Thursday, February 23, 2012

America and the Eighth Sin: Psychosocial dynamics of the cultivation of innocence

The following article is from the Journal of Religion and Health, Winter, 2006 and was written by Ryan Lamothe.

ABSTRACT: In this article, I argue that the cultivation of innocence in the United States, coupled with policies of free market expansionism, the acquisitiveness of capitalism, rising militarism, the hubris of democratic evangelism, free market fundamentalism, and the immense U.S. militaristic and economic power, is an especially fatal sin. In general, I contend that nurturing innocence involves overlooking the inadvertent and advertent destruction and suering that has resulted from U.S. interventionist policies and actions in the 20th and 21st centuries. Finally, I argue that the cultivation of innocence, which is often supported by Christian theological language, contradicts central Christian beliefs.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 4

Part 3: Psychosocial dynamics of the cultivation of innocence

Every sin, one could argue, carries a unique psychosocial signature of moti vations and defenses (cf. Capps, 1987; Schimmel, 1992; LaMothe, 2002). Time and space limit a thorough examination of the cultivation of innocence in terms of defenses and motivations, though I wish to identify several key psychosocial features associated with this sin, namely, adhesive identification, weak dissociation, rationalization, and the refusal to surrender. These psy chological defenses may be further understood as socially shared ways of organizing experience. This said, defenses are usually understood as intra psychic processes and are inherently reductive when applying them to such complex phenomena as social behavior and identity. I do not make any claims that these are definitive explanations, though I believe they are heuristic.

Bick's (1968) and Meltzer's (1975) research into the psychological life of infants coined the terms "adhesive identification" and "adhesive identity," which they argued was a more primitive or earlier form of narcissistic iden tification. Their work with adult patients and observations of autistic infants led them to question the idea of object identification. Infants, they noted, appear to cling adhesively to their mother's body and to other surfaces, which they believed is the infant's attempt to obtain a sense of contact for the sake of psychic integration and avoidance of annihilation anxiety. They also found this concept helpful in understanding some adult patients, though the concept was further differentiated between normal developmental adhesive identifi cation and defective adhesive identification as seen, for example, in schizo phrenia (Grotstein, 1977). Tustin emended this view, adding the term "adhesive equation." "In adhesive equation," Tustin argued, the 'subject' feels the same as the 'object' (no space between them) while in adhesive identifi cation the 'subject' feels similar to the 'object' (there is space between them)" (in Mitrani, 1995, p. 355). What these theorists were identifying was a manner of organizing experience and relating whereby the subject and object were, from an epistemological point of view, inseparable, which is not identical to the psychoanalytic idea of merger. There is, in other words, an epistemological confusion between the subject and the subject's object, which was, in part, motivated by the need for psychic integration, a sense of going on being, to quote Winnicott (1971), and conversely to avoid annihilation anxiety?that is, the loss of the object means a corresponding loss of self or disintegration.

At first glance, then, the concept would not seem to fit well with routine, non-pathological forms of adult social interactions. Yet, I am suggesting, following in the footsteps of Loewald (2000), Mitchell (2000), and Ogden (1989), that if we understand adhesive identification to refer to cognitive processes implicated in a particular pattern of organizing experience (and relating), then one could identify traces of this early form of identification in some adult interactions. In other words, Ogden argued that "human experi ence is the product of the dialectical interplay of three modes (autistic-con tiguous, paranoid-schizoid, and depressive) of generating experience.... Each mode creates, preserves, and negates the other" (p. 4). Adult organizations of experience and relating, then, comprise earlier cognitive process. The pres ence of intense anxiety may hyperactivate one or more modes. In the case of adhesive identification, those cognitive processes associated with perception of the object as inextricably a part of the self are present in normal and patho logical adult behaviors

In terms of the cultivation of innocence, traces of adhesive identification are found in the intense and rigid idealization, if not, glorification of American identity. The belief in America's divine mission or special place in history signifies a transcendent belief that corresponds to an unconscious clinging to a cherished idea that provides people a sense of identity or going on being. Put differently, there is an illusion wherein persons unconsciously believe that the survival of the object (U.S. as a constellation of representations, ideas, and values) will secure their sense of going on being, even if one dies. The object, while rationally viewed as distinct, is, at the unconscious level, one with the subject. Critiquing or challenging the object evokes intense anxiety (trans formed into more manageable affect like rage and hostility) associated with the loss of one's identity and sense of going on being. Contrived innocence is the opposite of critique, ambiguity, and paradox, reflecting a purity or oneness with the adored object to which tenaciously clings.

