tag: Psychology

Aug 2010

Hostile by default?

There were a couple of web forums that I used to participate in which I gave up on last year. I enjoyed the cut-and-thrust of debate and the social aspect, but in one case the political slant of the forum shifted ground and I began to feel my views were less than welcome. The other I abandoned because it became infected by the hostility that appears to characterise so much of internet discussion.

I have since rejoined the former, but a recent visit to the latter revealed that it has descended into little more than a perpetual shouting match. And it’s far from unique. Take the discussions on any high traffic blog, or on news sites that allow comments, and you quickly discover a tirade of insults, accusations and outright nastiness. Any attempt to highlight this unnecessary unpleasantness is itself greeted with accusations of pomposity or passive aggressive behaviour. The participants on these forums have actually created a world where the expectation of civility is unacceptable and is met with incredulity and accusations of aberrant behaviour.

The hostile pose

And there’s a sense in which this saddens me. The internet is an amazing communications tool. Yes, it’s full of pornography, commercial advertising and enough hot air to rival a political convention, but the facility it offers for the exchange of ideas and the discussion of alternative viewpoints is extraordinary.

Yet we are squandering that opportunity.

Decent, intelligent people should be capable of discussing contentious issues without making snide personal remarks. On the internet, hostility has become the first resort rather than the last. And while people point to the anonymous nature of the medium as the reason for this, I’m forced to wonder why that very anonymity doesn’t counteract it. Is there really satisfaction to be gained from belittling a stranger who you will never meet? Being rude to a ghost in a machine may be easy, but what’s the payoff?

I’m no shrinking violet. I’ve fought my way through tough situations, as have most of us. I don’t get offended or hurt by this obnoxious behaviour, but I do get a little depressed. Depressed that this is how people treat one another by default. When there is no direct feedback involved, no person in front of you looking startled at the level of hostility you adopt for no obvious reason, we appear willing — indeed eager — to adopt that hostility. When it would be just as easy to assume a respectful and civil attitude as our initial starting point.

Such a shame.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Oct 2009

Is AA Gill a psychopath?

OK, first up, let’s be clear about a couple of things. Although I have a Masters Degree in Psychoanalytic Studies, I’ve remained (as yet, anyways) in the academic side of the discipline. I have no clinical training or experience and am not professionally qualified to assess anyone’s mental health. I believe my grasp of theory is pretty strong by now, but diagnosis is its own unique set of skills and I make no claim to them.

Secondly, my entire knowledge of British restaurant critic, AA Gill, is gleaned from a single article in The Guardian containing but one or two direct quotations from the man. I’ve never read his writing as restaurant criticism doesn’t interest me in the slightest. So even if I did have the requisite clinical training, I don’t have anywhere like sufficient data to make a diagnosis.

I wanted to declare this because some of my regular readers, knowing my area of study, may assume that I’m making some kind of formal diagnosis here. That’s just not the case. On top of that, there’s a chance — albeit a slim one — that I may decide to pursue clinical psychoanalysis at some point in the future and I don’t want to be on record as doing anything so sloppy or unethical as making a public diagnosis of a person. Especially based upon such limited data. Even Freud himself, who was arguably rather cavalier about rushing to a diagnosis, would have balked at such a thing.

Nonetheless, when a person announces to the media that they have travelled to Africa and shot a baboon for the express purpose of getting “a sense of what it might be like to kill someone”, then they are pretty much inviting a public analysis of their behaviour. Such extreme, and I’d suggest spectacularly misjudged, pronouncements cannot be expected to remain unanalysed. Any semi-intelligent person who tells the world that they have an urge to be “a recreational primate killer” (his words) having already admitted that they were merely using the baboon as a stand-in for a human being, must accept that those of us in the field of psychoanalysis (whether academic or clinical) will inevitably view his comments through the lens of our learning.

And quite frankly, it’s a lens that does not show Mr. Gill’s claims and behaviour in a positive light. The Guardian article includes the following paragraph which — along with the “recreational primate killer” comment — reveals, I’d argue, a very dark aspect of his personality…

Gill admitted he had no good reason for killing the animal. “I know perfectly well there is absolutely no excuse for this,” he wrote. “There is no mitigation. Baboon isn’t good to eat, unless you’re a leopard. The feeble argument of culling and control is much the same as for foxes: a veil for naughty fun. I wanted to get a sense of what it might be like to kill someone, a stranger. You see it in all those films: guns and bodies, barely a close-up of reflection or doubt. What does it really feel like to shoot someone, or someone’s close relative?”

Those last four words are what lifts Gill’s statements out of mere testosterone-fueled bloodlust (which, sadly, we must accept is too common an element of human psychology to warrant classification as being extremely abnormal) and into something a little more chilling. The desire to kill is not itself psychopathic, but the specific urge to inflict the grief of bereavement upon a stranger’s family is certainly moving in that direction.

To then go one step further and act upon that fantasy suggests the sort of escalation in Gills’ “urges” that would almost certainly concern a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst if they witnessed it in one of their patients. It’s a cliché in fiction, but it is nonetheless true; violent psychopaths begin with fantasies of killing people, progress to killing animals, discover it doesn’t fulfill the urge they feel and, the worst of them, wind up going further. They often revel in — to the point of receiving a powerful sexual charge from — the suffering they have caused to those around their primary victim. It’s an extreme form of sadism.

Given this, one is forced to wonder whether perhaps Gill’s decision to publicly announce his sadistic fantasies might not be a cry for help?

“Stop me before I kill again.”

UPDATE 11:56: One commenter writes… “I’m gonna shoot AA Gill to get a sense of what it’s like to kill a baboon”. Well, it made me laugh.

11 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jun 2008

Referendum Day

Well I’m just back from casting my ‘No’ vote. I had a brief chat with one of the people running the polling station who told me that turn-out has been quite low so far (though from what she’s heard, it’s a good deal lower elsewhere). Of course, there’s still another couple of hours to go and traditionally the 7pm to 9pm slot is busiest out here in the commuter-belt.

All of the media reports thus far seem to suggest that it’s going to be very very close indeed, but that a low turn-out could present problems for the ‘Yes’ campaign given that anti-Lisbon sentiment appears to be more deeply-held than the pro-Lisbon line.

It’s the first time I’ve ever voted in a referendum as it happens (it’s the first one we’ve had since my return to Ireland) and although I’m actually quite divided on this issue, the sections of the Treaty which appear to tie Europe to a disastrous energy policy were just enough to nudge me from abstention into voting against it.

