Monday, November 27, 2017

The Psychology of the 'rigid' personality

Guide to this series:
The Psychology of the Rigid Personality
The Psychology of Military Incompetence
The Psychology of Ecclesiastical Incompetence
The Psychology of Traditionalism

I've been reading Norman Dixon's 1975 classic, The Psychology of Military Incompetence. It has many insights, and also many flaws; one point of interest in reading it today is to see how psychology was done in the 1970s.

I was stopped in my tracks by one passage, a quotation (p254). It is from Peter Kelvin, The Bases of Social Behaviour, 1970. He is talking about the 'authoritarian' personality. (Elipses are Dixon's.)

These tendencies reflect on a type of individual who needs to feel that his environment is highly predictable ... he needs to know where he stands; and so he fastens on to norms: he does not 'let himself go', for fear of where this might lead; he looks to authority as a guide ... [He also] relies very heavily on stereotypes in [his] perception of the social environment. Moreover, the stereotypes used by an authoritarian personality tend to be very clear-cut, and the characteristic infelixibility of this personality leads to relative inability to modify the stereotype once it has been formed.

This is a concise characterisation of what progressives, in the Church and outside it, in the 1960s and 1970s, thought was wrong with their opponents. It also seems to match what Pope Francis has in mind when he talks about 'rigid' people. We don't have to imagine that he ever read Kelvin: these ideas which were widespread when the Holy Father was at an impressionable age.

It establishes a theoretical basis for the connections which seem to exist in Pope Francis' thinking between (1) a concern for rules / authority-figures; (2) self-restraint / lack of authenticity; (3) an inability to make nuanced judgements about persons and situations, instead attempting to force everything into one of a set of pre-determined stereotypes.

I'm not a psychologist, or a historian of the discipline, but it is apparent that this theory is dated, to put it mildly. Underlying it is a Freudian account of how character is moulded by over-bearing mothers and potty-training, and indeed there is so much emphasis on the latter that it is hard to avoid concluding that it is the author, and not the subjects, who has an anal-fixation. (Perhaps it is exposure at an impressionable age to theories such as this which explains Pope Francis' puzzling interest in coprophilia and coprophagia.)

Dixon wants to apply this theory to military organisations, and immediately runs into the problem that effective commanders are, in a popular sense, authoritarian, whereas he wants to argue that bad ones are bad precisely because they are authoritarian in the way just described. He deals with this by distinguishing the 'authoritarian personality' with the 'autocratic' one, which can include being a disciplinarian. He never sets out the distinction in detail, and it looks ad hoc. Dixon appears to put everything he personally doesn't like into his notion of the 'authoritarian' (including such disparate things as being religious and taking an interest in one's personal appearance), and everything he does like into his notion of the 'autocratic' (his is the only book where I have ever read the word 'womaniser' used as a term of praise). Dixon describes how the theory was developed with Nazism in mind, with the result that it is problematic, if not self-contradictory, to apply it to the megalomaniacs and mass-murderers of the political left. Crafting a psychological theory to further one's personal political preferences is, well, less than entirely satisfactory.

Dixon does have a lot of interesting things to say, and I will discuss them in a later post, but the significance for the Church of the problems I have identified with this theory has been incalculable.

It was psychologists with attitudes along these lines who advised religious orders and seminary directors in the 1960s and 1970s. An insider's account of this process is given by Dr William Coulson. (You can see a summary of Dr Coulson's ideas here; better still download an MP3 talk by him here. It is an eye-opener.)

On this kind of thinking, Catholic teaching is inescapably unhealthy, 'anal', because it imposes constraints on sexual behaviour. On the theory, people are well-adjusted just insofar as they are letting it all 'hang out', without guilt. Any concern with 'norms' is ipso facto a bad sign. Ritual is just the kind of thing an 'anal' person would care about, so if you don't want to be chucked out of seminary for being mentally ill you'd better not take any notice of rubrics. Political, social, or theological conservatism are all indications of a 'weak ego', a pathological need to conform and seek approval. As Pope Francis expresses it:

And I ask myself: Why so much rigidity? Dig, dig, this rigidity always hides something, insecurity or even something else. Rigidity is defensive. True love is not rigid.

Pope Francis and others of his generation can say this without any direct knowledge of the people he is talking about. Why? Because for them it is obvious. It just follows from a universal psychological theory.

The irony here is overwhelming. Didn't it occur to the religious superiors of the 1970s and later that, under their new regime, people seeking approval from their superiors out of a lack of self-confidence would be rigidly conforming to the anti-rules of liberalism? That is, not wearing a cassock, not following the rubrics, not being faithful to the office. That they would find new ways of showing off how much they were teachers' pet, not by an immaculate appearance and a pious demeanor, nor yet by vying with each other in exaggerated reactionary remarks, but instead by leaving pornography lying around and visiting gay bars. But no, liberal superiors never noticed this, because the theory was not conceived of as applying equally to any set of rules, but only to the rules of the past. The real insight behind it, that goody-goodies could be motivated by an exaggerated horror of failure with which their fragile personalities could not cope, was distorted by the social and, in the case of the Church, the theological goals of the people who applied the theory: like the drunk's lamppost, it was ultimately valued as support, not for illumination. Or, to vary the metaphor, it was just used as a battering-ram against the Faith.

Just ask yourself this. Who is the conformist, in the Church of today, in a Catholic university, seminary, or religious community: the eccentric conservative, or the one whose liberal ideas are safely within the comfort-zone of 90% or his peers and teachers? If you have a weak ego, if you are scared of being ostracised, being thought a failure, or not fitting in, will it be more attractive to you to be a conservative or a liberal?

The great value of Dixon's book, for me, was his account of what happens to the conformist when he himself becomes a superior. Dixon may have thought of his principles as only applying to conservative conformists, but there is a genuine insight here which applies to liberal conformists as well.

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1 comment:

  1. A prophetic description of a "snowflake"?