Category Archives: Identity

The Making of a Lone Wolf Terrorist

By Liah Greenfeld

A beheading in a workplace, a hatchet attack on a busy street, a shooting in a public high school – events following so closely one upon another and amid others, in a way very much like them, just across the border, in Canada – seemingly irrational, shocking, and yet already quite expected, they make one’s head spin. What’s going on around us – in the best, most prosperous, most open, liberal, societies on earth, most dedicated to the values of freedom and equality, most vigilant about safeguarding human rights? It cannot escape one’s attention that these hair-raising events, which happen with oppressive regularity, happen precisely in such societies – our own United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain.

Is it a coincidence that the frequency of random shootings, without a clear ideological motivation (such as yesterday’s tragedy near Seattle, the Newton massacre, or the one in a Colorado movie theater) increases together with that of targeted ideologically motivated attacks? No, it is not. These tendencies are related. To begin with, both kinds of violence are irrational in the sense of not being able to benefit the individual committing it in any objective way and often implying a great cost to this individual. At the same time, random violence without a clear ideological motivation is a phenomenon different from ideologically motivated violence.

These phenomena are related but different. They are related through a common social cause which leads to different psychological effects. These effects then, under certain conditions, may result in these two different kinds of violent behavior. Such enabling conditions, in the case of ideologically motivated violence, obviously include the specific motivating ideology. But it is important to understand that the elimination of the specific ideology, won’t eliminate the primary cause of such violence (the social cause), or its secondary cause (the psychological effects of the social cause), and that any other ideology can take the place of the one that is eliminated.

The primary – social – cause responsible for the frequency of irrational violence in the United States and other open, prosperous and liberal, societies is the systemic inability of such societies to offer individuals within them consistent guidance in the construction of their own individual identities. (In social science such systemic inability is called anomie). The very values of our societies – equality and liberty in the sense of freedom of choice for how to define oneself and live one’s life – forces our societies to leave the construction of their own identities to the individuals themselves. In less open societies (for example, in religious societies, in societies with strong secular norms, or rigid systems of stratification) one learns who one is from the environment, depending on the social position to which one is born. In our societies, given the fundamental equality, and interchangeability, of all their members, one is left free to choose who to be. A personal identity is our cognitive map, everyone must have it to know what one’s rights and duties, expectations, relationships with other, and behavior in general are and should be. An identity, this cognitive map, tells us how to live our lives. In our open societies, we have no help from the outside in construction such a map. For many of us this is a great boon: we love the freedom and the control of our destinies this gives us. But for many others this is a heavy psychological burden, a task they cannot accomplish.

Our sense of self and, therefore, our mental comfort (sense of ease or dis-ease) depend on having a clear and stable identity. People with malformed identities go through life confused and insecure, they are uncomfortable with themselves and maladjusted socially, because they never know who they are and where they belong. They lack an inner compass. A minority of them develops a functional mental disease as a result, which can be diagnosed as schizophrenia, manic depression, or major unipolar depression. Such disease is called “functional,” because, while the organic bases of it are uncertain and in many cases no organic irregularity may exist at all, the people who suffer from it lose the ability to function in society. They may be unable to distinguish between what happens in their mind and outside, taking one for the other, their maladjustment becomes an acute distress, and they cannot control themselves. This impairment of will – the immediate cause of their inability to function – most commonly expresses itself in a complete lack of motivation, but can also be expressed in uncontrollable actions which the individual feels are either willed by some force beyond him/herself, which must be obeyed, or are actually committed by someone else populating his/her body. The phrases “I was not myself,” “I was out of my mind” in retrospective accounts of such actions reflect these feelings. Given this impairment of will in clinically mentally ill individuals, it is extremely unlikely for such individuals to be acting under the influence of any shared ideology, though they may develop an elaborate delusion (an ideology entirely their own), which would include some common cultural elements.

In common parlance such truly sick individuals are called “crazy,” “insane.” These terms may convey certain insensitivity, but the understanding behind them, in case of violent crime that comes to trial, justifies insanity defense, because such people cannot be held responsible for their actions. This is not so in regard to ideologically motivated acts of irrational violence. The very fact that the individuals committing such acts shape their behavior (i.e., control their actions) in accordance with an ideology testifies to their fundamental sanity.

