The fantasy of an evil Other

Writing in The Atlantic, David Brooks focuses on a turn in how people “self-identified” and calls our attention to the following:

Sometime around 1970, the American personality changed. In prior decades, people tended to define themselves according to the social roles they played: I’m a farmer, teacher, housewife, priest. But then a more individualistic culture took over. The University of Michigan psychologist Joseph Veroff and his colleagues compared national surveys conducted in 1957 and 1976 and  a significant shift in people’s self-definition: A communal, “socially integrated” mindset was being replaced with a “personal or individuated” mindset. The right-wing version of this individualism (which emphasized economic freedom) and the left-wing version (which emphasized lifestyle freedom) were different, but it was individual freedom all the way down.

Brooks goes on to say that we could be entering a phase where people return to defining themselves based on a new form of communal belonging. However, this particular form of community is based on resisting what is experienced as oppressive.

Twenty-first-century communalism is a peculiar kind of communalism. For starters, it’s very socially conscious and political. Whether you’re on the MAGA right or the social-justice left, you define your identity by how you stand against what you perceive to be the dominant structures of society. Groups on each side of the political divide are held together less by common affections than by a common sense of threat, an experience of collective oppression. Today’s communal culture is based on a shared belief that society is broken, systems are rotten, the game is rigged, injustice prevails, the venal elites are out to get us; we find solidarity and meaning in resisting their oppression together. Again, there is a right-wing version (Donald Trump’s “I am your retribution”) and a left-wing version (the intersectional community of oppressed groups), but what they share is an us-versus-them Manichaeism. The culture war gives life shape and meaning.

Later, Brooks writes:

Believing in vicious conspiracy theories can also boost your self-esteem: You are the superior mind who sees beneath the surface into the hidden realms where evil cabals really run the world. You have true knowledge of how the world works, which the masses are too naive to see. Conspiracy theories put you in the role of the truth-telling hero. Paranoia is the opiate of those who fear they may be insignificant.

What I find noteworthy about what Brooks describes is how people on both right and left are getting jouissance from a paranoid fantasy of resisting what they see as an oppressive Other (i.e., social order). In both the right-wing and left-wing versions of this fantasy, it is necessary for them to be a nefarious and oppressive Other for people to enjoy resisting.

My guess is that the structure of this fantasy, dependent on an evil Other probability, leads people to create the evil Other they can enjoy resisting.

Brooks says this succinctly,

Focusing on the negative inflates negativity.

To put this in psychoanalytic terms, Jouissance brings both suffering and enjoyment. I’d say the nefarious Other that is out to get you (whoever you are and whatever “side”[1] you think you’re on) is an excellent example of jouissance.

  1. I say “side,” I quote marks because I believe that we are all actually on the same side —the side that wants humanity to continue to exist. ↩︎

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