Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Reaction Formation

Certainty often covers deep doubt and uncertainty. As Shakespeare said in Hamlet, “Me thinks he doth protest too much.” The more vigorously someone professes something, or denies it, especially things around religious beliefs, sexual preference and patriotism, the more suspect those professions and denials are; especially when the person sites the absolute certainty of God and the bible to back him up. Vigorous professions and denials are a red flag, a warning that the person making them is not well and not to be trusted. Most of us know this in our guts.

We know that deep down the person “protesting too much” may, and often does, harbor beliefs diametrically opposed to the ones he denies or professes. Some people act out the opposite of what they unconsciously or are ashamed of, believing. Freud called this ‘reaction formation’. As I describe reaction formation, see how well it explains so much of what’s going on with our tea party and Republican brothers and sisters.

A powerful profession or prohibition can only be directed against an equally powerful impulse, Freud explained. What no human soul desires stands in no need of prohibition; it is excluded automatically, and what every human soul desires flows without exhortation. “The very emphasis laid on the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ makes it certain that we spring from an endless series of generations of murderers, who had the lust for killing in their blood, as perhaps, we ourselves have today.

“Conflicts of this kind due to ambivalence are very frequent and they can have another typical outcome, in which on of the two conflicting feelings [usually the most socially acceptable one] becomes enormously intensified and the other vanishes. The exaggerated and compulsive character of the remaining feeling betray the fact that it is not the only one present but is continually on the alert to keep the opposite feeling under suppression. This is repression by means of reaction formation.”

Building on Freud, Jung suggested that religious fanatics were cloaking their own lack of faith, otherwise they would not affirm theirs with such dogmatic tenacity and certainty. So, could it be that our present day homophobic religious anti-government pro austerity fanatics are trying to cover up their own doubt and uncertainty about these things?

To me, the scariest thing about reaction formation and the fanaticism it breeds if left untreated and unchecked is how far those suffering from these things will go. A lot of innocent, ‘normal’ people could be badly hurt. Consider the recent debt ceiling nonsense, and who knows what’s next. Yes, as I wrote yesterday, the ascendancy of tea party and Republican extremists could be, and I pray it is, the storm before the calm. But if Freud and Jung are to be considered, it is also an illness that must somehow be treated….

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