A congressman who taunts a colleague with allusions to the potential for violence associated with her religion and ethnicity, an executive leader of a nation who favors humiliating insults to reasoned arguments; popularity and mean-spirited competitiveness played out on ubiquitous social media. It seems our society has been becoming an increasingly hostile place to live. Is it becoming so or are we just less tolerant to the differences amongst us that have always existed?
These two possibilities needn’t be mutually exclusive; in fact, it seems quite likely they are causally related. As the world grows painfully smaller by the decade, it is becoming more and more difficult to disregard the ramifications of our attitudes and actions, from ethnocentricism and the political correctness of identity politics to the neglectful management of limited resources and disposal of its waste. We are living in an echo chamber, an age when the adage, “what goes around comes around,” is becoming more real.
A New Self in a Shrinking World
The tensions brought on by population growth that are “real,” such as competition for diminishing resources and clashes of political and religious ideologies, though problems in and of themselves, may belie the more trenchant psychological effects of living in a smaller, enclosed lifeworld. Research has shown that rats living in tight confinements quickly turn on one another, perhaps not just to protest what looms as a potential threat to survival it poses, but in response to the pressure and antipathy forced, tight quarters engender. The invasion of privacy and voyeurism of everyday life, the dramatization of world events in real-time broadcast across pan-telecommunications networks of news and social media, and a health pandemic that accentuates not just the inequities among race, class, and political divisions that mark deep-seated culture wars, but also how easily we can transmit disease to one another; living in a shrinking world isn’t the panacea Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” of the 60’s envisioned.
It is time we come to terms with our shrinking lifeworld to rethink how we define psychological health and what constitutes a disorder in the mental health field by rediscovering our fundamental relationality as beings. As such the realm of the “mental” per se transcends our individual minds to encompass a field of thought and behavior that exists amongst us. The psychoanalyst, Harry Stack Sullivan, proposed a term fairly synonymous with this idea he called a “dynamism” when referring to the emotional and behavioral forces that can ensue between any two individuals, an approach that extends the conventional study of personality and its disorders from a strictly individualistic perspective. And the late psychologist, Edward Sampson, coined the term “ensembled” as opposed to “bounded” in an effort to broaden our understanding of how the self may be defined in a more communal way. This paradigm shift represents a rediscovery in that as we begin to confront the world as it is becoming, the more necessary it will likely be to develop qualities, as societies and individuals, that are more communal in nature, broadening the scope of our sense of kinship. Thusly, our sense of responsibility is reinforced by the emotional byproducts of kinship that include identification and empathy.
Much the same as we are compelled to respond to a climate crisis of our planet, we face a spiritual crisis amplified by our thoughts and actions in a shrinking lifeworld. In order to meet this challenge, our psychological health as individuals should be judged not solely on the basis of conventional criteria, such as mental distress, impairment of function at work or in relationships, or distortion of thinking and emotional functioning, but also the extent to which we are engaged in a responsible and empathic way to the world in which we live.
Let us take, for example, malice. Malice, by definition, is the intention or desire to inflict harm toward others. When these emotions are held inside (see my blog on Hatred: Its Nature, Its Origins, and Its Transformation) it can be toxic and when acted upon, untoward consequences are likely to follow. Years of research on interpersonal behavior have made it clear, hostile behavior elicits the same in response. When the “other” is the enemy, often a projection of our own fears, ghosts, and unassimilated selves, the ramifications of this dynamic in a world fitted with nuclear weapons and amplifying social media can spell disaster. Malicious behavior runs the gamut from bullying to sadism. When manifest as a repetitive pattern in a person’s behavioral repertoire we might consider how it can constitute a disorder understood as a spectrum of malicious behaviors that differ with respect to their relative severity.
Apathy and Willful Ignorance
The 20th century philosopher, Hannah Arendt, once observed that the nature of evil is banal. In other words, when we turn a blind eye or become inured to the harm inflicted on others it becomes a moral transgression. An article by Ezra Klein in the New York Times (December 19, 2021) titled, The Gross Cruelty of Factory Farming, brings to our attention how easy it is and, therefore, morally negligent to ignore the banal atrocities of slaughterhouses. The degradation of the environment and toxic influence on our diets are only added-on “real world” effects beyond a much greater cost, the moral injury it should produce.
