The Freud Moment

Three months ago to the day, I wrote:

I’m getting concerned that we’re not psychologically ready for what’s coming next. The future may not be predictable, but people are. I have no idea what’s going to happen with reopening and recovery; but I can say two things pretty confidently about the next six months:

First: our individual psychology is predictable. If we’re forced to choose between abandoning our ego and self-image, versus turning on each other in order to protect our egos, most of us will turn on each other. In the next six months, we’re going to face that choice an awful lot. That’s problem number one.

Second: our collective narrative is predictable. The recovery and reopening, when it opens, will proceed a lot more slowly than we can generate narratives about the recovery. And that means the recovery is going to become sports. That’s problem number two.

It’s going to get worse | Alex Danco

Three months later, I’m afraid I got this one pretty right. 

Over the next few months, across America, a lot of people are going to die. And they’re going die because other Americans are – not just cluelessly, but gleefully – refusing to wear masks, and celebrating it, the way you’d celebrate winning a football game. Meanwhile, the urgent topic occupying all of the air time in elite circles isn’t the pandemic, or its generational economic devastation; it’s “how bad should other people be allowed to make you feel online?”

So yeah, it did, indeed, get worse. 

You know who would really have recognized and understood this moment? Sigmund Freud. 

Reading Freud is tricky. You have to do a lot of active work to separate out the archaic and offensive parts from the genuine insights. Many of Freud’s explanations for why we are they way we are are ridiculous and disrespectful. But his observations, on the other hand, are deeply perceptive. 

To get started with Freud, the place to begin is with his three-layer model of the human psyche, which you’ve probably heard of before: theId, the Ego and the Superego. The Id is the deep, primitive part of our psyche that just instinctively wants pleasure. It’s strictly unconscious, present from birth, and knows no concept of right or wrong – it’s just a psychic mass of impulses. 

A newborn baby quickly learns that the id does not, by default, get what it wants. The outside world is a harsh, unforgiving place. So around the Id evolves the Ego, whose purpose is to get the Id what it wants. Unlike the Id, which knows nothing, the Ego has to navigate reality. Our perception, planning, reason, common sense, drive and executive function are all part of the ego. Our egos evolve, and become our personality, as we grow up and learn how to navigate the world. 

The ego is kept in check by its counterpart and rival, the superego. The superego (or as Freud called it, the “ego-ideal”) is our conscience: the set of rules, expectations, guilt, and ideals that we learn from our parents and peers. The superego really exists to counteract the selfish and thoughtless needs of the id, but in practice that means fighting and negotiating with the ego, who must reconcile and navigate between the id’s unconscious pursuit of pleasure and the superego’s oppressive conscience. 

The ego and the superego, from the outside, look like opposites. The ego pushes desire and aggression outward, as the Id’s agent; the superego suppresses and shames, pushing back inward. Freud’s first big insight here is that they aren’t opposites at all: they’re more like siblings. To Freud, the ego and the superego are made out of the same psychic material. The latter is reflected back inwards, towards the former.  Freud understood guilt, shame, anxiety, and other expressions of the active superego as, essentially, aggression – just directed inward, rather than outward. A lot of Freud’s most famous (and appropriately outdated) ideas, like this work around the Oedipus complex, try to zero in on the origins of this aggression and guilt. Here’s where it’s important to separate out the how versus the what – however offensive his explanations might be, there’s something undeniably there in his initial observations on the presence, structure, and suppression of all that aggression inside people. 

Civilization runs on Guilt

In his later years, Freud came to characterize the human condition as an evolving struggle between those forces: outward aggression of the ego, and inward aggression of the superego. This dynamic plays out at multiple levels: within individuals, and throughout society. His last and most approachable book, Civilization and its Discontents, tackles a subject that’s pretty familiar in today’s discourse: “As the world advances and living conditions improve, why are we still so angry and miserable?” 

