Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Extension of Toxicity

Recently I've spent a lot of time discussing the long-term ramifications of race slavery in America (here and here). But, up until this point, I have focused exclusively on its effects within the African-American community. While it is undeniable that the most serious and damaging effects of this American tradition fell wholly on the enslaved and their descendents, I find it hard to believe that so poisonous a phenomenon could exist within our history without leaving a mark on everyone. In fact, I reject that notion outright.

That said, it is difficult to describe the negative consequences on the enslavers and their descendents because the clear clinical foundation of disorder present within the slave experience is lacking outside that community. Whereas before I could discuss the causes of post-traumatic stress disorder and its symptomatology, the relevant historical experience, and then draw a reasonable inferences from each, in this instance I must move forward without such an established framework. Therefore, I freely admit that my conclusions here will be far more speculative and, as such, debatable. So be it. The discussion has to start someplace.


Normally our behavior is informed by our attitudes and beliefs. We strive, as much as we can, to conform to the constraints laid it down by our knowledge, experience, and conscience. However, there are inevitably times when our behavior strays from the path defined by our better selves. While this misbehavior is generally driven by a degree of self-gratification, it is also accompanied by a measure of discomfort. This discomfort is referred to as cognitive dissonance and you can witness it in your own life any time you act against your better judgment. For example, every smoker knows how unhealthy his habit is, yet he lights up anyway. When he does so, he feels guilt and shame because he knows better.

This dissonance can be extremely uncomfortable. Therefore, we will usually take steps to try to resolve it in some fashion. To do this, we have two options. First, we can avoid the behaviors that trigger it. Unfortunately, we will often find ourselves in situations where that option is untenable. In the example of the smoker, his addiction prevents him from changing his behavior. This leaves us with the only other option: changing our beliefs.

Now, this may successfully resolve the immediate discomfort associated with our cognitive dissonance, but it is not without its consequences. The beliefs that we are abandoning have not been arrived at capriciously -- our life experience has led us to them. Even if they are not completely rational, they almost always have functional merit. Once we release them we also lose whatever benefit they brought to our lives. In extreme cases, releasing them involves literally distorting our perception of reality. As we move forward, our vision is clouded and our actions informed by myths of our own creation. In many cases, the price for our relief can be quite high.


Sigmund Freud was one of the first Western scientist/philosophers to postulate the existence of the unconscious mind. He believed that the great majority of our actions are driven by unconscious motivations of which we are totally unaware. While this theory largely lacks empirical evidence, it is an extremely useful metaphor and has been employed successfully in clinical settings for nearly 100 years. This is especially true when addressing the issue of defense mechanisms.

According to Freud (and his modern adherents), certain emotions may, for a host of reasons, be difficult for us to experience directly. They may simply be too painful, or their expression might be culturally inappropriate. Whatever the reason, Freud theorized that when faced with this situation we will employ what he termed a defense mechanism. In practice, this results in an unconscious redirection of our emotional energy that allows release in a manner that is acceptable to us.

Freud defined eight different defense mechanisms, but for our purposes here I want to focus on only two of them. First, there is repression. This is the process of taking uncomfortable emotions and memories and pushing them out of conscious awareness and into our unconscious mind. Then, there is rationalization. This is when we concoct socially acceptable explanations for otherwise unacceptable thoughts and behaviors. These two mechanisms assist us by either convincing us that our inappropriate emotions or actions are actually OK, or that they simply do not exist.

Unfortunately, there's no free lunch in this world. Our short-term goal of avoiding certain discomforts is achieved, but for this we pay a price. Driving unresolved emotions into the unconscious doesn't eliminate them. We might not experience them directly, however they have a persistent tendency to resurface in unpredictable and neurotic ways. In point of fact, one of the primary goals of psychoanalytic therapy is to identify and consciously reconnect with these emotions, thus eliminating the source of the patient's neuroses. Likewise, rationalization doesn't eliminate problematic behavior, it merely allows it to continue unabated. And both of these mechanisms involve varying degrees of distorted perceptions. As with cognitive dissonance, this relief comes at the expense of one's connection to reality.