I firmly believe in the European project and in a stronger European Union, which is why I’m so dismayed at this treaty. I’d much rather be voting in favour of closer integration, but not if it means giving my tacit support to the building of new nuclear power stations.

Incidentally, I’m 100% convinced that I could have won this referendum for the ‘Yes’ campaign by quite a decent margin (which may yet happen, of course). Having listened to several debates, as well as the impassioned pleas of politicians (almost always in favour of the treaty), there’s one clear trick that’s been missed. A month ago, the ‘Yes’ campaign should have kicked off like this…

John Bowman: Good evening, and welcome to Questions & Answers. This week, amongst other things, sees the beginning of the Lisbon referendum campaign and our panel tonight will be discussing the treaty. Our first question comes from Nancy Peterson.

Audience member (Nancy): Simply put, could the panel explain why we should — or should not — vote for this treaty?

JB: Straightforward enough, one would think, why should we vote for, or against, the Lisbon treaty? First to Trade and Employment Minister, Billy Kelleher. Minister, presumably you support the Fianna Fáil position in favour of the treaty? Why should Nancy, and our other viewers, vote ‘Yes’?

Billy Kelleher: Good evening John, Nancy, ladies and gentlemen. There’s no question that the Lisbon Treaty is a difficult document to digest, but if you persevere with it then you discover that it’s a very very positive step not just for Europe as a whole, but also for us here in Ireland. I’ve heard it said, with no little contempt I might add, that voting for Lisbon is voting with your wallet. Frankly I find that insulting. Voting for this treaty is the right thing to do in principle, and I honestly doubt that many of those who will vote ‘Yes’ on June 12th will be doing so out of purely selfish motives………

And from that moment on; every time the ‘Yes’ campaign put forward its case in the media, it should have been accompanied by the phrase “voting with your wallet” in that same, throwaway, “actually we want to distance ourselves from this idea” kind of manner.

Because it’s a sad truth, but large numbers of people do vote with personal self-interest in mind. This is one of the (many) great flaws in representative democracy. “Personal self-interest” does not necessarily (or even regularly) equate with “what’s best for society as a whole”, so that elections often end up with large numbers of people deliberately voting against what’s best for society, in the belief — for instance — that a slight increase in their own personal wealth somehow offsets unsustainable economic policies.

Of course, there’s absolutely no evidence that the Lisbon treaty, if adopted, will be financially beneficial to the average Irish voter, but because no bugger understands the treaty, it would not be too difficult to present it that way (it’s very “business-friendly” after all). Once you have unconsciously linked a “Yes” vote with “Voting with your wallet” in the mind of the electorate, it becomes extremely difficult for many people to vote “No”.

Of course, both campaigns did attempt to do this, but it was always in pretty abstract language; “the treaty secures Ireland as a centre for foreign investment” says the ‘Yes’ campaign. “The treaty imposes European tax regulations upon us which will reduce our competitiveness when attracting foreign investment” says the ‘No’ campaign. Who do you believe?

In truth, you end up believing whichever one comes closest to your own personal prejudices. However, a sustained campaign which (with a modicum of subtlety) links “voting Yes” with “voting with your wallet”, bypasses personal beliefs altogether and becomes an unconscious drive within the collective psyche of the electorate.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Feb 2008

The efficacy of anti-depressants

As most people will have heard by now (it’s been pretty widely reported), a recent study by a British University (Hull) suggests that…

… compared with placebo, the new-generation antidepressants do not produce clinically significant improvements in depression in patients who initially have moderate or even very severe depression, but show significant effects only in the most severely depressed patients. The findings also show that the effect for these patients seems to be due to decreased responsiveness to placebo, rather than increased responsiveness to medication. Given these results, the researchers conclude that there is little reason to prescribe new-generation antidepressant medications to any but the most severely depressed patients unless alternative treatments have been ineffective.

I’ve just finished reading the actual study (link above). It’s a statistical analysis of the available data, not a psychiatric / medical study in itself, so it was tough going and rather dull stuff for someone like me with no formal training in statistics. All the same, if this study is confirmed (and it’s important to note that it has only just been opened up to the peer-review process, so we shouldn’t leap to any conclusions until this has been done) then it’s a damning indictment not only of the pharmaceutical companies (who, after all, we kind of expect this kind of behaviour from anyway) but more importantly of the regulatory bodies all over the world who have approved this medication.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that the findings come as something of a surprise to me. Some years ago I was diagnosed with clinical depression (on the severe side, but not within the “most severe” category… I did not require hospitalisation, though it was considered at one stage) and prescribed extremely high doses of one of the SSRIs investigated by the Hull analysis. I’m no longer taking them — I’m very glad to say, as I wasn’t a fan of the side-effects — but I do attribute my recovery in part to the medication. Needless to say, I’m rather intrigued by the possibility that I’d have gotten roughly the same benefit from a placebo.

Indeed, if anything, this seems to be another justification for my current belief that psychoanalytic psychotherapy (incorporating, though not restricted to, some of the techniques of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is the best treatment for depression. It probably goes without saying, that particular belief is one of the primary reasons I’m studying what I’m studying (mind you, that’s a far longer article).

Because of the enthusiastic approval of anti-depressants by official regulators, doctors see it as a simple and efficient way of treating an increasingly common illness. Unfortunately, if — as it appears — the bloody things don’t actually work, then it means we’re flushing an awful lot of public money down the drain (or rather, we’re meekly handing it over to large corporations) which has an actively damaging effect on public health, as we’re underfunding other therapies which do have a clinically significant effect above and beyond that produced by a placebo.

As I say, we half-expect large corporations to fudge the figures in search of profit, but the regulatory bodies are supposed to be on our side. We employ them to root-out these kinds of false claims, but if this study is confirmed, it would appear that the FDA (and the others who followed suit) are guilty either of dangerous incompetence, or of deliberately putting corporate profits before the mental health of the public.

UPDATE 16:35 I was chatting with a friend today. His girlfriend was on the same antidepressants as I was prescribed (Venlafaxine) and like me, she found them helpful but is glad to be off them. He said, mischievously but rather perceptively, “aren’t you lucky you were taking them while they still worked?”

7 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2008

Organ donation, grief and a question of tone

I may be wrong here, but I’m fairly certain that an historic first was recently marked. Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, actually made a half-decent proposal. I believe it’s his first since taking office, but I’m open to correction on that.