The great majority of people who are unable to develop a clear, stable identity in the conditions of anomic, open society, and, as a result, lacking an inner compass, are not mentally ill in this clinical sense. They are confused, insecure, and maladjusted, to be sure, but they can very well distinguish between what is happening in their mind and outside, and, though they can often be unmotivated and moody, their will is not impaired to the point of making them unable to function in society. Their discomfort, the general mental malaise from which they suffer takes many forms: some turn to drugs and alcohol, some become extremely conformist to whatever social circles they frequent (that is, give up their individuality and unreflectively imitate what the others around them are doing and saying), some become envious, and some become very angry. Such disturbed but not insane individuals, in general, become attracted to all kinds of ideologies which justify their feeling uncomfortable in their society, and thus politically available. Those whose psychological discomfort takes mainly the form of envy and anger are likely to be particularly attracted to ideologies which specifically encourage the expression of these feelings, legitimating violence against those the maladjusted individual resents. At this point in the causal chain leading to violence, ideology becomes the enabling condition, and the specific character of the ideology chosen can explain the nature of violence and its targets.

[Originally published on Psychologytoday.com]

Love, Madness, Terrorism: Connected?

By Liah Greenfeld

In the 16th century, in England, several remarkable things happened:

Social mobility, inconceivable before, became legitimate and common;

The ideal of Romantic love between a man and a woman emerged and “true love,” as we understand it today, was added to the human emotional range;

The word “people,” which earlier referred to the lower classes, became synonymous with “nation,” which at the time had the meaning of “an elite”;

Numerous new words appeared, among them “aspiration,” “happiness,” and “madness”;

The English society, previously a society of hierarchically arranged orders of nobility, clergy, and laborers under the sovereignty of God and his Vicar in Rome, was redefined as a sovereign community of equals;

The nature of violent crime, personal and political, changed, with crime that was not rational in the sense of self-interested becoming much more common;

The attitude to pets, especially dogs and cats, changed, transforming these animals in many cases from living multi-purpose tools to our friends and soul-mates;

The pursuit of growth — rather than survival, as was the case before – became the goal of the economy;

Mental diseases which were later to be named “schizophrenia,” “manic-depressive illness,” and “depression” were first observed, shifting the interest of the medical profession, in particular, from other, numerous, mental diseases that were known since the times of antiquity.

Continue reading

“What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?”

Shane Koyczan, in his March 2013 TED Talk (HT Farnam Street Blog):

I hid my heart under the bed because my mother said if your not careful someday someone’s gonna break it. Take it from me, under the bed is not a good hiding spot. I know because I’ve been shot down so many times I get altitude sickness just from standing up for myself. But that’s what we were told, stand up for yourself. That’s hard to do if you don’t know who you are. We are expected to define ourselves at such an early age, and if we didn’t do it, others did it for us. Geek. Fatty. Slut. Fag.

And at the same time we were being told what we were, we were being asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always thought that was an unfair question. It presupposes that we can’t be what we already are. We were kids. … They asked me what I wanted to be then told me what not to be. … I was being told to accept the identity that others will give me.

Liah Greenfeld in Mind, Modernity, Madness:

Why do the secular focus of nationalism and the two principles embodied in the society constructed on its basis lead to madness–or schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness? All three of these features place the individual in control of his or her destiny, eliminating the expectation of putting things right in the afterlife, making one the ultimate authority in deciding on one’s priorities, encouraging one to strive for a higher social status (since one is presumed to be equal to everyone, but one wants to be equal only to those who are superior) and giving one the right to choose one’s social position (since the presumption of fundamental equality makes everyone interchangeable) and therefore identity. But this very liberty, implied in nationalism, both empowering and encouraging the individual to choose what to be–in contrast to all the religious pre-national societies, in which no one was asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” since one was whatever one was born–makes the formation of the individual identity problematic, and the more so the more choices for the definition of one’s identity a society offers and the more insistent it is on equality. A clear sense of identity being a condition sine qua non for adequate mental functioning, malformation of identity leads to mental disease, but modern culture cannot help the individual to acquire such clear sense, it is inherently confusing. This cultural insufficiency–the inability of a culture to provide individuals within it with consistent guidance–was named anomie by Durkheim.