In a shrinking world the effects of willful ignorance, apathy, and inaction are compounded because we are closer to those whose welfare we ignore, increasing the likelihood that our failure to respond will ultimately come back to punish us for failing to act. Apathy, hence, becomes not just a moral but a psychological disorder when the ramifications of our failure to respond to the concerns of others becomes a self-destructive “act” in two ways: First to our material selves as individuals, for example, when negligent disregard creates resentment and vengeful actions by others toward us or when selfish disregard, such as hoarding vaccines in a pandemic, prolongs the disease for everyone. Second, we do harm to our spiritual selves when we fail to expand our sense of belonging and engagement with a world that is increasingly making it difficult to ignore. Here the price to pay is the failure to mature as human beings through the development of character, generosity, and empathy, qualities of “the mensch” that seem in short supply today. A shrinking world may render what has hitherto been regarded as a virtue of character into becoming a trait that is necessary to adapt to this world and survive.
A World at War with Itself
Citing the 2008 Heller decision that influenced how the second amendment is interpreted today as an example, Linda Greenhouse (The Supreme Court, Weaponized), New York Times, December 19, 2021, raises a concern about how “the long-established understanding that. . . protected a collective right” has been supplanted by an individual one. We needn’t look far to the cultural wars over mandates for wearing masks and vaccinations to find the same moral battles over what constitutes a right being fought. While freedom is one of the sacred precepts upon which this nation was founded, in a world whose population exceeds just one person, freedom without responsibility is tantamount to anarchy. Extending our understanding of what constitutes the psychological self beyond our individuality and its disorders, as has been the tradition in the field of mental health thus far, would promote the likelihood that these moral imperatives, i.e., freedom with responsibility, are followed insofar as they thus become identified as constituting what “we” are about as opposed to us versus them.
Mental Health as a Societal Condition
Equal weight ought to be given to the corresponding influence and responsibility our cultural institutions bear on the psychological health of its constituents as well. This would include the inhabitants of its lifeworld, we the individuals who live in and are thereby affected by its power to influence how we think and live our lives. We might, therefore, measure the “mental health” of a culture by the degree to which that culture either endeavors or succeeds in its stated purpose to sustain our quality of life, such as prosperity, freedom, equality, etc., an idea I had first proposed in an article published in 1997 titled, “Collective Will: A Reformulation of Otto Rank’s Theory of Personality Individuation,” in The Psychoanalytic Review. Such a proposal would serve not only to hold society accountable for its moral obligations according to the ramifications of these judgments that would be assigned to them on psychological grounds, it would also serve to destigmatize mental health because, historically, it has been predicated as a problem belonging solely to individuals. Removing stigma would promote receptivity to mental health services, especially for those who refuse for these reasons.
Morality as a Psychological Concern
Purpose, knowledge, recklessness, negligence. These are the dimensions by which culpability may be judged. Their assigned levels of putative intent have traditionally been the concerns and domain for both our criminal justice system and religious institutions. These institutions have always served society by helping to regulate human behavior that honors our sense of responsibility to one another as members of a civil society. However, the power of these social institutions to regulate human behavior relies primarily on punishment and guilt. While guilt might represent a more evolved form of self-control because its source is internal, both are punitive in nature. And while religion also sends a message about universal love and understanding, its dogmas throughout history have given us reason to question whether this message is as powerful as the divisiveness they sow. Assigning these moral qualities instead to a judgment about psychological health by situating moral behavior more firmly within our breadth of identification, unfettered by the divisiveness of ideology, promotes our evolution as a species even further. Empathy represents a more evolved form of self-control inasmuch as it relies on kinship, i.e., identification, and understanding. Moral behavior may follow organically, therefore, as a function of how we are able to extend our sense of identity toward “the other” and the whole world in which we live of which we ultimately are both a part and that exists in us.
To act, as such, in malice, with purpose and knowledge is to act with intent. Thus, moral judgment may be easily assigned. Even though willful ignorance and apathy, by contrast, imply negligence with respect to any conscious intention, culpability may be assigned here as well because it still remains that one chooses not to be aware, much less, even, not to act. In today’s world the consequences of the choices we make as individuals or by society become magnified, if not urgently forced upon us. For this reason, the inferences about how responsibly we choose to act, whether intentional or not, should be understood as a function of our state of psychological health in those respects that make us accountable to ourselves and others, first, and then to raise our awareness so that we can appreciate the far-reaching ramifications of these decisions for the rest of the world and our futures. This is so not just because it is more plausible but evident for the sake that we as practitioners and policy makers must realize this, more than ever, is the most productive source from which we may begin to address our problems.
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Robert Hamm Ph.D