The underside of innocence and, correspondingly, the underside of intense and rigid emotional identification with a cherished object are hatred and hostility. Consider the bumper sticker, "America, Love it or Leave It," which signifies and communicates a shared and underlying hostility and anger. The bumper sticker is aimed at those who question and critique American policies. The motivation is to split off or get rid of persons who challenge or question the United States, preserving the unblemished ideal of being American. This desire also signifies a form of attachment wherein the object (U.S. as a con stellation of representations, ideas, and values) is identical to or indistin guishable from the subject. Those who question or reject certain shared beliefs are a threat to this prized identity. The notion that one cannot simultaneously question and critique and be a "true" American indicates there is a confusion of the subject with the subject's object. Stated another way, the inability or refusal to recognize the object's inadequacies signifies an unconscious belief that the subject and the object are one. To critique the object is a threat to the subject?a subject entirely dependent on the object. This said, there is nothing inherently pathological about a person's use of this bumper sticker, though in my view it is a cultural artifact that represents cognitive processes associated with adhesive identification and the defense against intense anxiety associ ated with the loss of one's sense of going on being.

Another psychological feature of the cultivation of innocence is weak dis sociation. Dissociation refers to a defense whereby a representation and affect "escape the control of consciousness and develop independently" (Ellenberger, 1970, p. 371) and entails "a contraction of the field of consciousness" (in Me ares, 2000, p. 45). While dissociation represents unformulated experience that escapes consciousness and symbolization, it is important to point out that the person is "organizing his mind in a way that protects the good self and other from persecution and dread of annihilation" (Keylor, 2003, p. 219). Stern (1997) argued that narrative rigidity, which is a complex form of organizing one's mind, is an example of dissociation in the weak sense. An inflexible narration means that other ideas, meanings, values, and affects are excluded and, therefore, remain unformulated. This "passive indirect, because it is a consequence of so insistently turning our attention elsewhere that we never even notice alternative understandings. Focal attention under these conditions is controlled by the intention to enforce narrative rigidity" (p. 132). Hostility and rage toward alternative renderings of American intentions and actions signify the presence of a rigid narrative and narration. In terms of the cultivation of innocence, weak dissociation is manifested whenever persons continue to rely on story lines that protect against inter pretations associated with blame, responsibility for harm, repentance, loss of power and prestige, and loss of an idealized self-image.

Consider the stories told in the U.S. about the reasons for invading Iraq. As it began to be clear that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration relied on the tried-and-"true" American myth of bringing freedom, democracy, and market economy to Iraq and the Middle East. For the most part, the American media, which may have tentatively questioned the reasons for going to war, supported this story. It is not that this story was false. Rather, that it was told and re-told so that it crowded out other inter pretations and perspectives that would contradict more altruistic claims. For example, Iraq was militarily and economically weak as well as estranged from most of its Arab neighbors. Thus, it was a prime target for the United States to further establish military and economic power in a region that is rich in oil (Bacevich, 2005). In a world where oil is the lifeblood of "advanced" (a term also associated with weak dissociation) economies, the most powerful country wants to have influence, if not control, over a region that produces most of the world's oil. In so doing, the U.S. solidifies its hegemony. This interpretation of mere self-interest in maintaining hyperpower status contradicts altruistic claims about bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq.

