Recently I've read several essays by the online columnist Bob Wallace, who has a fascinating and insightful perspective on what he calls "narcissism and scapegoating." Wallace identifies the basic problem of human nature as the inordinate, childish egoism that refuses to accept any criticism or blame, and instead projects its own shortcomings, fears, and hostilities onto other people. These other people become scapegoats for the narcissist's own failings, and dreadful results ensue.
That's the gist of it, anyway. What follows is my attempt to flesh out these ideas in my own terms. I don't want to put my words in Bob Wallace's mouth, so please take this blog entry as my personal statement, and refer to Wallace's essays for his own presentation. A good place to start is with his essays "Narcissism in the Bible," "The Necessity of Enemies," and "The Mind of the Terrorist." (For the record, I don't endorse every statement Wallace makes, but I agree with his general thesis.)
At the heart of narcissism is our tendency to divide the world into "self" and "other," with the corollary that what pertains to the self is good and safe and desirable, while what pertains to the other may be bad and threatening and unwanted.
This tendency is particularly obvious in political ideologies, which often divide the population into good and evil and then imagine that we can achieve safety, and perhaps even Utopia, simply by eliminating all the bad people. If only "those people" didn't exist, our community (or our country, or our planet) would be so much better, we say.
From here it is only a short step to the active elimination of one's enemies. We can even feel good about doing it. We are, after all, building a better world, protecting ourselves and our loved ones, and eradicating evil.
If good and evil did come neatly packaged this way, then perhaps we really could achieve paradise on earth by wiping out the bad people. But we have tried this strategy for centuries, and while we have indeed wiped out millions -- even hundreds of millions -- of people, all of whom were presumed to be bad by someone, we have not succeeded in our quest for paradise. This sorry outcome ought to be enough to prompt us to reconsider our approach.
When we do, we discover something very obvious -- so obvious that only our own narcissism could have allowed us to overlook it. Namely, that the tendency for evil exists in all of us, and the only way we can really erase evil from the world is if we erase all of humanity.
And certainly some of the more ambitious tyrants of the 20th century went a long way toward the utter erasure of the human race. If they failed, it was not for want of trying.
The trouble, then -- the real trouble -- is not the particular people who plague us, no matter how bad some of them may be. The trouble is our own tendency to project our fears and hostilities onto others -- to make them scapegoats for our own failings.
Now, this is not to say that we should not strike back against a legitimate enemy. But there's a difference between retaliating for a specific attack against the party responsible, and issuing blanket condemnations of whole groups of people, implicitly denigrating them as subhuman and therefore as fair game.
The latter has been the tactic of narcissists and tyrants throughout history. The enemy is always someone else -- the Jews, the Christians, the bourgeoisie, the intellectuals, one racial group or another, the capitalists, the communists, the rich, the poor ... At one time or another, all of these groups have been attacked as the root of society's problems. But the real root of our problems is our demonizing of other people and substituting psychological (and physical) warfare for actual dialogue.
A current example may make this principle clearer. Recently, France has been beset by rioting, mostly by Islamic youth -- immigrants or the children of immigrants from African and Middle Eastern countries, who have not been assimilated into French culture. When these riots began, some voices were quick to assert that the unrest was part of a larger plot to incite a civil war in France and perhaps elsewhere, and that "Muslims" were seeking to take over Europe. The riots were then linked, in some people's minds, with Islamic terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda, and the French response was implicitly connected with the greater War on Terror.
In other words, there was a problem (rioting), and the natural response of many people was to blame the problem on a very large worldwide population (Muslims) and to lump together all the disparate members of this population as a common enemy (terrorists or terrorist sympathizers).
Some of these same voices then urged the French government to put down the riots by any means possible, regardless of loss of life. The idea was that "the enemy" must be defeated at any cost -- with the enemy consisting not just of the rioters themselves, but of Muslims in other countries, who had nothing to do with the riots at all.
And let's face it -- there would have been something gratifying to those of us still somewhat traumatized by the events of September 11 in seeing the rioters suppressed with maximum force, or for that matter, seeing Muslim crowds in other countries subjected to violent repression. What would have been gratified was the narcissistic, egoistic part of ourselves that projects all negative feelings outward onto other people and then feels temporarily assuaged when those "others" are made to pay the price.
In fact, however, the French riots probably had more to do with the poverty and alienation of these Muslim immigrants in their insular ghettos than with any worldwide movement. Add to this the narcissism of the rioting "youths," who naturally projected their frustrations onto the government (their scapegoat). Finally, add the fact that French popular culture tends to glamorize civil disobedience -- and you have a sufficient recipe for the riots, without any need to generalize to other Muslims, let alone "all" Muslims.
I think we all need to be on guard against this all-too-human propensity for deflecting and generalizing blame. It has done serious harm throughout history, counting millions of people among its victims, even in ages when no weapons of mass death were available. In today's world, with our staggering technological capacities, we need to hold ourselves to the strictest standard, and to avoid the easy ego gratification that comes from giving in to the narcissistic and scapegoating proclivities that Bob Wallace correctly identifies.
Otherwise, we may finally achieve the age-old dream of tyrants and utopians, and eliminate all human evil from the world.
The downside is, none of us will be around to see it.