Towards a Qualitative Analysis of Pain and Oppression

The Left has lost debates because of the way that people look at oppression.  I’ll be more specific.  I believe that a crude quantitative analysis of oppression—Group A suffered more, ergo we should expect A to be further behind in terms of income, advancement and assimilation—as opposed to a more refined, qualitative analysis of oppression—Group A suffered particular affronts which impeded the ability to make money—has undermined progressives.  First, I will examine this phenomenon in the context of race, then I will explore this process in mental illness.

At the end of the 1960s, as the nation’s interest in progressive change flagged and whites grew leery of the continued demands of the civil rights movement, conservatives began comparing the travails of blacks with those of Jews, Irish, Italians and other “white ethnics.”  They noted that many in this demographic had suffered poverty and that the Jews and the Irish suffered persecution as well—the latter at the hands of the British and the former during the Holocaust, and before that in the pogroms and persecutions of Tzarist Russia, and so on.

Conservatives made this argument smugly and aggressively: the Irish made it.  The Italians got out of Little Italy, and the Jews were storming through the professions.  If the white ethnics could make it, blacks should be able to make it, too.  And if the blacks couldn’t make it, then they were not as deserving a minority group and lacked the initiative or intelligence to succeed and compete.  The comparisons were made most starkly and bitterly with regard to blacks and Jews.

As the energy and élan of the Left began to decline at the close of the sixties, Jews and blacks, once strong allies, at times were at each other’s throats.  All too often they seemed to be competing with each other for the title as history’s most victimized group.  Both had a lot going for them in this very sad contest: blacks could cite hundreds of years of slavery; Jews could cite the Holocaust.  And so we fought, and while we were divided, Richard Nixon and the right won.

I believe Jews and blacks were arguing about the wrong thing.  The important question was not quantitative, or how much one group had suffered, but rather qualitative: what were the ways in which they had suffered and how did different forms of suffering create different behavioral patterns that could either thwart or invigorate the will to overcome?

For example, blacks were often ridiculed and taunted as “stupid.”  They were said to be ape-like, less than fully human, and possessing of meager intellects.  Jews, in the course of being hated and castigated, heard something very different: they were told that they were conniving, clever, and bright at business and poised to make a mint.

One of the strongest defense mechanisms, according to Freud, is our tendency to identify with our oppressor, and to adopt the oppressor’s point of view, which we supposedly do to ease the pain of our circumstance.  Apply this dynamic to blacks and Jews.  The black hears that he is stupid, he identifies with his aggressor, and when school time rolls around he approaches the material with a sheepish, defeatist air.  When the Jew hears that he is clever and swift, he will tend to believe what the gentiles have told him and this will buttress his esteem and confidence and may serve as an impetus to commercial and academic gains.

Similarly, contrast the ways Jews lived in Tzarist Russia (most of Europe’s Jewry were subjects of the Tzar after Poland was partitioned at the close of the 18th century) with how blacks lived in the Old South.  In Tzarist Russia, discrimination against Jews was clear and explicit as it had been at least as far back as the 16th century.  The hated Jews were fully segregated from gentiles. They were more segregated than blacks had ever been in the Old South and, ironically, this had a salubrious effect on them.


A Jewish court would resolve intra-Jewish conflicts.  Jews also had their own system of education that they financed.  When the state was desirous of garnering tax revenues, the task of tax collection was delegated to Jewish officials.  While some of this self-government was corrupt and even monstrous, it generally helped lend Jews confidence to manage their lives on their own.

In this country, there were no such things as black courts or black policemen to handle intra-black quarrels.  Blacks went before the nation’s and states’ criminal and civil courts, unschooled in the proceedings, on their own and very much at sea.  None of this buttressed black self-confidence.

