A Culture of Contempt
Like the classroom bully always says, “it’s just for a laugh,” but the satire on “5 alternative currencies for an independent Scotland” published this morning might have been mistaken as a poor-taste spoof for the Yes campaign had it not appeared from the Daily Telegraph.
For me, the alarm bells had started sounding back in November when Boris Johnson delivered the Margaret Thatcher Lecture. It wasn’t his invoking the “spirit of envy” that surprised me. It was more his jingoistic boast that what had made Britain great in the past, and what Thatcher had recovered for today, was that we had conquered or invaded fully 90% of the world’s countries.
Then came George Osborne, riding into town last week as a latter day Governor General, to reveal that the Union is not the marriage of equals. A single web comment locked into my mind. The respondent asked, and I paraphrase from memory: “What does this visceral fear of Scottish independence tell us about the psychology of those who oppose it?”
In today’s piece Michael Deacon, the Telegraph’s parliamentary sketchwriter, tells us rather a lot about that psychology. He does so bolstered by many of the reader comments that have thus far accrued to it. Scotland, he suggests in seeming naivety of the sensitivities of poverty and disadvantage, might call its national currency “the radge, the ned, the bampot, the boabie, the smackheid, the schemie, the scaff, the scunner, and the English numpty.” At the end of the day, his parting shot concludes, we could resort to barter where, “for example, if a Scotsman meets an Englishman who has some food, the Scotsman can suggest exchanging the food for the right not to be punched repeatedly in the mouth.”
We’re meant to laugh. But this is the Daily Telegraph, not Private Eye. My first email in response came from Nick Duffell, the author of The Making of Them, a powerful study of the psychopathology of the boarding school mentality. He was writing in connection with his forthcoming book, even more relevant, called Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion. My good English friend Nick with whom I go on holiday every year was so toe-curlingly embarrassed by what was in the Telegraph that he felt moved to apologise in person for his compatriot. Furthermore, he said that he would be sending a donation to a Glasgow charity that specifically devotes its energies to so-called radges, neds, schemies and other post-imperial collateral consequences of intergenerational poverty.
So – what psychology are we looking at in what might now be called the Deacon Syndrome? The tendency – at times apparent on both sides of the independence debate – to take recourse to ill-humour at an almost lavatorial level of infantile regression. Comments like that from “westheadbanger” on today’s Telegraph site – “We all know what currency you use to buy things. It’s got a hole in it and takes a lot of pound…ing.” Psychohistory (or psychological history) looks at how national or subgroup traits often seem to correlate with unresolved or traumatised aspects of a nation’s past. The unhappiness and dysfunctionalities of individuals are the metaphor. Just as a troubled person often had a childhood that blocked or led to the malformation of stages of early psychological development, so too with national identities. “A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle,” said Renan. It comprises a collective of many people. Where a nation or its iconic representatives behave in a narcissistic manner there is reason to suspect a narcissistic wound, a wound to the soul’s primal integrity which results in the formation of a false self. (Of course, opponents to a Yes vote would be quick to argue that such is precisely what independence is about, but it is not for me to argue that point at present).
That narcissistic wound – that ego wound – normally has its roots in having been either the recipient of violence in one form or another, or the administrator of violence, or most often, both interwoven. Alice Miller’s work on child-rearing and national violence, especially amongst the Nazis, is but the most widely read of a considerable raft of psychotherapeutic literature in this field. Our own Glasgow-born R.D. Laing was a pioneer and especially his seminal study, The Divided Self (1959).
Laing lays out a model of the healthy self in which what he calls the “embodied self”, with its all its vitality, engages with others in the world in a meaningful manner. This results in authentic perception being reflected back and therefore, the maintenance of a stable psyche and one might add, a healthy family or community. In contrast, the “schizoid condition” as he called it lacks this direct relationship to reality. Rather, it is intermediated by a “false self” that embodies a “generalised deadness” – narcissistic and by nature, necrophilic. This need to keep up a mask drains life energy from the real self. Laing’s model supposes that psychic collapse comes about when that process advances to such an extent that the real self, the inner self, the soul, starts to wither and fears death.