I’m afraid he didn’t surrender himself to the International Court of Human Rights for his involvement in the illegal invasion of Iraq. No, what he did was a little less dramatic, but a good idea all the same; he backed a radical change in the way organ donation works in the UK.

As it stands now, and this is the case in Ireland too, a person must place their name on the organ donation registry if their organs are to be eligible for use in transplant surgery post mortem. Brown appears to be pushing towards a system of “presumed consent” whereby your organs are automatically considered available unless you place your name on an “opt-out” registry, or unless your next of kin lodges an objection at the time of your death.

This is a great idea. Over the course of a decade it will save ten thousand people from a painful and premature death and will relieve the suffering of more than a hundred thousand others. In my view, Gordon Brown should be strongly supported on this issue (at the very least, wait until he’s talking about something else before you throw those eggs). It represents a positive step for British society and, like one or two other social policies which have been running successfully for years in the Netherlands, should really be adopted here in Ireland and elsewhere around the world.

Naturally, there are those who object. And seeing as how I’m usually on the side of the objectors when it comes to the plans of British Prime Ministers, I’m willing to listen to those objections and see if maybe there’s something I’ve missed. There doesn’t appear to be.

The Libertarian Position

What we do have is an incoherent libertarian position regarding ownership of the body. By “presuming consent”, the state is essentially asserting ownership of a person’s body; an assertion that must be denied. I believe that’s the essence of the libertarian objection, though I’m willing to be corrected on that should a libertarian pass through.

The trouble is, the objection is based upon two fundamental misconceptions.

The first is that ownership extends beyond death. It clearly doesn’t. Upon death, all ownership is transferred. It’s called “inheritance” and we’ve developed all manner of complicated rules by which it occurs. While a person is alive, I believe they should indeed be considered the “owner” of their body (in whatever sense that might mean in this context). This is one of the reasons I feel, for example, that drug prohibition should be opposed, though that’s a subject most right-wing libertarians find it politically expedient to ignore. But once a person is dead…? Well, it is simply not possible for a dead person to own anything. Not even their own body.

The people who are considered legal owners of the body, one supposes, are the next of kin. And rather conveniently, the policy proposes to leave the decision in their hands. They may insist that the body remain intact if that is what they wish. This right is not removed, the next of kin may still assert absolute “ownership” if they choose. And the opt-out registry, just like a will, provides a legal facility to those who may not trust their next of kin (for instance). The libertarian argument is bunk.

And that’s without getting to the second fundamental misconception. Which is, that “the state” is taking ownership of the organs. It’s not. At least, not in any sense that matters. But because “the state” is the big bad wolf of libertarianism, it tends to be crowbarred into a lot of arguments where it doesn’t really belong. It’s a symbol of evil. A rallying point. As such, the emotional power it carries as a symbol is worth deploying even when it lessens the coherence of the argument.

All the same, that’s exactly what it does.

The state is not asserting any ownership at all. It is merely setting the rules by which ownership is transferred. By passing laws, it acts as arbitrator, just as it does in all cases where inheritance laws are complied with.

What I do concede is that right now, the shortage of suitable organs means that a selection process must be undertaken, and in that sense the organs are “allocated” by the state (or a state agency). A side-benefit of this new policy, however, would be to eliminate even that element of “state” intervention. Essentially it would have the practical effect of further liberating the transplant process from politics. You’d imagine that’s the kind of thing that would surely be applauded by libertarians.

Different voices

A successful organ transplant can, in essence, take an organ that was otherwise destined to rot in the ground and instead use it to give life to a dying person. This is about as uncontroversially positive a thing as I can think of. Sure, we can get all abstract about the demographic dangers of medical advancement, and we can question the cost:benefit ratio of transplants as compared with other medical programmes. We can do those things. But when all’s said and done, transplant cases usually boil down to taking an individual whose daily life is characterised by significant physical pain; and relieving them of that pain.

I mean, it’s just your basic Good Thing, and if we can afford it but aren’t doing it because of a shortage of organs, then we need to change that immediately. A system of presumed consent in tandem with the aforementioned opt-outs would be a simple, effective and socially just method of achieving this.

What has frustrated me a little about the debate on this issue, however, hasn’t been the libertarian objection. Instead it’s been the tone of some of those who actually support the policy change. “Living people matter. When you’re dead, you’re dead” was probably the worst offender (unsurprisingly it came from the rather silly, and mystifyingly well-regarded by some, Polly Toynbee) but even the good guys got in on the action as Justin illustrates in “Monkeys and the organ minder“.

Both articles are guilty of one of the cardinal sins of social policy debate. And they’re symptomatic of a wider trend on this issue. They propose (or in this case, support) a policy without giving any real thought to the impact of the policy on those directly affected. Indeed, they go so far as to caricature and trivialise them. I find this problematic.

We’re dealing here with a significant shift in social policy that will have an impact on two groups of people. Firstly and most obviously, those in need of transplanted organs. The policy is essentially (and rightfully so) tailored to them and is primarily aimed at serving their interests. However the second group of people who will be routinely and significantly affected by this policy is the recently bereaved. This is problematic because we’re talking about a group of people who will be under great stress and prone to irrationality. People who are potentially experiencing the worst trauma of their life. We need to place a sensitivity to this fact right at the core of our thinking on this issue. And those who fail to do this are, to be honest, speaking in a voice unpleasant to my ears.

The Psychoanalytic Position

In 1917 Sigmund Freud published Mourning and Melancholia (it can be found in Volume 14 of the Complete Works). It’s a landmark paper and represents the culmination of two years working towards an understanding of grief and depression (to use modern terminology). Despite its age, however, I contest that it is as good an explanation of the grieving process as exists…

It is also well worth notice that, although mourning involves grave departures from the normal attitude to life, it never occurs to us to regard it as a pathological condition and to refer it to medical treatment. We rely on its being overcome after a certain lapse of time, and we look upon any interference with it as useless or even harmful.
In what, now, does the work which mourning performs consist? I do not think there is anything far-fetched in presenting it in the following way. Reality-testing has shown that the loved object no longer exists, and it proceeds to demand that all libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to that object. This demand arouses understandable opposition — it is a matter of general observation that people never willingly abandon a libidinal position, not even, indeed, when a substitute is already beckoning to them. This opposition can be so intense that a turning away from reality takes place and a clinging to the object through the medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis. Normally, respect for reality gains the day. Nevertheless its orders cannot be obeyed at once. They are carried out bit by bit, at great expense of time and cathectic energy, and in the meantime the existence of the lost object is psychically prolonged. Each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object is brought up and hypercathected, and detachment of the libido is accomplished in respect of it. Why this compromise by which the command of reality is carried out piecemeal should be so extraordinarily painful is not at all easy to explain in terms of economics. It is remarkable that this painful unpleasure is taken as a matter of course by us. The fact is, however, that when the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again.