In the courts, blacks were beaten down and cheated, which facilitated the growing pauperization of black America.  I say growing because contrary to the common assertion that life has been getting better for blacks over time, in large stretches of our history the status of blacks declined.  For example, the acreage owned by blacks steadily dropped from its Reconstruction peak to at least the end of the Great Depression.  Also, the law did more than oppress blacks; it also rewarded blacks, in very concrete ways, if they lived up to white stereotypes: in many of the states of the old confederacy, and for many years after Lee surrendered, a white person could not assert contributory negligence if a black person sued him for personal injury.

Consider: A black pedestrian sues a white car driver for hitting him on the road.  The white car driver will want to assert contributory negligence against the pedestrian.  He will want to say that the pedestrian did something stupid to contribute to the negligence that resulted in the accident.  For example, a car driver might want to say that the pedestrian ran into the car or wore all black clothing in the middle of the night and was, accordingly, contributorily negligent.  However, this argument could not be made in much of Dixie. The southern courts held that blacks were too stupid to walk across the streets with any sense and therefore it would be unfair to penalize them with a finding of contributory negligence.  This is akin, perhaps, to what Freud called the secondary benefits of a neurosis, i.e., sometimes a patient will not overcome his neurosis because people “cut him some slack” for being disturbed.

By contrast, the conditions in Eastern Europe never made Jews doubt themselves and their worth the way that conditions in the South eviscerated the pride and resilience of blacks.  Importantly, Jews had their own religion.  Blacks got the religion of their slave-masters, which could be perceived as contributing to the in-place psychological hierarchy.  If our slave master gave us a religion that we in fact love, then that slave master might, in some ways, know what is good for us and may be a benevolent man because he wants us to be saved.  And as soon as black men credited white people with wishing them well and praying for their salvation, they must have been tortured by ambivalent feelings toward the white man.  However, if the black man were to succeed, he could not be saddled and confused with these ambiguous sentiments.  A certain clarity of outlook must prevail if one is to succeed, and I would go so far as to say that one must fully despise the white man’s system if one wants to bring down his slave society; so long as a part of one feels affection for the dominant caste, one’s battles against it will be ill-fated.

In addition, we must consider the value placed on intelligence, and its cognitive and pedantic constituients  Jews did more than value intelligence; Jews defined intelligence differently.  Whereas in most civilizations going to school is a matter of students passively taking instruction, having their head crammed with facts the importance of which is rarely explained, Jewish education seeks to teach the child to ask questions and to adopt a curious, explorative outlook on life.

Jews were the people of the Old Testament, and the subjects and authors of myriad more books as well. This culture of literacy emboldened a rigorous intellectualism that encouraged interpretation, informed dissent, and critical analysis. Very simply, Jews had a culture that readied them for academic competition.

Blacks, by contrast, had a religious training that, as I understand it, brooked little dissent and debate and was given to hearty and loud affirmations in the form of resounding Amens.

To summarize: the left has lost a lot of energy and credibility because people have said that since many white people were oppressed as much as blacks, black problems cannot be ascribed to white oppression.  However, the relevant question is not how much a person has been hurt but rather if he has suffered the sort of harms that prevent recovery.  Or whether the oppressed have acquired the necessary knowledge, intellectual energy, and cultural solidarity to effectively overcome the oppressors.
Mental Illness
In the 1960s, the most respected doctors—doctors who had appeared to have history on their side—posited an environmental etiology, or cause, for mental illness.   Freud held that many emotional disorders had their origin in family conflicts, and after the atrocities of World War II, plenty of evidence existed that disputed the presumption that behavioral traits were inborn.  To hold that behavioral traits are innate is aligned tightly with the notion that race is destiny; World War II made us realize just how deadly and inaccurate that type of reasoning can be.

Whereas Freud often found that neurotic conflicts had their origins in the anal and Oedipal stages of development, in the post-war era some doctors said that psychosis, as well as neurosis, had an environmental cause dating to the twilight of life, to the oral stage and to pre-verbal stages of development.  RD Laing said that schizophrenics were the scapegoats of their families.  Laing, in other words, was the avatar of the left wing view of mental illness.  He saw the mentally ill as oppressed people and he wasn’t wrong: every time a stupid sitcom or other item of our debased popular culture makes fun of the mentally ill—the only group it is still considered appropriate to bash and denigrate—it is exploiting the miserable for laughs. 