To Freud (and many others), what we think of as “civilization” is essentially an arrangement for directing our psyches into productive, rather than destructive, avenues. This applies equally well to the ego and the superego. You can imagine an ego-driven business owner who, in an earlier world, would’ve taken his aggression out in a more harmful way, but now has a more productive avenue to do so. Freud’s insight here is that most aggression in modern society actually takes the form of guilt, stress and anxiety. Modern society functions not because we feel continually threatened from outside aggression to stay in line, but because we feel continual pressure from internal aggression – our conscience – to be an ideal neighbour and citizen. To Freud, civilization is, essentially, structured guilt. No wonder it’s so stressful! 

The United States, and the general phenomenon of “American Exceptionalism”, is really an ongoing experiment of what happens to a country when you give the ego a bit more room to run. America has always been a highly egotistical nation. We celebrate the individual, the home mortgage, and the V8 engine. In some ways, the experiment has succeeded spectacularly; in others, America seems to continually suffer from a brain hemorrhage, where people regularly lose their minds over issues (both real and imagined) that no other country seems to experience at the same level. 

America’s egotistical bent doesn’t mean we lack a conscience: we carry around a ton of guilt, as part of the cost of letting egos run wild the way we do. The narrative of “the coastal elites want to tell you what to feel guilty about; we won’t let them” is effective for a reason: because we are collectively guilty of so many things, from climate change to police brutality and everything else. The Trump candidacy figured out how to exploit this better than anyone else: in a complex and interdependent world, everyone is basically guilty of everything. And when that’s true, no one can say “you should feel guilt” without sounding hypocritical. It’s a perfect judo move, because not only does it neutralize the superego’s ability to effectively level any criticism, it opens the door for the ego to go be as offensive as possible. 

The internet has accelerated a lot of this. It essentially kicked off an arms race between the ego and the superego, which started out as a Cold War but then turned increasingly hot since Trump’s candidacy as the ultimate Ego Candidate. On the one hand, the internet empowers the ego to project its ambition and aggression out into the world, like never before possible. This is great for self empowerment, but unfortunately not so great for issues like online harassment, and its real-world variants that are now just called “politics.” There’s a case to be made that the most perceptive and predictive piece of writing about contemporary culture was a Deadspin post from 2014, The future of the culture wars is here, and it’s Gamergate by Kyle Wagner. Online harassment in 2014 became the model for how regular discourse and the news cycle works in 2020, before anyone knew what a coronavirus was.

On the other hand, the internet also arms the superego an equally formidable amount. Everything you say online is permanently inscribed in the collective psyche, and everyone’s thoughts and actions become linked to everyone else’s, either by active involvement or passive association. As everyone becomes connected, guilt becomes total. Any kind of association with anything problematic can follow you around everywhere. Oh, you own the S&P 500 in your retirement account? Bad news, you’re a shareholder of companies who drill for oil, sell guns, and fight gay marriage, so you’re cancelled now. I am not entirely unsympathetic to the idea that everyone should be cancelled a little bit. A lot of bad things have happened, and are happening, for which we kinda do bear responsibility. Unfortunately, online crowds are too much fun. And so we got to modern-day cancel culture, and its equally frustrating cousin: the “I am actually the victim here” essay. 

And then a pandemic happened. 

“The elites want you to feel guilty about not wearing a mask”

In retrospect, the critical mistake of the pandemic was telling Americans that masks protect other people.

There are a lot of what-ifs we could look back and theorize about: what if we’d closed borders earlier; what if we’d had more humility in the early days. The biggest what-if of them all is “what if the CDC hadn’t initially urged Americans not to stockpile masks, felt they had to rationalize it by saying “they won’t help you”, then later had to walk that back by clarifying, “oh, but now you should wear them, because they help other people.”

The minute that wearing masks became about protecting other people, it was game over for America. Masks became a symbol of the superego; and as far as symbolism goes, it’s laid on pretty thick. (It’s literally something that you put on your face into order to stop yourself from spraying germs onto other people, and therefore suppress your own guilt of being part of a pandemic!) The minute masks became about suppressing yourself to protect others, the narrative became: The Elites want you to feel guilty about not wearing a mask, just like they want you to feel guilty about driving a car, or eating a burger, or anything else you love. Don’t let them! 

