On Balance: Adam Phillips, Pt. II

(This is part two of my review of Adam Phillips’, On Balance. Part I is here).

On What is Fundamental“, a lecture Phillips gave to the Columbia Psychoanalytic Society, covers both the social and psychological aspects of the 21st century phenomenon  of fundamentalism. He starts with the fact that the fundamental things in life are usually the ones that lead people to lose their composure, and no matter of education, or self-imposed civility can regulate this tendency. And so, if we want to learn how to achieve balance, we need to first understand it’s opposite? Nope, sadly, Phillips’ stays clear of such sententious advice, and instead dives deep in the paradoxes and nuances involved in both fundamentalist emotional and social states.

What is Fundamentalism?

This essay felt relevant to our current socio-political reality. While balance is still idealized, it appears to have taken a back seat, amidst both real and imagined fears, espoused by both sides of the political spectrum. Fundamentalism is pitted against democracy, because, while democrats revere debate, fundamentalists have a difficult time accepting rival claims.The difference between fundamentalists and democrats, in Phillips view, is that the lines of constraint are fixed for the former, while for the latter, they may be redrawn to a small degree, by a small number of ‘legitimate’ people. However, all contemporary liberal democracies don’t believe that everything is negotiable; many European countries set limits to free speech around incitement to racial hatred, and most democracies limit incitement to harm. This much is clear.

Why does fundamentalist rhetoric elicit such uncompromising responses from the modern liberalists on the other side—can you only fight fire with fire? How do we escape the liberal conundrum, whereby “we” (used in this context as the secular, modern liberals) avoid violating our core beliefs in the ways we defend them? And who has the authority to define the parameters of a fundamentalist—do our definitions of fundamentalism aptly describe the current reality of the processes we’re witnessing, or do they only serve political interests?

A tad idealistic, but more germane now than ever, Phillip’s quotes the liberal philosopher, John Gray, and his goals for liberalism:

“Liberalism is not a partisan claim for the universal authority of a particular morality, but the search for terms of coexistence between different moralities.”

If today’s political landscape proves anything, we might conclude that liberals have failed at this project.The modernist liberal and the fundamentalist give into what Freud termed resistance—Both sides feel that they have access to some deeper truth, which the other side refuses to acknowledge. If the other side could only see things as they were, we could live as we should, in a world dictated by God, or by the relevant secular laws of the land.

Narratives of conflict between modernists and fundamentalists are a mainstay feature of our modern international landscape: from the clash of multi-culturalism versus assimilation in Europe, ISIS in the Middle East, and the rise of the alt-right in America. Fundamentalism is not reserved for minority groups on the fringes—fundamentalist tendencies are both a characteristic of the religious right, and the secular, liberal left. If coexistence is our last hope, what tools can we employ against those who do not believe in coexistence—who value their fundamental ideas over their own lives?

Freud’s Schema as a Model

Phillips, as an avid Freudian, uses fundamentalism to help understand Freud’s seminal theory of the super-ego, id, and ego. In classical Freudian thought, the ego acts as a sort of referee between two conflicting, fundamentalist parts; the super-ego, which dictates our biological drives, and the id, which provides the moral dictates.

For Phillips, the modernist has a role akin to that of the ego. He tries to find a compromise, and live as satisfyingly as he can, while tempering his potentially murderous desires. Phillips’s model of the mind as a war of contending fundamentalisms provides his answer for how to deal with fundamentalists—which is, in some ways, not to deal with them, but to seek for co-existence, understood as a mutually agreed-upon acceptance of the other’s existence. This search for the terms of co-existence between competing moralities is a fitting definition for psychoanalysis.

“Rather like us secular, liberal moderns observing in some trepidation the fundamentalisms of the East and the West, the ego sees itself as the one who establishes—who looks for—the most harmonious relations possible; like the ego, we see ourselves as the only one’s capable of observation and reflection while they blindly go their violent, self-righteous ways.” “That in short, where fundamentalism was, there rationality can be; where revelation and scripture was, there conversation can be.” (Phillips, p.65).

He takes the comparison one step further, into a territory that is far too Freudian to be truly applicable, but nonetheless is useful, as he touches on some important insights:

He relates to the commonly articulated notion that fundamentalist movements of our day in age should not be viewed as some ancient apparition—they may reject the scientific rationalism of our current civilization, but fundamentalist movements have evolved in response to this new system, ultimately developing a symbiotic relationship with modernity. As Olivier Roy, the French sociologist explains in his seminal book, Globalized Islam, fundamentalism is thus both a product and agent of globalization. (He refers to the current wave of Islamic extremism as neo-fundamentalism, read a synopsis of his theories here).  New conditions have forced millions to reassess their religious traditions, which were created for a different type of society.

