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 Freud, Shame, and Crime 

June 7, 2005 
[Originally published by the Universal Press Syndicate, August 12, 1997]
Is there anything shallower than depth psychology? Ever since Freud, we’ve been taught to look “deep” for the causes of crime and misbehavior — in early childhood, in repressed memories, in unconscious “roots” of conduct. Today's column is "Freud, Shame, and Crime" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.Psychology now enjoys the prestige astrology once commanded in royal courts.

Intellectuals adopted Freudian language quickly, warping even such disciplines as literary criticism. Shakespeare was a major casualty: Hamlet became a victim of the Oedipus complex. But faith in psychology has long since penetrated popular culture too. You still see its imprint in old Hollywood movies, where the psychoanalyst is presented as a sort of wizard peering into the souls of his subjects.

The quest for “deep” causes was abetted by other social sciences — or at any rate by quacks speaking the language of social science. For a generation crime has been ascribed chiefly to “socioeconomic factors,” such as poverty and racism.

Not that there isn’t some truth in all this. Freud did map out large areas of the psyche that had been previously unexplored. But his map now looks a little quaint, like those Renaissance maps where vast regions are described only with the legend “Here be monsters.”

But crime is due not so much to hidden motives as to absent motives. In normal people, the desire for respect is strong, and so is the corresponding fear of disgrace. When conscience doesn’t do the job, the highly conscious dread of shame — and of shaming one’s family — usually restrains people from wickedness.

Every culture knows this. Honor, respect, reputation, good name, saving face — such everyday words express the understanding that we all want to be well thought of. That is why we resent insults so deeply, in spite of the jingle about sticks and stones. One of the oldest stories we have, The Iliad, is about the total breakdown of the siege of Troy after the Greek leader, Agamemnon, publicly insults Achilles, his greatest warrior.

What we now call a “sociopath” is simply a man who really doesn’t care what other people think of him. He may be disconnected from his society as an individual, or he may belong to a small society — a “subculture,” as we now say — that is morally disconnected from the larger society. Either way, the larger society can’t reach him, can’t make him feel guilt or shame. It has to deal with him by force.

[Breaker quote for Freud, Shame, and Crime: Hidden v. missing motives]But force works only when crime is exceptional; you can’t force a whole society to behave. In a “multicultural” society this problem is likely to get worse. The idea of a homogeneous society is now in disfavor; we are taught — it is one of President Clinton’s most reliable platitudes — that “diversity” and “pluralism” are “our greatest strength.”

Yet societies with a single shared culture, from Sweden to Japan, have the lowest crime rates. People in such societies know what to expect from each other and everyone cares what the others think of him; crime is more or less unthinkable, because it implicates not only the individual but his family. Today we are acquiring more cultures and building fewer families.

The fear of disgrace isn’t a hidden motive, but it’s as strong as any supposed “unconscious” motive. In most people it’s probably stronger than the repressed desire to kill Dad and marry Mom.

Even liberal intellectuals have sheepishly edged away from their old Freudian explanations of human behavior. Most criminals aren’t very Freudian. The motives that drive them are pretty obvious; the problem is the motives they lack.

The psycho-socioeconomic explanations blame “society” for crime. But if “society” is to blame for anything, it is for failing to instill a due regard for society. The official voices of American society, misled by fancy theories, have helped break down the most reliable restraint on misbehavior: the notorious patriarchal nuclear family.

Ordinary people know all this by instinct; only people given to excessive theorizing are likely to miss it. But ours is a society that peculiarly honors those who are given to excessive theorizing. We call them “experts.” And we’re paying dearly for allowing them a veto over common sense.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2005 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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