment, and show kindness and compassion every man to his brother. Don’t oppress the widow, nor the fatherless, the foreigner, nor the poor; and let none of you devise evil against his brother in your heart.’ But they refused to listen, and turned their backs, and stopped their ears, that they might not hear. Yes, they made their hearts as hard as flint, lest they might hear the law, and the words which the Lord of Hosts had sent by his Spirit by the former prophets. Therefore great wrath came from the Lord of Hosts. It has come to pass that, as he called, and they refused to listen, so they will call, and I will not listen,” said the Lord of Hosts...” 

Look at this passage, then examine your history and the history of this nation, lest you find yourself one day entering Eternity with your shoes untied and on the wrong feet, one sock missing, your pants on backward with the fly unzipped, your shirt inside-out and buttoned up crooked, and a smudge of shame on your face.

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