Sigmund Freud | Mourning and Melancholia

We can quibble about the details and about the terminology (I take a much more Jungian view of libido, for instance, than many psychoanalysts) but ultimately it’s a pretty damn accurate description of the grieving process, as I feel certain anyone who has gone through it will attest. We deny the death. Initially it may be quite overt… “No, you’ve got that wrong. I don’t believe you!” even though we have no reason in the world to doubt the news we’ve been given. Usually that overt denial passes quite rapidly. In Freud’s words, “respect for reality gains the day”. Beyond that, it can take a long time to ‘carry out the work of mourning’. Our unconscious may be filled with memories of the deceased, and each one requires re-evaluation based on this new information. Much of this is indeed unconscious, but plenty of it isn’t. We experience it as dreams of the person, and as a tendency to “think about them” a lot in the immediate aftermath of their death. Notably, as time passes, those thoughts become less painful.

This is how we grieve, and any social policy designed to deal with grieving people needs to take it into account. If it doesn’t, then it runs the risk of being a monstrous attack on the vulnerable. What’s vital to take away from this account of the grieving process is that there is a very real period during which a recently bereaved person will overtly deny the death. In most people it lasts mere seconds… long enough to say “I don’t believe it…” then Bang! it hits you. But in others it can drag on. This isn’t a choice they make, and it doesn’t make them ‘perverse’ or ‘weird’ in the words of one commentator. It’s how grief works in some people. Polly Toynbee talks about the forces of superstition and reaction and about overcoming them with the “spirit of enlightenment”. What? Overcoming human grief? What’s next? A war on terror?

The point is that a grieving person may well suffer a total failure in reality-testing. This happens often enough that we consider it a natural reaction to bereavement, albeit at the extreme end of such reactions. Such people may — and often do — fixate upon the integrity of the body and insist that the dead person will soon awaken. This period may continue beyond the time at which organ harvest becomes impossible. And an attempt to interfere with this process could well be needlessly* traumatic for the already traumatised person.

Now, nobody is suggesting that these people be deprived of the right to “opt-out”. I’m not trying to build a straw man here. I’m merely suggesting that those who speak in tones close to contempt about the irrational behaviour of the recently bereaved are failing to demonstrate the sort of basic compassion that should inform any discussion of social policy in this area.

* I say “needlessly” because it bears mentioning that a system which presumes consent will see the total number of available organs rise dramatically, thereby lessening the impact of each individual opt-out.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Dec 2007

Archaeologies of Consciousness

Having failed to give the excellent Dreamflesh Volume One the glowing review it so richly deserved here on The Quiet Road, Gyrus threatened to “burn down your home, and the homes of everyone you’ve ever met!” unless I at least mentioned his latest tome.

Archaeologies of Consciousness

Well, he’s a man of his word. So I shall do more than just mention it. I shall post a big shiny graphic showing the rather striking cover (designed by Andy Hemmingway) and urge y’all to get hold of this fantastic anthology.

Entitled Archaeologies of Consciousness: Essays In Experimental Prehistory, it’s billed as a collection of writing on “ancient monuments, prehistoric rock art, folklore, mythology, and altered states of consciousness”. But don’t let what may sound like a specialist book on a selection of niche subjects put you off. The essays in this book are explorations of consciousness, of what it means to be human, and of the environment and landscapes that shaped our development. It’s a book that drags these “niche subjects” out of the cosy, dusty libraries in which they’ve locked themselves and takes them for a much needed hike across a windswept moor to get their blood flowing again.

But what’s it actually about?

[…] in Freudian language [we say] that the operations of the unconscious are structured in terms of primary process, while the thoughts of consciousness (especially verbalized thoughts) are expressed in secondary process.

Nobody, to my knowledge, knows anything about secondary process. But it is ordinarily assumed that everybody knows all about it, so I shall not attempt to describe secondary process in any detail, assuming that you know as much about it as I.

Gregory Bateson | Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art

In the space of these five extended essays and a few shorter bits and pieces, Gyrus boldly strides where Bateson fears to tread.

To be honest, that last line is hyberbolic to the point of sheer inaccuracy, but it’s a good pull-quote. In actual fact, the writing of Bateson and Gyrus complement one another in interesting ways. Both are examining the unsettling, blurred region where a number of disparate disciplines intersect; archaeology, anthropology, mythology, psychology (along with psychoanalytic theory) and biology. Both are aware that, for a whole bunch of reasons, traditional academia finds it difficult to comfortably accommodate research in this area, but are equally aware that for their work to be influential within these disparate disciplines (as it damn well should be), it must be accessible to them.

But where they differ is the fact that Bateson is writing from within the establishment; emerging from it as it were; while Gyrus is approaching it from outside. Both approaches have their strengths and both have certain limitations. Thankfully there’s nothing stopping us from reading both and allowing them to, as I say, complement one another.

One thing that strikes me though, is that Gyrus generally overcomes the limitations imposed by his position as a “freelance” / “amateur” researcher (a tendency towards flights of fancy, tangents and a perceived lack on intellectual rigour) better than Bateson overcomes the limitations imposed by his own (conservatism, unimaginativeness and a tendency to obscure meaning with over-complex prose and jargon).

Now Bateson can’t be accused either of conservatism or a lack of imagination, but his writing does occasionally become rather dense and opaque. In Archaeologies of Consciousness however, Gyrus presents his readers with clear, flowing prose that is at turns poetic, at turns scientific, but always comprehensible. And it’s not the patronising comprehensibility of “popular science” books that spoonfeed complex ideas to a mass market by simplifying them to the point of meaninglessness. This is the real deal… exactly as complicated as it needs to be, but no less accessible for it.

The collection opens with The Devil & The Goddess which I recall reading when it was first published over a decade ago. It was around that time that I first met Gyrus, and during the intervening years — in private discussions and through reading subsequent articles — I’ve seen how his ideas and research have evolved. So it’s interesting to revisit The Devil & The Goddess; not the start, but certainly an important early milestone, on a unique intellectual journey; and to find it’s still vital, still relevant and is filled with the questions and themes that would dominate his work for the next ten years.

