Tag Archives: Talcott Parsons

Scapegoating the American Way

16 Dec

I’ve got a new post up at 3 Quarks Daily, Free-Floating Anxiety, Teens, and Security Theatre. It continues with the same theme I explored in my previous 3QD post, American Craziness: Where it Came from and Why It Won’t Work Anymore. That isn’t what I was planning when I began thinking about the post in the middle of last week, but that’s what popped up Sunday morning when I started working on it.

Over the previous week I’d been blogging about danah boyd’s study of teens and the internet, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (Yale UP 2014). It seemed to me that she was developing an argument that intersected with the argument about displaced aggression and anxiety that I have derived from Talcott Parsons (“Certain Primary Sources and Patterns of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World,” 1947). On the one hand, teens have more or less been “forced” online by irrational restrictions placed on their movements on the physical world (and over-scheduling, a different phenomenon) and that adult fears about sexual predation online were exaggerated at the same time people weren’t sufficiently attentive to the real sources of sexual predation.

So, I decided to write a post that links boyd’s observations to mine on nationalist aggression and racism. In the current post I refine my statement of Parsons’ argument and use the American response to 9/11 as an example. On the one hand the nation has undertaken two destructive and expensive wars, that have failed to achieve their announced object, the elimination of terrorism, and at the same time we’ve created the Transportation Security Agency to conduct largely pointless searches of passengers boarding aircraft.

Vacuum Activity and Scapegoating

These actions strike me as being akin to what ethologists call vacuum activity: “innate, fixed action patterns of animal behaviour that are performed in the absence of the external stimuli (releaser) that normally elicit them. This type of abnormal behaviour shows that a key stimulus is not always needed to produce an activity.” In this case the issue isn’t so much the lack of an appropriate stimulus but the inability, for some reason, to identify the source of one’s aggressive impulses while at the same time feeling the need to act on them. So one chooses a convenient or culturally targeted object whether or not it is causally appropriate.

My point of course is that the possibility of such irrational action has a basis in our biology. In a sense that’s just a specific version of the truism that all behavior has some kind of biological basis; we are, after all, biological beings. But the behavioral patterns I’m examining aren’t widely appreciated, perhaps because we would prefer to continue our irrational behavior rather than dealing with real issues. In the context of such denial it is useful to point out that, really, this is how animals (can) behave. It’s not at all farfetched. Continue reading

To War! America’s National Psyche

11 Sep

I’m reproducing a set of notes I wrote up during the 2000 Presidential Election. I’m republishing them now in recognition of yet another turn in the long-spinning wheel of American mythology.

Everything is connected to everything else and the causal forces meeting in the historical present stretch back into the past without end. Figuring out where to start is not easy. My sense is that we need to focus our attention on the dissolution of the Soviet Empire in the late 1980s. That left the nation without a national scapegoat, thus radically altering the nation’s psycho-cultural landscape. We no longer had Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire to kick around.

As some of you may know, my thinking on these matters has been strongly influenced by an essay Talcott Parsons published in 1947 on “Certain Primary Sources of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World”. Parsons argued that Western child-rearing practices generate a great deal of insecurity and anxiety at the core of personality structure. This creates an adult who has a great deal of trouble dealing with aggression and is prone to scapegoating. Inevitably, there are lots of aggressive impulses which cannot be followed out. They must be repressed. Ethnic scapegoating is one way to relieve the pressure of this repressed aggression. That, Parsons argued, is why the Western world is flush with nationalistic and ethnic antipathy. I suspect, in fact, that this dynamic is inherent in nationalism as a psycho-cultural phenomenon.

For the most part I have used Parsons, and others as well, in arguing about the nature of racism in the USA. While Africans were brought to this country for economic reasons it seems to me that during, say, the 19th century African Americans increasingly assumed a dual psychological role in the white psyche. On the one hand, they were a source of entertainment. On the other, they were convenient scapegoats, as became evident with the lynchings that emerged during Reconstruction and continued well into the last century. That is to say, African America served as a geographically internal target for the ethnic and nationalist antipathy Parsons discussed.

Thus we have the thesis in Klinkner and Smith, The Unsteady March (U. Chicago, 1999). They argue that African Americans have been able to move forward on civil rights only during periods where the nation faced an external threat – the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the major wars of the first half of the 20th century. When the external danger had subsided, gains were lost. From my point of view, they’re arguing that, when external danger looms large and demands attention, the citizenry can focus aggression there and so ease up on the internal colony. Beyond this, of course, it becomes necessary to recruit from the colony to fight the external enemy, both physically and propagandistically – be kind to your black citizens when you fight the Nazis, etc.

Continue reading