Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Devil in the Details

"But good people, heroic people, are led into temptation by their very goodness — by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind. It’s precisely in the service to these supposed higher responsibilities that they often let more basic ones slip away." –Ross Douthat, The Devil and Joe Paterno, The New York Times, Nov. 13, 2011

After reading a column like the one Mr. Douthat wrote for today’s paper, I am left wondering if his failings are intellectual, psychological, or both. Since Anna Freud published The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense in 1937, professional and amateur psychologists alike have had no excuse not to be aquainted with the concept of identification with the aggressor, the role it plays in individual moments of psychic conflict, or how for some it becomes the basis for pervasive aspects of character.

It can be difficult for anyone, when faced with the immolation of a victim by an aggressor, to take up identification with the vulnerable party and not identify with the powerful abuser. This is a human frailty in a moment of stress, and it might make us understand the psychic fortitude it would have taken for Mike McQueary and Joe Paterno to go directly to legal authorities and report a crime where a crime had been committed. We should not, however, engage in the ongoing idealization that Douthat evidences when confronted with the unsalutary effects of this psychic operation as it played out in these men’s behavior. No, it is not in service to higher responsibilities that a usually-moral individual fails the test of siding with a helpless innocent human being who is being violated; it is in fact an identification with the wrong party that leads to this behavior.

When such a pattern of identification is habitual it is evident in sociopathic behavior, and in individuals with such character, actual generosity and sacrifice are rarely seen.

When such a pattern of identification is aberrant, we might understand that it occurred in particular circumstances, where the identification with the aggressor was already strong for other reasons, as it was with McQeary and Paterno and their colleague Sandusky. Such an indentification with the wrong party, morally, might be out of character for an individual. What it is not, as Douthat lamely offers, is in any way a product of heroism, or superior moral character. That idea is an insult to all the individuals who would have made the right choice and called the police.

In the movie Female Perversions, Tilda Swinton plays Eve Stevens, one of two sisters struggling with the effects of growing up in the milieu of their parents’ marriage. In a pivotal scene, Eve is talking with her sister, Maddie (played by Amy Madigan), about events of a particular day in their childhood, which have come up recurrently in her dreams. As she asks her sister about her own memories of that day, she describes the first details as she remembers them: The girls were swimming in a backyard pool while their parents played cards with another couple at a poolside table. Their father got enraged and tipped the table over, causing playing cards to end up in the pool. Later that evening, they witnessed their mother coming out to the living room in her robe to try to soothe their father’s hurt pride. When Eve relates the next events that occurred, she makes a factual mistake, and then corrects herself: Their father struck their mother as she approached him in his chair, and she fell to the floor. Eve says, “And then I went to her;” but stops herself. “No,” she admits to herself and to her sister, “I went to him.” For Eve, her original moment of siding with her aggressive father gives her an important avenue into understanding the way in which this identification became generalized and has plagued her throughout her life.

A number of individuals at Penn State need to ask themselves why they came to the aid of Jerry Sandusky and not the boy he was raping in the shower. I am sure they might find layers of rationalization and denial along with their core identification with the offending party. It is an error we all might fall prone to under the right circumstances of psychological vulnerability. What it would not ever be is a product of too much heroism and its effect on our view of daily events.

Mr. Douthat is free to live in a world where powerful institutions that have his sympathy are deemed to be worthy of moral authority. For the life of me, what I can’t understand is how he contrives to consider himself an intellect worth listening to when he lives in a world that is also doggedly pre-Freudian.