Culture and civilization are inseparable from material technologies, and things are no less confused in the technophile / Luddite debate. The real dichotomy to be tackled here is that of harmonious / unharmonious technology. Do our tools help us achieve our desires, or do they become our desires?


This spiritual poverty, this rigid division of life into the sacred and profane (in their modern senses), has only been the norm of human experience for several hundred years, if that. And in their historical accounts, modern scientists have been projecting this division back in time for far too long. A re-vision of anthropology and archaeology is overdue, necessary and, I feel, imminent.

And concluding with…

For ourselves, living in a culture where the dominant spiritual institutions have insisted not only on separating themselves from everyday life, but directing their spiritual aspirations outside this world, it’s evident that a new vision of spirituality more directly concerned with life, the Earth, our bodies and survival is needed. We cannot live on bread alone, but I don’t want to try to live without it. It’s no coincidence that it took an affluent society like our own, where day-to-day existence is taken for granted, to produce a device capable of utterly destroying the biosphere.

… via a route that takes in Shamanism, Satanism, the Kundalini experience, anal eroticism, the origins of blood sacrifice, the Knights Templar and the landscape of Avebury…

It’s the least focussed of the essays in the collection, certainly, but it provides a perfect opener to the book by setting up many of the themes that are expanded upon in the later pieces.

My personal favourites (if one can be said to have favourites among essays on abstract and esoteric subjects) are probably the final two of the long pieces; Form & Meaning in Altered States & Rock Art and Aeons Past & Present. The former contains my favourite line of the book, where the author is examining some neolithic rock art while under the influence of 2CB (a synthetic phenethylamine which is known to produce, among other things, visual distortions not unlike the geometrical patterns found in much primitive art) and has the multi-layered revelation that “There’s no ‘blank canvas’ in rock art!” While the latter draws together theories about time and evolution from a remarkably wide range of sources and makes all manner of intriguing and insightful connections between them, eventually concluding with a call to action in the face of the seemingly paralysing desires manufactured by modern culture.

From the upbeat and characteristically enthusiastic preface by Julian Cope, to the meticulous indices, Archaeologies of Consciousness succeeds in being a well-researched, informative; indeed illuminating; collection of essays which is also a pleasure to read. This makes it a very rare item indeed; so I recommend you grab a copy.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Book reviews

Jul 2007

Er… Nietzsche?

Crappity crap crap fuckity fuck!

Well, I’m back from my interview at Trinity. Many thanks for the good luck wishes (in the comments to the last post) Zoe and Lucas… plus the others who emailed or texted. In the end, however, I fear I may have squandered all those positive vibes. Of course, it’s very easy to exaggerate one’s screw-ups in retrospect. And just because things didn’t go 100% perfectly doesn’t mean they were a disaster. All the same…

Q. So which philosophers are you currently interested in?
A. Er… [jim draws a complete blank… can’t even think of a single philosopher’s name, let alone one he’s currently interested in]… er… [the seconds tick by. For feck’s sake, there’s a copy of Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method in my bag not three feet from where I’m sitting! Yet can I think of a single name? No, I can’t.]… er… Nietzsche?

Or how about…
Q. So describe the basics of Freud’s theory of dreams…
A. Wellll… [once again jim draws a total blank. The words “symbolism” and “displacement” refuse to come to mind, as does the phrase “wish-fulfillment”. So instead there’s two minutes of incoherent nonsense as I try to describe Freud’s theories without recourse to those three terms].

Of course, the moment I stepped out of the interview, my brain kicked in… and as I walked down the flights of stairs and out of the building, I was muttering… Freud saw dreams as being of central importance to psychoanalysis. Initially he viewed dreams as a process of wish-fulfillment undertaken by the unconscious mind. However, because dreams often don’t appear that way, he hypothesized that dreams had both a manifest and a latent content. The manifest content — how the dream is recalled by the dreamer — is often a heavily-disguised or censored version of what the dream is really about. And what the dream is really about is the fulfillment of unsatisfied childhood desires. These desires — often shocking to the conscious mind — are rendered safe by two separate but connected processes; displacement (the association of disturbing emotions with apparently innocuous images) and symbolisation (almost always sexual in nature). Later in his life, however, after working with World War One veterans who had suffered from shellshock (what we’d now term Post-Traumatic Stress), Freud was forced to modify his theory of dreams. His ideas that dreams — almost invariably — referred back to childhood was incompatible with the clinical data he was gathering from the war veterans (whose recurrent nightmares of the trenches were clearly neither wish-fulfillment nor related to childhood events). This eventually led Freud to hypothesize the existence of ‘The Death Instinct’ or Thanatos.

Now, why the hell couldn’t I have said that in the interview? Why did I end up muttering it to startled passers-by instead? Goddamn it!

And what makes it all worse is the fact that the interview wasn’t exactly intimidating in any sense. The professor (Dr. RS) is very amiable, easy company. Formality was kept to a minimum and the whole experience was more like a chat than a classic interview. Albeit, a chat where one of the participants has inexplicably forgotten half his vocabularly and about 90% of what he’s read in the past 6 months.

Still, all I can do now is wait and hope that I’m recalling things as worse than they were. I’ll find out “within a month”. Fingers crossed and all.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements

Apr 2007

Some reviews

Hallo folks. Well, I’m finally back from my extended Easter break. A long-weekend got transformed into a ten day holiday thanks to West Cork’s unusually-Mediterranean weather. Technically I was cycling (on my new and excellent bike). But I feel a bit of a cheat making that claim as the time mostly consisted of sitting on cliff-tops or beaches and eating the occasional biscuit. In amidst all the lazing about in the sun though, I helped someone clean a patio (don’t ask). Right at the end, after all the heavy lifting, bending and scrubbing was done, I decided to give the stones one last leisurely sweep. It was just then that some hitherto uncomplaining muscle in my lower back decided to go “ping” (or whatever sound muscles make when they tear).

At the time it was fairly painful, but bearable. The next day though was spent sitting in a car on my way back to Dublin. A journey that gave my back plenty of time to seize up good and proper. It’s starting to sort itself out now, and movement without unreasonable agony is possible again. But lying motionless for over a week has given me plenty of time to reflect on the fact that I can spend a week cycling and clambering over rocks and climbing the occasional tree and it be nothing but physically pleasurable… but a few hours of repetitive labour will bugger up my back.

This should surprise nobody except the creationists.

