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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

violence and self-esteem

So I started in with Comparative Politics last night, reading the introductory material. In general I insist on reading things sequentially and not skipping ahead to material I might find more immediately interesting; don't want to miss any important definitions and other background information. Also, my mind works by building from the ground up. When I get into any subject, I do my best to get the foundations of it: history, background, basic assumptions, definitions, and so on. I don't like knowledge gaps "behind" me, so to speak. When I start structuring my thoughts, I want them anchored as much as possible.

But I got a bit impatient with reading the basic introduction to comparative politics, so I moved on to Baumeister's book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. Evil, like identity, is an important thematic idea for my work. It's not that my narrative contains much evil (yet anyway) particularly; rather, evil was an important idea and problem in that era, perhaps even more than it is in our own, since theological responses to the problem of evil were still being formulated. In a certain sense, Christianity was calved off of Judaism by Satan, since Satan played such a strong role as the opponent of the all-good God in Christian thought. The Antichrist was the evil twin of Christ from the start.

Baumeister's book is interesting, but I'm a bit dissatisfied. For one thing, the book is less dense than it could be; that is, he makes relatively few points per page, so to speak. He uses quite a few examples, and tends to repeat points. More importantly, so far I don't really feel that I'm going inside "human violence and cruelty". Baumeister's empirical approach doesn't seem to penetrate to the core of the issue.

The section I read last night was from chapter 5, "Egotism and Revenge" (the second of the four main motivators of evil acts, according to Baumeister). Here he makes the point that, contrary to most psychologists' opinion, evildoers do not suffer from low self-esteem, but on the contrary have high self-esteem. He points to Hitler and Saddam Hussein as arrogant, self-important tyrants, and mentions that convicted rapists often are egotistical and even see themselves as "superachievers".

He specifically thinks that the trigger for violence is in threatened egotism: a person with inflated self-esteem, when he perceives someone valuing him less than he values himself, is the one most likely to turn violent. My thought: this person's self-esteem is not "high" but fragile: he becomes violent in order to force others to agree with the image of himself he wants to have. The more often it happens, the more likely that the violent person realizes, at some level, that his self-image is at odds with reality. Baumeister's own observation that the greater this tension, the more violent the person, supports this view. In other words, I think Baumeister is naively accepting of the bluster of egomaniacs as the measure of self-esteem. Actual self-esteem, surely, is realistic and adaptive.

I checked my copy of Abnormal Psychology by Costello & Costello, and found this description (compressed) of the narcissistic personality disorder:

The dominating feature of this disorder is an all-consuming self-absorption with grandiose notions of the individual's own unique importance, talent, and right to special consideration.

Symptomatology: There is a total absence of any capacity to empathize with others or to consider their needs. Their self-fascination leads them to make exorbitant demands on others, to be exploitative with no pangs of conscience, and to respond with arrogance, disdain, or dismissal when their demands are unfulfilled.

Yet there is an underlying lowered sense of self-esteem, a constant need for reassurance and admiration from others and a quick response of rage or disdain to any proffered criticism. The narcissist may dismiss failure with nonchalance, describing it as an unimportant experience.

This sounds like Baumeister's violent type. Is being a narcissist or having delusions of grandeur the same as high self-esteem? I think not--not in the usual parlance anyway. Good self-esteem is seen as a trait in a well adapted person, not a sociopath.

Even though I myself don't like merely going along with the herd mentality in matters like this, I think Baumeister has not really come up with a convincing refutation of the "low self-esteem" theory of violent behavior.

Time for yet more reading.

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