What Freud Might Tell President Obama
The world stands horrified by the terrorist kidnapping of dozens of Nigerian schoolgirls, feared already “distributed” as sexual slaves and unrecoverable. The additional killing of 125 villagers by the same group confirms their meaningless bloodlust. President Barack Obama has admirably taken action against these violent events and denounced them. Yet, as a psychoanalyst, I was taken aback by his statement that “we have not extinguished man’s darkest impulses.” Our “darkest impulses” have been with us forever and show no sign of abating. To think seriously that they might be extinguished seems oddly naïve from the President of the United States. Sigmund Freud said that the truth..
“which people are so ready to disavow, is that men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. ..Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? ..we cannot forget that we are animals.”—Civilization and Its Discontents (1929)
Elsewhere Freud has spoken about the companion issue of the inevitability of atrocities when men and women are sent to kill in war. Although some may resist the urge to kill for the sake of killing or humiliate or rape others, Freud makes it clear that we should expect these behaviors from our soldiers, precisely because of our animal nature—one that is suppressed by the American system of laws and cultural values (what he calls civilization). Once that authority is removed, it is difficult, perhaps impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. Military psychologists know this well and understand how it contributes to the high rates of homicide, rape, domestic abuse and suicide among returning veterans.
In 1929 Freud proposed the only way to minimize violence, including war, rape, and atrocities was the imposition of order from a strong international organization that wielded real power. At the time he thought it might be the League of Nations, but that hope did not materialize then, nor has it now.
What is notably lacking in the world is a realistic view of human nature, as outlined by Freud, whereby the consequences of sending people to war or inciting violence through rhetoric, sending drones that kill civilians, etc. are better understood. Violence does indeed breed violence and groups of men who feel vulnerable and humiliated will attack those more vulnerable than themselves. In Nigeria, it appears to be men who are probably illiterate wanting to destroy their own young women simply because they can read and learn about the world.
If Freud were alive today he would no doubt say that extinguishing primitive aggressive impulses is an impossibility. And that any success in promoting peace and our gentler nature is dependent on decreasing the amount of violence in the world, no matter who is committing it.