Of course, lazing around on the couch blitzed on painkillers and muscle-relaxants is hardly the worst fate that can befall a person (though it annoys me that I was forced to resort to such medication… the dearth of quality sensimilia in this country is shameful). Especially a person with an extensive DVD collection. So, some quickie reviews…

Stalker. It’s possible that this late-70s Russian art-SF film would be utterly incomprehensible even without taking a bunch of strong painkillers. Right now though, I can’t say for sure. Hypnotic, dreamlike and very odd. I recommend it.

Six Feet Under (Season 1). Television is almost never this good. The writing is wonderful, the acting is flawless and the production values make most Hollywood films seem pale and one-dimensional. I must admit to being vaguely annoyed by the very final scene of the season, but aside from that I can’t think of a single thing wrong with this programme. An unflinching and visionary look at human relationships and emotion. A work of genius.

Stranger Than Fiction. I have very little time for Will Ferrell (his part in Zoolander was bearable only because the rest of the film was so funny) but given the hype surrounding this film (I can’t help but be interested when the name Charlie Kaufman is mentioned, even if only by comparison) I figured it was worth a shot. And it turns out that — just like Jim Carrey — Will Ferrell is capable of doing a half-decent job when cast against type… in this case as a dull, repressed, buttoned-down office worker. Definitely worth a look.

Casino Royale. A bearable action flick. The chase scene at the beginning is by far the best part. When it shows up on TV it’s worth tuning in to the first ten minutes or so. Sadly it’s all downhill after that. Even the much-discussed torture scene is sanitised, so that it forces you to wince rather than turn away from the screen (as in Reservoir Dogs or Syriana). If someone’s getting tortured on-screen and you’re only wincing, then the director hasn’t done their job very well.

The Ice Harvest. John Cusack is a very watchable actor. And he’s been in some excellent films. Unfortunately his ratio of good films to utter dross isn’t as good as it once was, and he’s getting close to being an indication that I don’t want to see a film rather than a reason to see it. This is a particularly silly thriller that telegraphs every single plot twist and has a dire cop-out ending. Avoid.

I also rewatched Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls (possibly my favourite film ever) which gets more beautiful and moving with every viewing. Kitano had a degree of international success with Zatoichi which — it seems — irritated him somewhat. In response he made what is apparently one of the weirdest and most impenetrable films of recent years… Takeshis’. I can’t wait to see it!


Lately my reading has become rather more focussed than is traditional for me. Regimented even. On my shelf since Christmas sits Pynchon’s massive and enticing Against The Day. It is, as yet, unopened. Well, that’s not strictly true… I couldn’t resist reading the first couple of pages… it starts well, introduced by a Thelonious Monk quote — “It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light” — and opening aboard the hydrogen airship, Inconvenience. But I decided back at Christmas that I’d wait until summer to read it. For two reasons. One of them being that the best place and time to read great fiction is under some trees on a warm sunny day.

A bit less fluffy, the other reason is simply that although I’m looking forward to full-time study, it’s meant I’ve had to spend a wee while “revising”. See, before I made an abrupt about-turn and got sucked into engineering, my original degree — quite a while ago — was in philosophy. It included courses on ‘The Philosophy of Psychoanalysis’, ‘Theories of Rationality’ and the heavily-psychoanalytical ‘Philosophy and Gender’. Nonetheless, it was still primarily a philosophy course and in no way did it provide a formal grounding in psychoanalysis. And because psychoanalysis is a complex subject (in the sense that there are a multitude of competing theories) it can take a while to acquire a fairly thorough overview. There’s no single book I’ve found that does even a quarter-decent job, so it’s a case of reading several different collections, often with a phrase like “The Essential” in the title (as, for instance, in Princeton’s excellent The Essential Jung) and keeping those most invaluable tools by your side… The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology and The Penguin Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. The bevelled edges are pretty cool too.

I’m also starting to get the impression that Lacan is just Sartre with Venn Diagrams. But I imagine you get into trouble with the psychoanalytic community for saying things like that.

Anyways, I’m recovered enough to sit at the PC for more than five minutes without fretting that my back is going to seize up again. There was a worrying few days when I convinced myself that I’d slipped a disc, which I’m told can sometimes require surgery. Thankfully that wasn’t the case and I managed to cycle to the village and back today without any ill effect. So once I’ve caught up on my email, I’ll hopefully be blogging on a semi-regular basis again.

Mar 2007

A visit from the dead

Did I say a head-cold? I’ve had nothing of the sort, dear reader. I didn’t have the physical strength to make it to the doctor, so never managed to get diagnosed. Nonetheless, I’m pretty certain I had an as-yet undiscovered variant of Ebola that lasts about a week. Either that or a temporary case of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or Double-Malaria. Something really nasty anyways.

Well, perhaps not Ebola. All the same, it was no ordinary cold. In all honesty, the last time I can recall being so physically debilitated was when I was struck down with a fever in Brazil and was unable to make the short crawl to the bathroom without passing out at least twice (and that’s not an exaggeration). At least this week I’ve been able to make that journey without losing consciousness. Though it was a close-run thing on a couple of occasions. The weird thing is that it only lasted a few days… on Thursday I figured “well, this is obviously the difference between a cold and a flu”. But influenza lasts a good deal longer than four days. And a head-cold doesn’t send your temperature into the low hundreds, leaving you with full-on delerium and a tendency to pass out without warning. Also, at the risk of grossing you out, dear sensitive reader, I somehow managed to expel my entire body weight in snot and sweat. Which calls a couple of fundamental laws of physics into question.

Sleep Paralysis

And let’s not forget the sleep paralysis. When I was living in Brazil I took an anti-malaria drug called Lariam (for a giggle, check out the ‘side-effects’ section on its Wikipedia entry). I didn’t contract malaria I’m happy to say. Of course, nor did any of my companions, and they weren’t taking the stuff (presumably because they’d read the side-effects). So I can’t really credit the Lariam for protecting me from illness, though I can credit it for several months of seriously messed up nightmares. The most powerful of which was a terrifying instance of sleep paralysis.

I awoke in the middle of the night because — I felt — someone was shaking me… urging me to wake up. I was lying on my back, eyes open, staring into the darkness. But except for my eyes I couldn’t move any part of my body. It was difficult to breathe, and I became more and more terrified as I struggled vainly to move or to cry out. This was no ordinary fear… it came from a place dark and oceanic… a place of madness… and it was utterly overwhelming. Then, as my eyes slowly adjusted to the near pitch black, I became aware of another presence in the room. A small child — a girl of about seven or eight years old — was standing at the foot of my bed. She radiated an indescribable malevolence.