By the 1970s, however, several scientific discoveries apparently buttressed the proposition that mental illness was biochemically determined.  This was also the era in which progressive, liberal interpretations of mental illness began to wane. When Spiro Agnew railed against a left, whom he characterized as “effete, intellectual snobs,” it was a harbinger for the anti-intellectualism that later reached full bloom under Ronald Reagan, and a severely simplified perception of the world.

It went like this: Mr. A grew up in Darfur and watched his family annihilated, and Mr. B grew up in a concentration camp, and now both are successful businessmen in America.  By contrast Mr. C has only suffered from the sort of amorphous, less immediate types of humiliations one sustains in suburban America. But Mr. C is psychotic.  Applying crude metrics, the apostles of a biochemical theory of mental illness said that since C suffered so much less and became so much sicker, this proves that C’s sickness was inborn.  If his sickness was inborn, his oppressors, whether family or community members, were guiltless.  His sickness was the product of defective genes, which is akin to blaming the victim, a conservative view of pathology that lives on today.

We would do well to apply a more refined, qualitative view of suffering.  If one was the victim of horrendous brutality in Darfur or a concentration camp, the experience lasts a lifetime.  However, it can also give the victim what I call a unifying rage: a furious desire, which summons up and unifies his energies, to get back at his persecutors by being successful and even, on occasion, happy.  

And what of Mr. C, the individual who grew up in suburban tranquility and is now psychotic?  The crude quantifiers would say that the relative stability of his background—let us assume that he was never beaten or starved—coupled with his grim diagnosis means he was genetically destined to be mad.  But, again, they are missing the point.  They would never for an instant realize that in certain situations it is better to be hated, and reviled, in one’s childhood than to be loved. A scenario in which a child’s parents were both pathogenic and abusive might allow the child to expunge the pathology from his  life more easily,  , to reject  the pathology more consummately, and to thereby create new moorings for a successful and happy life.

And the question isn’t really whether you were hated by the Germans who tortured you, or harmed by your parents who merely chastised you, but rather if you hate yourself.  If your injuries made you hate yourself, your injuries, no matter how seemingly slight, will be exceedingly malignant.

Some people, in the course of trying to quantify harm, might bring up the issue of psychotherapy.  They might argue that since C—the person who grew up in suburban tranquility and became psychotic—had psychotherapy, that treatment should have negated all of the harmful effects of his bad childhood rearing and that D’s continued maladjustment establishes his genetic inferiority.  In doing so, they are accrediting psychotherapy with powers and abilities it has never been shown to have; a study from 1954 showed that so-called neurotics who went to classical psychoanalysis had a 44 percent rate of recovery whereas neurotics who received no therapy at all had a 67 percent recovery rate.

The study’s findings are not at all surprising considering the speculative nature of so much psychoanalytic thought.  Whereas in physical ailments there is something quite palpable and real, matters pertaining to the mind remain largely ephemeral.  For example, can we really believe that a little boy in Vienna, named Hans, thought his father wanted to castrate him—when in fact Little Hans never said any such thing and this was simply Freud’s presumptuous interpretation—and that because little Hans harbored this fear every little boy in the whole world has the same fear?  And if a system of treatment is an edifice built on foundations like this, why should we be surprised if analysis has such a lousy record of healing?

Psychiatry is an imprecise science, and will continue to evolve and reconfigure itself with each genetic and biological discovery. It is a set of answers to questions that are necessarily fluid.

Regardless, in mental illness, as in disputes about white ethnics and blacks, quantitative means of evaluating pain have proved to be a great disservice and tiresome, ancient arguments over who suffered the most pain deflect us from the goal of overcoming pain and oppression.

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