Closely associated with weak dissociation, Stern (1997) argued, is ratio nalization. The function of rationalization "is to render material acceptable, understandable, comfortable, straightforward; to rob it of all puzzling elements" (Bartlett, in Stern, p. 136). Put differently, rationalization simpli fies reality by eschewing anything that would contradict cherished meanings that conflict with an idealized identity. Rationalization undergirds Baldwin's view that Americans "have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions, into a proud decoration" (1955, p. 31). Bacevich (2005) also noted that "new American militarism draws much of its sustaining force from myth?stories created to paper over incongruities and contradictions that pervade the American way of life" (p. 97). Our narratives and narrations are inextricably yoked to rationalizations that transform ugly consequences into beauty and wickedness into righteousness.

The power of these rationalizations resides in the fact that they signify, to some degree, truths. For example, the story told about the recent invasion of Iraq was that American soldiers were sent to liberate Iraqis from a despot. Clearly, this is partly true. Many Iraqis were oppressed and were initially happy to be rid of Saddam Hussein. However, this rationalization screens out the fact that the United States does not overthrow all despots. It denies the self-interested motivation to secure Middle East oil production for economic purposes. Rationalization is so powerful because it parleys a small truth into an overarching truth that shields one from other viewpoints that contradict the posited truth. In brief, weak dissociation and it s partner, rationalization, support a contrived innocence, smoothing over anything that would contradict our stories and simplify complex reality.

Adhesive identification, weak dissociation, and rationalization are symp tomatic of the refusal to surrender. The idea of surrender may be a frightening word in a nation that is an empire and for those interested in maintaining the illusion of innocence. Yet, surrender is one's willingness to be open to, moved by, and shaped by the other's subjectivity (cf. Ghent, 1990). It is a willingness to learn from the other person with the aim of understanding him/her, which does not necessarily mean agreement. To surrender also implies openness to correction as well as perspectives and experiences that differ from one's own. This said, surrender does not mean abdicating one's views or submitting to coercive demands. Rather, it means being able to create space to hold other perspectives in tension. The creation of this space helps "us to rid ourselves of the habit of always hearing only what we already understand" (Heidegger, 1971, p. 58).

The refusal to surrender to the other's needs, experiences, and desires is embedded in the cultivation of innocence. To cultivate innocence means holding onto na?ve and simplistic perspectives and avoiding contact with anyone who might raise the specter of error, self-interest, greed, and entitle ment. In other words, the refusal to surrender is a defense against being moved and shaped by the other. For example, in the debates leading up to the second Iraq War, many Americans agreed with Rumsfeld's critique of "Old Europe." There were calls to ban French products and Germany was viewed as having betrayed the U.S. As far as I could tell, there was little evidence of U.S. administration and American citizens listening to and being open to perspectives that differed from the expectations and demands of the U.S. government. Indeed, I recall one gentleman angrily denouncing the French for not supporting the U.S., especially after we liberated France in 1944. Apparently, aiding in the liberation of another country forever binds it to the liberator.

In my view, the underlying motivation for this refusal to surrender to those who differed was fueled by anxiety. Like any refusal to surrender, anxiety is linked to change and an underlying sense that one will have to "surrender" one's control. In other words, the refusal to surrender represents a desire to be invulnerable and the underside of this desire is the wish to dominate the other?to subjugate the other to one's views. If the "other" continues to differ or is viewed as resisting, then one can expect the response to be one of rejection and attack, which makes the possibility of surrender even more remote.

In a country where people understand and accept hyperpower status, the idea of surrender is equated with treason, submission, and loss. Indeed, the very idea contradicts the intended policies of expanding U.S. economic and military power throughout the world (Johnson, 2004). Of course, the idea of surrender and its cognate, vulnerability, are probably inimical to any gov ernment, yet I am suggesting that citizens who adhere to U.S. innocence rely on this and other defenses to secure an indestructible sense of individual and collective identity that is free from the taint of failure, disappointment, shame, and guilt. When people are assured of their innocence there is no hope for the kind of vulnerability associated with forgiveness and reparation.

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