Misanthropy and Stockholm Syndrome

So, I am sometimes a bit misanthropic.  I want to like people, but they so-often disappoint me.  I try and give people the opportunity to impress me, and will give some benefit of my doubts about their ability to do so, but I have a streak within me which is pretty pessimistic.

Not always though.  Some days I really, genuinely, like people.  Even the stupid and oblivious ones.

So, today I was thinking about the nature of socialized behavior; etiquette, social politeness, etc.  You know, those largely non-articulated rules about how we interact, behave in public or at parties, etc.  To begin with, I grant that such socialized rules are important for both pragmatic and moral reasons (which is not to say those two things are not related; they are).  They are not all stupid or harmful, but I think there is always room for improvement and I think there are ways we can either request or demand that such such socialization needs to be pushed one way or another.  Not that anyone has to agree or comply, but that maybe they should at least consider the criticism.

Wes and I have both discussed tangential issues to this in recent days, and as you, dear reader, can see I believe that the line between acceptable and unacceptable social behavior needs to be adjusted somewhat.  Our expectations about how to interact and think about things such as sex, religion, and honesty (you know, the fun stuff) should be re-examined.  Religion needs to be fair game for criticism rather than given special status and treated with kid gloves; sex needs to be though of as less dirty, wrong, or guilt-inducing and thought of as a fun activity between consenting adults; and we need to be more honest, openly, with what we want/think and how we express ourselves.

So, what if we were to think of culture–those sets of rules, languages, and shared mythologies–as a sort of psychological captor? We are, from a sociological and anthropological point of view, held hostage by our socialization.  I don’t want to draw the analogy too closely, because it will come apart at the seams at some point, but I think that there is a comparison to be drawn between being stuck somewhere as a hostage and being stuck, psychologically, in our cultural milieu.

We did not choose our culture.  We did not choose the family we were brought up in, the religion (or lack thereof) we were raised within, and we did not choose the values which we acculturated into.  Whether those things are good or not, the fact is that to some degree our personality, opinions, and the ways we interact are not of our choosing.  And it is possible that they are irrational or harmful.

(And, if in fact in free will is an illusion, none of it is chosen.  I will leave this issue aside in this post and assume, for the sake of exploration of an idea, that we have some measure of choice.  If we don’t, it doesn’t matter anyway.)

But despite the fact that we (as in, our culture generally), usually, do not choose our values and behavior rules, we often defend them.  This is true for most people, I think.  And while there may be some amount of cultural transcendence which is possible, especially through exposure to other cultures and ideas (which gives us perspective to compare ideas, even if not wholly objectively), we are perpetually stuck in our own subjectivity.

My concern is with a phenomenon which I have observed for many years now, especially as I studied anthropology, religion, and sexuality.  We defend expected social behavior, almost without realizing we are doing it or that there may be another way to think about such things.  In our culture, there are values about “respecting” people’s beliefs, not challenging or criticizing personal ideas, and lying (sometimes “framing,” which is not always bad) to protect people’s sensitivities.  Now, in some cases, these values may be rational, but as I have seen them practiced by many well-meaning people they are often mere survival mechanisms for bad ideas.

If your goal is to be rational and skeptical, you should have a value of truth.  You should want to find out if your ideas are likely to be true, and have little compunction about challenging whether other people’s ideas might be true.  But our culture does not value truth in this way; we are taught to be respectful of people’s beliefs, we are taught that white lies are preferable, and we are taught about “good” things like faith, monogamy, and that sex is dirty and only appropriate under certain restrictive circumstances; namely monogamy.

Our culture defends these ideas like an abused lover defends her abuser.  They are not all bad, they really care about us, and they are good for us because we are so broken, incapable, etc.  And when people hear about atheism, polyamory, and sex-positivity they often exhibit signs of fear, insecurity, or guilt and then hide behind them and defend them.  They defend their cultural conditioning which holds them captive, defending that culture as moral, civil, or even as comfortable.

Our culture needs to start being more comfortable with discomfort.

Criticism is not uncivil.


3 thoughts on “Misanthropy and Stockholm Syndrome

  1. I think your analogy is a bit much. Stockholm Syndrome seems like an unnecessarily complicated explanation when plain old cognitive dissonance can explain people’s tendency to defend and protect their current beliefs.

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