Our reaction to this narrative misses what’s really being said. If you’ve ever thought, “how stupid do you have to be to think the government wants to control with a mask”, pause for a minute and think about what’s really being communicated. The real message is “they want to control you with guilt.” Doesn’t sound so stupid anymore, does it? Freud would certainly argue that this message gets it exactly right.

Unfortunately, there is a right answer. Wear the stupid mask. This should be a conversation about public health, not yet another forum for symbolic battle between the ego and superego. And in most countries, that’s the case; people cooperate, wear masks, and their countries can cautiously reopen and get back to something like normal life. Not in America, though! In America, you see political talking heads saying things like “Mask-wearing has become a totem, a secular religious symbol. Christians wear crosses, Muslims wear a hijab, and members of the Church of Secular Science bow to the Gods of Data by wearing a mask as their symbol, demonstrating that they are the elite; smarter, more rational, and morally superior to everyone else.”

This quote is really spectacular: it’s simultaneously so offensively wrong, and yet perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the moment. This isn’t ignorance or passive abdication of public health responsibility. This is active, willful rebellion against the superego, fitting neatly into everything else in the culture wars: the elites want you to feel guilt. Don’t let them.

It’s not just individuals, either: local and state government officials understand the politics of the moment, and are putting in the work to ban local mask requirements. They want to make sure that their voters know: they’re on your team; team ego.

And then, unsurprisingly, Covid cases began to rise again. 

Freud had a second insight here. The ego and the superego might be rivals; but they also immensely enjoy each other’s company. They give each other something to push against, and they legitimize each other. When you see people screaming at each other over wearing masks, particularly those who refuse to wear them, on the surface these emotions present as real anger. But you also come away with an unmistakable impression: this is the most fun these people have had in years

Just this morning, I witnessed a confrontation between three people in the park, when two people walking side by side did not make way for a third to pass through while preserving six feet of social distancing. Within 20 seconds, the quarrel became a full-throated screaming match, at 9 AM in the morning in Withrow park. The sheer exuberance and glee on display here was barely disguised: in that moment, there was absolutely nothing in the world these people would rather be doing than shouting at each other over sidewalk etiquette, and more broadly, over the general theme of how guilty everyone ought to feel. 

Critically, it’s not just the glee of yelling at people that’s so exhilarating. It’s the thrill of defying guilt, even, in fact, especially. if it means being guilty of something. If you watch videos of people having meltdowns in supermarkets for not wearing a mask and then throwing food everywhere for five minutes, you can see an extreme form of a remarkably pervasive mindset: I’m going to just ruin someone else’s day, make an absolute fool of myself in public, and maybe even get Covid while I’m at it, for the thrill: because of how incredibly good it feels to rage against the superego in such a pure form. (It’s not so different from joining an online mob, actually; just reverse “ego” and “superego”, as you knew they always could be.) The guiltier you are, the hotter the rage, and the bigger the thrill. By connecting everyone together into an inseparable web of guilt by association, the internet really brings out this behaviour, happily supplying weapons to both sides of the fight (who are both mightily enjoying themselves despite outward appearances).

It’s really no wonder that so much of the past few months has felt like sports. Sports are fun! And so is this, in a perverse way. The plot has become almost entirely about the ego-versus-superego struggle that, at least on my timeline anyway, most of the time people aren’t even talking about Covid anymore. It honestly makes complete sense that the urgent topic among the elites’ timelines today isn’t a society-threatening virus or generational economic devastation, but instead, the question of “how much guilt should other people be allowed to make you feel?” That honestly is the meta-topic right now. 

So yeah, I’m going to go ahead and call it, it got worse. Can’t wait to see what October 17th, 2020 will look like! In all seriousness, I think there’s a fair amount of insight into our current moment that you can acquire by reading old books. Human psychology hasn’t changed that much. Unfortunately, reading Freud and then writing a blog about it might get you cancelled, so that might be an issue, but hey. Read some C.S. Lewis or something, if you’d rather. Whatever works for you! 

Stay safe, and wear a mask. 

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