What, you might ask, does this have to do with slaveholders? Well, my theory here is that, in order to engage in the practice of owning and cruelly mistreating other human beings, an individual must endure a psychological transformation that leaves him with a seriously distorted sense of what is or is not real and meaningful. Did this occur? It's hard to say, but I do think that there is some evidence for it.

During the mid-17th century, slaveholders were faced with a growing threat to their economic dominance. Remember, as discussed in this earlier post, at this time slaves often achieved freedom after a designated period of service. Moreover, children of slaves were not necessarily slaves themselves. Finally, contemporary Christian doctrine forbade the enslavement of fellow Christians -- allowing slaves to achieve freedom through conversion. Thus, slaveholders were not only being forced to constantly replace the newly freed components of their labor force, but were also competing with an ever-growing population of ex-slaves for agricultural resources. They could have abandoned the deteriorating institution of slavery and moved to a system that was consistent with the values that they held. Yet, they did not and instead completely reinvented their justification for slavery. This put them at odds with other Christians who were not forced to similarly twist their moral compass (ultimately culminating in the bloodiest conflict in American history), but it also put them at odds with themselves and with reality as they understood it.

As time passed, and the inhumanity of the institution exponentially increased, I suspect that it began to offend the conscience of those who engaged in it. True, many seemed barely affected by the cruelties they witnessed. However, a significant percentage of slaveholders were clearly conflicted by the practice. George Washington, who freed his slaves once he passed, and Thomas Jefferson, who maintained a long-standing romantic relationship with a slave, both demonstrate this ambivalence to varying degrees. The prevailing justification for slavery at the time was that slaves were animals, requiring an existence of self-determination no more than a horse or ox. Yet, Washington, Jefferson, and many others observed mountains of evidence that would have contradicted this assertion. Oxen do not plan escapes or stage rebellions. Neither do they recognize family or resist its dissolution through the sale of offspring. Facing these realities would have forced slaveholders to recognize the immorality of their actions and required the institution's dissolution. Instead, they chose to view the world through a rationalization that justified its persistence.

Finally, now that slavery has receded into the distant past, America has collectively "forgotten" the role that it played in our history. Few today realize that America has been a slaveholding nation far longer than it has been a free one. Few realize its regional ubiquitousness, choosing to believe that it existed as an aside on a few Southern plantations. Many otherwise reasonable people assert that slavery was an incidental factor during the American Civil War. And, perhaps most importantly, nearly everyone believes that the consequences of slavery ended with the passage of the 13th amendment. These deep misperceptions reflect a collective repression of a terribly shameful episode in our history. If similar omissions were identified in the recollections of any individual, Freud would no doubt predict its resurgence in behavioral neuroses. Would it be any different for society at large?


In the previous section, I laid out the argument for widespread perceptual distortions within both slaveholding communities and modern society. I admit that direct evidence for these distortions is hard to come by. Likewise, proof of repercussion is equally fleeting. This is largely an exercise in "what if?"

That said, what if?

What if a substantial portion of a population cannot perceive reality as it is? How would its social institutions evolve? How would these misperceptions manifest in public policy? How would they be reflected in society's relationship to the enslaved's descendents?

Honestly, I cannot at this time provide answers to any of these questions. My speculations on these matters would be of no greater value than would be your own. And so, I leave it to you to consider the possibilities.

But let me add one final question.

No matter how you resolve the questions posed above, consider this: how likely is it that the negative consequences of slavery, given established psychological theory, are wholly contained within the downtrodden party? My consideration of this issue has only just begun and I am not yet prepared to wager heavily on any conclusion. However, I know that I am on the right track. The effect is there waiting to be identified, waiting to be named.

Our understanding begins here.

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