Violence in whatever form is always a violation of the other, a disruption of right and respectful relationships to what Thomas Merton called “the sanctuary of another’s subjectivity”. When we live in a manner that is habituated to using violence to define our reality and create our collective persona we inevitably live from a false self and find ourselves in inauthentic relationship to others. As with any addiction, this can make us feel “great”, or “Great”, for a while, but sooner or later it saps the soul. It fails to develop the wellsprings of love out of which true and sustained life is born. It leaves us, instead, wallowing in the Freudian id, the thrashings and threshings of the disconnected ego that, devoid of resourcing from the deeper Self, the soul, becomes increasingly expressive of the shadow and all the dark – including the lavatorial and even sadistic humour that go with it.
Psychohistorians believe that these principles apply as much to the collective, as much to community writ large as nations and their states, as they do to individuals and families. A nation that has built itself, in part at least, on violence, harbours the shadow side to its ego of a narcissistic self, like a child that has never grown through its toddler phase of healthy primary narcissism into an empathetic set of adult relationships. Pick the scab of empire, any empire, and you unleash a disturbing potage of anger, hurt feelings, need to be loved, misunderstoodness, and so on. It would be merely sad were it not also so dangerous.
This is covered over when it can be by flaunting national greatness, past invasions of the world, and claiming, as I’m repeatedly told by some senior military and political thinkers, that we must keep Trident so that we can continue to “punch above our weight” in the world. “Why,” I ask them, “should anybody want to punch above their weight, if it is a world of justice that we seek?” There is no clear answer to that, save questionable presumptions of nobles oblige and manifest destiny, or exceptionalism like Putin recently challenged with Obama.
As Laing says in his chapter on “The embodied and the unembodied self”:
Such a schizoid in one sense is trying to be omnipotent by enclosing within his own being, without recourse to relationship with others, modes of relationship that require the effective presence to him of other people and of the outer world. He would appear to be, in an unreal, impossible way, all persons and things to himself. The imagined advantages are safety for the true self, isolation and hence freedom from others, self-sufficiency and control.
The actual disadvantages … [are that] being a false hope, leads on to persistent despair … a persistent, haunting sense of futility [because] this shut-up self, being isolated, is unable to be enriched by outer experience, and so the whole inner world comes to be more and more impoverished, until the individual may come to feel he is merely a vacuum … so dreadful is his inner deadness.
I have many conversations about these questions with conscientious English friends and colleagues, especially professionals – medical, military, police, clergy – whose work can involve grappling with violence. It goes without saying that much of this dynamic is self-evident to grassroots folk who “watch the street”. The pivotal political question is how to call back the soul? My interpretation would be that this is where Scotland is at. We are seeking to redeem the national psyche. However, that puts our teeth on edge, and even more, it puts on edge the teeth of those with whom we are in the closest psychodynamic relationship – our English family and neighbours. For them, it is all the harder, because the very action of us scratching our healing itch picks at the scab on their unrecognised and largely unacknowledged wound.
To me, this is why the blog comments from the English side of the debate in particular are currently so acidic. In their perception, when we touch their “money” and we touch, in psychodynamic terms, their “shit”, their “filthy lucre”, and for psychologically understandable reasons, they’re not going to have us “rolling in it”.
Where from here? We cannot back tread on a healing process. But we must try and be ever so careful – tenderly careful – to ensure that our healing doesn’t entail our backsliding and wallowing in their wound. Mutual awakening needs to be as gentle as possible, and preferably by setting an alternative example, by showing and sharing new openings of the way, rather than a rough un-wooing. A start can be made by considering the points, and perhaps signing, the mediator John Sturrock’s proposed Protocol for Respectful Dialogue. Anything less would leave us vulnerable to a Scotland not worthy of independence. We must respond to the Michael Deacons of this world not by confirming prejudices, but with understanding, and the framing of a bigger picture that offers hope for all, a deepening of authenticity, and a recovery of nothing less than soul.