Time seemed to pass very slowly. And I wasn’t quite ‘right’ for several days.

I’d had a similar experience a couple of years earlier in Mexico. But I’d been consuming a lot of visionary plants during the preceeding few days and had — I believe — shifted my consciousness enough to allow me to better take it in my stride. When I explained it to my guide the following morning, he informed me that I’d had subida del muerto… a visit from the dead… an experience not uncommon to those who’d taken a lot of mescaline in a short period of time.

And then a couple of nights ago, it happened again.

This time I can point the finger of blame at neither mescaline nor lariam. This time it was fever-induced, but was no more pleasant for it. I awoke in the early hours of Saturday morning, again with the feeling that someone had shaken me awake. A faint grey twilight filtered through the curtains, indicating it was sometime around dawn. I was staring straight up at the ceiling, still in the grip of delerium, and that dark ocean of terror began to rise up within me just as it had in Brazil. It felt as though someone was pressing down on my chest but thanks to my position and the way the duvet had bunched up around my neck, my field of vision was restricted to a narrow strip of the ceiling. I was convinced that someone (or something) was there, standing next to my bed, leaning on my chest with their full weight. I urged my body to struggle against this pressure, to convulse in some way, but to no avail. A scene from the film The Serpent And The Rainbow, where a character has been ‘zombified’ and is unable to move during his “post-mortem” examination, leapt to my mind and I tried to scream… now overwhelmed with terror. But still I lay there completely immobile.

Once again, time seemed to pass slowly. Though in truth it may have been only a minute or two before I started to cough (thank heavens I’d been too ill to make it to the pharmacy for some cough medicine) which seemed to confer life to my body. I leapt from the bed, forgetting just how feverish and debilitated I was and promptly passed out. I regained consciousness a split second later as I crashed onto my bedside locker knocking over the almost full, but open, two litre bottle of water.

After a few moments of lying on the floor, I managed to pull myself back onto the bed and open the curtains. And there I sat, soaked and freaked out, staring at the gradually brightening sky while my terror subsided.

I hope, dear gentle reader, that you had a more pleasant St. Patrick’s Day.

I received a few emails regarding my last post, wishing me a happy birthday and responding to my ‘cheeky request’. Although my fever has broken, I’m still far from fully recovered. So while right now I’m off to lie on my bed and moan weakly about how I’m dying of ebola; let me first thankyou for your emails, apologise for the delay in getting back to you, and assure you that I shall reply tomorrow once I’ve regained a little more energy. I’m very grateful.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Dec 2006

The Limits of Empathy

This is a tough one. As with any attempt to discuss the reasons and motivations behind deplorable acts, one runs the risk – thanks to our psychologically illiterate culture – of appearing to condone them. In 2004 Jenny Tonge (a British Liberal Democrat MP) was sacked from her position for stating that she understood why Palestinians might choose to become suicide bombers. The Israeli ambassador to the UK welcomed her dismissal with the claim that “We must stand up against such remarks, which are an incitement against the state of Israel and against Jews.”

Now, I’m no fan of Jenny Tonge. Her statements about the Kalahari Bushmen were staggeringly offensive and displayed the kind of patronising colonial mindset that clearly blights the upper reaches of the British establishment to this day. Though I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that this attitude should be found in someone willing to bear the title “Baroness”. It’s very difficult to take a liberal democrat seriously when they occupy an unelected position in an archaic ruling aristocracy.

Nonetheless, Tonge’s sacking from the LibDem front bench was one of the more outrageous and cowardly acts to have occurred in mainstream politics of late. And just think of the competition it faces! The idea that “understanding” should be considered anything other than a positive thing is a demonstration of just how screwed up our culture is. Personally I’d introduce a policy whereby every MP was asked whether or not they could understand why Palestinians become suicide bombers. Those without the requisite levels of understanding, imagination and empathy should be fired. Certainly they shouldn’t be permitted to develop and implement policies that would affect anyone beyond their family and circle of friends.

As for the Israeli ambassador and his idiotic remarks; there’s few things that’ll generate anti-Israeli sentiment faster than Israeli officials telling the rest of the world what it may or may not understand.

But it’s not Palestinian suicide bombing that I wish to discuss here. Instead I want to go further into the heart of darkness. To a place we hear a lot less about, but where the horrors and atrocities make most of what we do hear pale into insignificance. I want to journey to the outer reaches of human behaviour where empathy, understanding… perhaps even psychological analysis… run into a brick wall that has most sane people reaching for the word “evil”. I want to talk about what’s been going on in Central Africa of late.

It’s fashionable within the liberal left to ascribe all of Africa’s problems to colonialism. If it wasn’t for the imperialism of white Europe, black Africa would be all sweetness and light. A more nuanced liberal analysis will draw attention to western post-colonial economic policy as a contributing factor. But ultimately it’s a view that boils down to an unconscious assumption of white supremacy.

Of course, I’m not denying the role that both colonialism and continued economic exploitation have played in creating the political chaos we see in much of Africa today. There can be no doubt that European and American policies have had a spectacularly destructive influence on African society (and not just Europe and America either… the tragedy currently occurring in Sudan is being fuelled in part by Chinese economic policy). However, just like the overbearing parent who takes credit for every success their child achieves and blames themself for every failure (as a strategy of establishing control through guilt), the liberal attitude towards Africa denies – or at least grossly minimises – the responsibility that Africans must bear for their own decisions and actions.

It’s important that this is not viewed as a race issue. The atrocities I wish to discuss here are being carried out by black men against black women in Central Africa. But anyone who wishes to draw racial conclusions should probably bear in mind the skin colour of those who ran the gas chambers in Europe in the 1940s. White Germans were responsible for arguably the worst genocide in human history. And it’s only “arguably” the worst because it has competition from black Rwandans and yellow Cambodians. The capacity for extreme cruelty and violence are clearly not the exclusive preserve of any skin colour.

Belgian Congo… The Congo… DRC… Zaire… DRC

And so, finally, to specifics. It was Natalie Bennett’s article in yesterday’s Guardian that prompted me to spend most of the past 24 hours thinking and reading about recent events in the Congo (see this map if you’re unsure of the geography). So thanks a lot Natalie; I’m now extremely depressed. Of course, it’s not really Natalie’s fault. Anyone who spends a little time reading the reports emerging from that war-torn nation can’t help but feel depressed.