Though realized in vastly different ways (depending on the manner in which this form of consciousness developed in a particular society), the three principles of nationalism–secularism, egalitarianism, and popular sovereignty–affect the formation of the individual identity in nations necessarily. A member of a nation can no longer learn who or what s/he is from the environment, as would an individual growing up in an essentially religious and rigidly stratified, non-egalitarian order, where everyone’s position and behavior are defined by birth and divine providence. Beyond the very general category of nationality, a modern individual must decide what s/he is and should do, and thus construct one’s identity oneself. Schizophrenia and depressive (bipolar and unipolar) illnesses, I argue, are caused specifically by the values of equality and self-realization, which make every individual one’s own maker–and the rates of such mental disease increase in accordance with the extent to which a particular society is devoted to these values, inherent in the nationalist image of reality, i.e., in the national consciousness, and the scope allowed to the freedom of choice in it. This turns the prevailing view of the mental diseases in question upside down.

The Psychology of Terrorism

John M. Grohol, founder and editor-in-chief of PsychCentral, writes in “The Psychology of Terrorism“:

“Arie Kruglanski PhD, co-director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), conducted a study that surveyed thousands of people in 15 countries. In the yet-unpublished research, he found that ‘Muslims who have a more collectivistic mentality are more likely to support terrorist attacks against Americans than those with more individualistic leanings. The research also found that the lower people’s reported personal success in life, the greater their tendency to endorse collectivistic ideas and to support attacks against Americans. The findings suggest that joining terrorist groups may confer a sense of security and meaning that people do not feel as individuals.’ …     Continue reading

Schizophrenia and Manic-Depressive Illness: What do We Know about Biological Causes?

By David Phillipi

While the technological advancements of recent decades allow us to map the human genome and look at the brain on the molecular level, the enormous amount of data that has been amassed is virtually useless for psychiatrists trying to diagnose their sick patients because the assumed biological causes of schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness have not been found. No brain abnormalities that are specific to either illness or present in all cases have been identified. Nevertheless, the experts who study and treat schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness (MDI) keep the faith (quite literally) that a breakthrough is just around the corner.

For years, genetic research has appeared to be the most promising of the recently opened avenues, but the excitement seems unwarranted by the findings. The relatively large number of chromosomal regions which may be implicated in susceptibility for bipolar disorder means that hope of finding a specific bipolar gene or even a small number of genes must be given up. Some researchers think the way to go is to narrow the search by looking for genes associated with specific aspects of the disease. Of course, this further refinement is only possible because of the huge variation in symptoms and experiences of those who fall under the MDI/bipolar umbrella, and we are once again reminded of the difficulty of defining what this illness or group of illnesses even is. Furthermore, even the distinction between schizophrenia and MDI seems to collapse in light of the genetic linkage data. In Manic-Depressive Illness: Bipolar Disorders and Recurrent Depression (2nd Edition), Drs. Frederick Goodwin and Kay Redfield Jamison write:

While the search for predisposing genes had traditionally tended to proceed under the assumption that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are separate disease entities with different underlying etiologies, emerging findings from many fields of psychiatric research do not fit well with this model. Most notably, the pattern of findings emerging from genetic studies shows increasing evidence for an overlap in genetic susceptibility across the traditional classification categories. (49)

Genetic studies in the schizophrenia research community lead to pretty much the same hypothesis as with bipolar: genetic susceptibility is most likely polygenic, meaning dependent on the total number of certain genes which may contribute to vulnerability. It must be noted that genetic vulnerability is a condition, not a cause of schizophrenia and bipolar – something else must be acting on this vulnerability. In one way or another, this fact is usually noted in the literature that deals with genetic data, but it is often obscured by a tone of confidence which suggests the information may be more meaningful and explanatory than it truly is.

Even when a specific gene has been well studied across illnesses, its usefulness in understanding genetic susceptibility may be extremely limited. Some studies in both schizophrenia and MDI have found an increased risk of illness for those who possess the short form of the serotonin transporter promoter gene 5-HTT. The thing is, each of us has two copies of this gene, and over two-thirds of us have one long and one short form, meaning that having the normal variant of the gene is the risk factor! If most of us possess a gene which puts us at risk for an illness which only a small minority of people have, then this particular trait is obviously not much of a causal explanation.

Continue reading