So, how does this fit Freud’s schema? That childhood is religion, and adolescence, or “growing up”, is comparable to the transition that takes place from religious traditionalism to secular modernity. A child is a ultimately a fundamentalist; he seeks the adoration of his parents at all costs—known as the Oedipus complex. Yet, these infantile desires are not made for our society, and a child must thus “sacrifice” his desires, trading it in for a less gratifying, but hopefully more productive pattern, that is personal growth, progress, and maturation.

So What?

Phew, now that that’s over, Phillips ends his essay on a depressing, somewhat contradictory note, attempting to answer the conundrum of why secular modernists have failed to persuade the traditional fundamentalists?

Because, “When we talk about these issues in this way, our liberal vocabulary begins to sound meager; words like ‘compromise,’ ‘negotiation’, discussion’, ‘persuasion’, ‘progress’—unmoored from any shared ground for disagreement—seems feeble.”

To make this point more poignant, he asks what kind of compromise should we hope to reach with a convicted racist, or how could we persuade a Palestinians that the Israelis are well meaning?

So, yes, indeed I do agree that civil influence, coexistence, and conciliation of rival claims may seem like a worthy, albeit lofty, Utopian solution, more fitting for those sitting in universities, or the perennial optimists among us. A lesson I learnt in Israel, one which, much to my dismay, may prove beneficial to American’s in the coming years: “the more horrified we are, the more committed we become to the dream of unity.”

Perhaps being truly horrified is the only way to engender change.

“What fundamentalism highlights for us—if only as a phrase—is the question of what is fundamental for us, and what a god relation would be to these fundamental things; what kind of connection we have to the things that matter most to us, both consciously and unconsciously.”

Freud, in Phillip’s view, believes that through psychoanalysis we may be able to articulate, or reach a better understanding of the things that are fundamental to us. But, we should also realize that what is fundamental to us, will not necessarily be conducive to harmony within ourselves, or with others.

The clichéd truism—that only what makes our lives worth living is worth dying for—leaves us with little solace. He ends on an even more depressing note, saying that what is the point in having respect for people who do not respect our respect for them, and that if fundamentalists truly prefer a world where the persuaded, or the enemy are not part of the solution, then “we have a very serious problem.” Such a fatalistic view is perhaps warranted by someone of Phillips age and experience, but I reject it, wholeheartedly.

Is Fundamentalism at the Core of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict? (Yael’s rant)

Since he brought up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a few times in his book, I feel a slight duty to respond, very briefly, with my own insights. I could spend pages describing the real and true grievances both sides harbor against the other, and why both are justified, in moral terms, in continuing to view the conflict as a zero-sum game. But, Phillip’s use of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an example of fundamentalism is deeply flawed, and leaves out a large motivator of human interactions—one that does not fit the secular/religious paradigm, and belongs to evolutionary psychology.

I would argue that labels are very important here. We run into problems when we talk about fundamentalists; since the concept is foreign to many liberals, they imbue these labels with a meaning that may not be relevant, or honest to the real experiences of millions. As we see with Islamic fundamentalism, our knowledge is cursory, as Islam has been branded something in the 21st century that is far from how the majority of Muslims view themselves.

Regarding Phillip’s question of how to justify to a Palestinian that Israeli’s are well intentioned, obviously trust is a crucial aspect in conflict resolution, but is convincing Palestinians that Israelis are well intentioned really going to bring the two sides any closer, when, in my view, the underlying tension of the conflict is one of conflicting narratives of each group’s collective histories.

“People will become more motivated to put their histories of blood behind them and try to forgive their former enemies when the benefits of cooperation are undeniably superior to the unforgiving, zero-sum status quo”, social psychologist Michael McCullough writes.

He goes further, saying that,

“when we design societies so that people’s right’s are protected, so that they experience justice, and so that they have incentives for cooperating with their former enemies, then forgiveness arises as a natural consequence of how our minds evolved to operate.”(Michael E. McCullough, Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, p. 192.)

Obviously, the circumstances for such a positive-sum solutions are not ripe in the current geo-political reality of the Middle East. But, I have no shame stating clearly that I truly believe that the enmity that exists, and has existed for generations between the two sides, is not a product of any primordial hatred, and is rather a product of history and fate. Both sides, for a variety of reasons, have done a poor job in coming up with creative solutions to reconcile their differences, and to avoid the tragic confrontations that continue to plague both sides.

If we had a leaders who were willing to publicly acknowledge that the land of Israel, or historic Palestine, is a land that belongs to two peoples, and these peoples need to find a way to live together and work towards a common future, then perhaps we would not find ourselves in a world of fundamentalists, a world where to be an optimist is to be a traitor.


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