For most of my life the Democratic Republic of The Congo (DRC) was called Zaire. In 1997 the name was changed back to Democratic Republic of The Congo – it’s name between 1964 and 1971. For the majority of the 20th century, however (up until 1960), this vast area of land wasn’t a true nation at all. It was called Belgian Congo and was run from Brussels for the benefit of a bunch of north Europeans.

There’s no question that the effects of colonialism have contributed to the political instability in the region. However, the people of The Congo have now had more than forty years of independence and – by almost every measure – conditions have worsened consistently for those forty years.

Similarly, the desire of the industrial west to exploit the vast natural resources of The Congo has generated a massive incentive for disparate groups to control those resources. But liberal opinion does not – and should not – consider the desire for resources an acceptable motive for US political violence in Iraq. So the fact that the west is willing to pay top-dollar for Congolese diamonds, uranium or gold does not absolve the local militia groups of responsibility for their actions. Since 1996 DRC has been wracked by the single most violent conflict on the planet since World War Two. Conservative estimates place the number of dead at four million. That’s four million central Africans (not merely Congolese, for many of the dead are from neighbouring nations dragged into the conflict) massacred by other central Africans.

We must become more aware of the role that the west plays in this violence. For that’s something – in theory at least – we can do something about. But we must be very careful not to assume more responsibility than we bear. If I pay a man to commit murder then I am a murderer. But so is the man I paid. And he bears equal – if not more – responsibility for the act of violence. Certainly nobody should be making excuses for his actions.

The Inhumanity of Men

Did you notice that in the previous paragraph I dropped my usual gender neutrality? I didn’t say “If I pay a person…” It was a man I was paying. This was to better introduce the aspect of the Congolese violence that is perhaps most disturbing; the extreme sexual violence carried out against women. It’s at this point that I advise you to stop reading if descriptions of such violence are likely to upset you badly. My head’s in a pretty bad place right now having examined some of the reports – and it’s not the first time I’ve read such accounts. This is seriously nasty stuff.

I don’t wish to minimise any form of violence. There are very few victims of rape (even extremely violent rape… all rape is violence, but there are levels of violence as we shall soon discover) who would prefer not to have survived the ordeal. So, as far as most people are concerned, it’s better to be raped than murdered. Let me quickly repeat, this is not an attempt to play down the severity of rape. Indeed, as you’ll see, I intend quite the opposite. For while I can honestly say that I understand why a Palestinian might choose to put on an explosive belt, my empathy and imagination fall short when confronted with the tactics of, for example, the Federation for the Liberation of Rwanda (one of the most active militias in The Second Congo War, and generally considered largely responsible for the preceding genocide in Rwanda).

So there’s a disconnect. A Palestinian suicide bomber is arguably committing a “worse” crime than an FLR rapist. Murder Vs. Rape. Yet the worse crime is understandable while the “lesser” one is not. What’s the reason for this disconnect? Well, before I try to answer that let’s get the nasty graphic bit out of the way so you can better understand my failure of understanding. Let me repeat my previous warning… this is disturbing.

“Fistula”. I’d never heard the word before yesterday. It’s an extremely rare medical condition where the wall between the vagina and the bladder and/or rectum is ruptured. Extremely rare, that is, except in Central Africa. In the rest of the world the condition generally occurs due to serious complications during childbirth. Most gynecologists and obstetricians will go their entire career without ever encountering a single case. In DRC, however, there’s an epidemic. And it’s not down to an increase in complicated births.

Many of the militias in DRC have adopted a deliberate policy of terror through mass rape. There’s no question that this is a horribly effective way to cause massive social damage. However rape – even violent rape – does not as a rule cause fistula. No, instead the militiamen, having already gang-raped the woman (often a huge number of times over a period of weeks or months) will deliberately inflict major damage to her genitals before sending her back to her village. More often than not this is achieved by carefully shooting the woman’s vagina at point-blank range. “Carefully” because they want her to survive, to return to her village. Having commit this sickening crime against the woman, they then use her as a psychological weapon against the rest of her people.

Often the fistula is not a result of a bullet. Knives, broken glass or just sharp sticks are used to cause as much damage as possible. Girls as young as 12 months have been subjected to this violence. Sometimes, prior to the mutilation women and young girls are impregnated, held for months, and then given violent late-term abortions. The vast majority of women who suffer this are rendered permanently incontinent, incapable of bearing children or of menstruation, sexually inactive and prone to a lifetime of unpleasant infections. As though that weren’t enough, the extreme incontinence produced by fistula means they face a lifetime smelling of shit and piss… social outcasts.

The Limits of Empathy

If we are entirely unemotional about these horrors, it is possible to understand the reason that militias would adopt this policy of extreme sexual violence. Indeed, this reason has already been mentioned… it’s a very effective method of terrorism and social disruption. But while that may provide an adequate analysis for the history books, it’s a world away from an understanding of the individual man who chooses to commit these acts.

And it’s here that I hit the aforementioned brick wall. You see, to me this appears, bizarrely, like “learned psychopathy”. An isolated case of a psychopath committing vile acts of sexual violence is comprehensible in the context of a severe personality disorder. But when this form of sadistic violence is adopted as policy and willingly implemented by large numbers of men, then we’re faced with something entirely different.

Can we describe these men as suffering from a personality disorder? Are they mentally ill? It seems to me that an essential element in any diagnosis of psychopathy is that the individual is acting in a manner incompatible with the values and sanctioned behaviour patterns of their society. This is why, in our own culture, we do not diagnose as psychopaths those businessmen who are willing to place career advancement and profit above more human concerns… such behaviour is clearly sanctioned within the context of capitalism. It makes little sense to describe as psychopathic any behaviour which is actively encouraged by one’s culture. Psychopathy has both medical and social components.

But in order to work successfully, industrial capitalism has had to insulate the individual businessman from the negative consequences of their actions. This prevents basic human empathy from intervening and forcing a change in behaviour. No such insulation from the consequences of their actions exists for a Congolese militiaman. It perplexes me, and it disturbs me. So while I can envision a set of extreme circumstances that might see me strap a bomb to my body, I simply cannot find any empathy at all with a man willing to repeatedly rape a woman and then shove a broken bottle into her body in order to lash out at his enemies.

I therefore reject outright the implication of Natalie Bennett’s article that this behaviour is essentially a factor of the “maleness” of the perpetrators. Something else is at work in DRC. Something that has even me reaching for the word “evil”.

10 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion