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Thin Skins and Missing Parents

Dispatches from the therapeutic front of the PC wars

“Will the left survive the millennials?” novelist Lionel Shriver recently asked readers of the New York Times opinion page. She posed the question in the midst of a kerfuffle set off by her keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival in September. Shriver devoted her remarks to the defense of the novelist’s prerogative to invent characters from cultures foreign to her own. (She’d incurred the wrath of critics for featuring an African American character in her most recent novel, The Mandibles.) Wearing a sombrero (an allusion, as she explained, to the Bowdoin College students punished for passing out miniature sombreros at their tequila party), Shriver argued that cultural sensitivities had to defer to artistic freedom. Novelists, she reminded the audience, fashion other people’s stories into their own, which means they are by nature “prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous.” Appropriation, cultural and otherwise, is what they do for a living. You want fiction? she seemed to be asking. Then you’ll have to put up with the sombreros.

Shriver wasn’t the first novelist to make this point. “Where does any novelist pick up any character?” Herman Melville asked in The Confidence-Man, published in 1857. “For the most part, in town. . . . Every great town is a kind of man-show, where the novelist goes for his stock, just as the agriculturist goes to the cattle-show for his.” Despite the fact that in 1857, actual man-shows were a feature of daily life in the American South, no one noted, as they surely would today, that Melville’s metaphor elided the suffering of the wares on sale. Then again, the scanty audience for his book didn’t include a twenty-five-year-old Sudanese-Australian engineer named Yassmin Abdel-Magied. Neither did Shriver’s, at least not for long. “Mama, I can’t sit here,” she told her mother twenty minutes in. “I cannot legitimize this.” She walked out, but did not drop the subject. Instead, in a blog post eventually read around the world, she denounced Shriver for her “celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.” Shriver’s defense, in Abdel-Magied’s reading, was a guilty plea, a confession that the impetus behind the novel was the same as the impetus behind colonialism: “I want this, and therefore I shall take it.”

Shriver and Abdel-Magied agreed on one thing: that, as Shriver put it, “writing fiction takes gall.” The main point of contention concerned just what consequences should arise when other people find gall like Shriver’s galling. Who should be discomfited? Should the novelist be prevented from shopping at the man-show (or at least forced to call it a people-show, or to abandon the insensitive metaphor entirely)? Or should the merchandise learn to live with being on sale in the literary marketplace?

The Young and the Relentless

The emerging consensus would seem to favor Abdel-Magied and can be found in the increasingly Byzantine apparatus of intellectual life, especially in academia: the safe spaces and trigger warnings, the policy manuals and conduct conferences and deans of diversity, the vocabulary of injury—microaggression, appropriation, gender-based harassment—and the yes-means-yes syntax of grievance. All these measures are designed to minimize the chance that offense will occur, and in the event that it does, to ensure that it will be redressed. And all—at least in Shriver’s view—add up to an existential threat to the left, one that comes not from the right, but from the young. These policers of acceptable expression and diction seem to agree that if oldsters like Shriver don’t have anything inoffensive to say, then they ought to shut up, or at least be prepared to be shut out.

It is the nature of a generation gap to swallow meaning. Old and young stand shouting across the rift, and their words fall into the abyss. People my age (I am fifty-nine) hear them clamoring for even more cosseting than they’ve already received; they hear us yelling at them to get off our lawns. But if we listen carefully, those of us on the older side of the generation gap (and the left side of the ideology gap) might hear something interesting about ourselves. We, after all, overwhelmingly tend to be the ones who parented those censorious young adults; we taught them and eagerly impressed our own values on them. I don’t mean to blame the victim—to use an expression that the “millennials” have appropriated from their New Left elders. But it is possible that if we oldsters don’t like the outcome, perhaps we are only reaping what we have sown.

Writing about the aftermath of the Brexit ballot initiative in the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith recounts a dinner conversation in which her companions unanimously denounced the July vote:

After settling this question, we all moved on to bemoaning the strange tendency of the younger lefty generation to censor or silence speech or opinions they consider in some way wrong: no-platforming, safe spaces, and the rest of it. We were all right about that, too. But then, from the corner, on a sofa, the cleverest among us . . . added: “Well, they got that habit from us. We always wanted to be seen to be right. To be on the right side of an issue. More so even than doing anything. Being right was always the most important thing.”

The fetish of rightness is not an invention of the older lefty generation; its origins lie deep in the American literary mythos. Consider that most reprobate—and decidedly colonialist—tradition of the Western. This time you’ve gone too far, says the avenging protagonist in an Owen Wister novel or John Ford film. Up to that point, he has been just another gunslinger. But now, smarting from offense, he’s on the path to righteousness, and he has gained the right to open fire—indeed, he must, if justice is to be done. His enemy’s transgressions, whatever they are, have granted him victimhood.

And just as Smith’s friend says, this descent to righteousness is a habit—one of those habits of the heart, as Alexis de Tocqueville called them, that are essential to “the maintenance of a democratic republic in the United States.” In a nation founded on the suspicion of authority, in which the state church is no church at all, in which everyone may well be equally right (or just as disastrously wrong), ideologies inevitably wrestle each other to a standstill. But there is no arguing with the person suffering through no fault of his own; he’s been wronged, so he is right. The struggle for the moral high ground becomes, in remarkably short order, a race to the bottom.

Journal of the Plague Years

Of course, the victim is also the one least likely to assert the claim. At least, that was the case up until the early twentieth century, when the physical and psychic frontiers of American life appeared to shrink, in unison, into virtual nothingness. The marker of this shift was Freud’s journey to America in 1909. He never really wanted to come here; he had to be wooed, and ultimately bribed, by the president of Clark University, and complained forever after that the visit had inflamed his colitis. Even before he planted his feet in the soil of the New World, he was feeling vengeful. “Don’t they know we are bringing them the plague?” he said to Carl Jung as their ship pulled into New York harbor.

The idea that we deserve not only to pursue happiness but also to achieve it creates an endless supply of victims.

However, the epidemic he wished to unleash—unrelenting awareness of the mismatch between our puny psychic apparatus and the vast chaos of the universe, and constant, bracing recognition of the bad faith in every pious claim, of the savage instinct underlying the most civilized behavior—simply could not penetrate the ironclad immune system of American optimism. When, in the late 1920s, psychoanalysts in the United States resolved that psychoanalysis could be practiced only by physicians, Freud immediately understood that this was no ordinary turf war. It was a war over the nature of human suffering. To allow psychoanalysis to be “swallowed by medicine,” Freud worried, was to open the way for doctors to offer a cure when the best we should allow ourselves to hope for was a transformation of neurotic misery into common unhappiness. Ever heedless of the fatalist doctrines of Old World soul-healers, American doctors didn’t listen to Freud, and soon they had leapt headlong down medicine’s gullet.

That doesn’t mean there wasn’t an epidemic—only that it wasn’t the plague Freud had in mind. Forty years after the doctors cornered the American market, Philip Rieff complained that the habits of the heart Freud sought to inculcate had given way to therapies that functioned as “modes of consolation. Instead of raising Freud’s lack of conviction into a doctrine,” he contended, post-Freudian therapists had “tried to create . . . a new culture.” That new culture would be built around a new idea about us: that we are neither sinful creatures in need of holy redemption nor beasts who can do no better than to whitewash our savagery, but decent people with the potential to thrive, to be happy, to be—as the army (who stole the line from the human potential movement) put it—all that we could be. If we can’t actualize that potential into prosperous and fulfilling lives, these merchants of happiness assured us, it is only because, as Philip Larkin archly observed, “they fuck you up, your mum and dad.” And as most of us have at least one mum and dad, the plague can reach pandemic proportions.

To put it another way: the idea that we deserve not only to pursue happiness but also to achieve it creates an endless supply of victims. Marry that idea to another one—that happiness is not an economic state but a psychological one, a subjective sense of well-being—and that supply becomes a market for people like me: the psychotherapists of the Freudian diaspora, who, no matter how much we might share our founder’s dour outlook, find ourselves ministering to people by helping them to describe their suffering precisely and to ferret out its causes. Often we do this by identifying exactly who fucked them up and how—as though, had it not been for those bad people, they would not be in pain, and as if suffering itself was not our lot. This treatment regimen is exactly the opposite of what Freud intended.

The Psychic Injury Avengers

And here’s something else Freud never intended: that once the suspects have been identified, they should be rounded up. So, for instance, in one of his early case studies, Freud describes an eighteen-year-old girl he calls Dora, who has suffered from unexplained recurrent laryngitis for years—ever since, as she confesses to Freud, Herr K., a friend of her father, had lured her to his office, sent home his office staff, pulled the blinds and “pressed a kiss upon her lips.” She ran out the door and never told anyone. But a couple of years later, Herr K. tried again. This time, Dora slapped him before fleeing and promptly told her father, demanding that he cut off relations with his lecherous friend—something he was reluctant to do because he was having an affair with Frau K. That’s when the father brought Dora to Freud, imploring him to “try and bring her to reason.”

Freud’s way of doing that was to explain to Dora that Herr K.’s initial advance was “just the situation to call up a distinct feeling of sexual excitement in a girl of fourteen.” She had experienced this excitement as “preponderantly or exclusively unpleasurable,” and had therefore displaced it from her genitals to her throat, where it lodged in the form of a chronic inflammation. Dora, in other words, was haunted by her own unconscious rather than by Herr K., and the cure for her hysterical laryngitis was not to confront him—or have him arrested—but rather to reclaim her disowned sexual agency. The purpose of the psychoanalytic excavation was to reveal the twisted timbers of the self, not to seek redress from the carpenters who had hewn them.

None of this is to say that Dora wasn’t aggrieved, that Herr K.’s behavior did not constitute an assault, or that Freud’s interpretation did not work to let him off the hook. It is, however, to note that underneath the indignation you may be feeling at Freud for his victim-blaming is an understanding that psychological suffering is, among other things, a forensic matter. In this justice-seeking model of psychic healing, trauma is not the result of being cast into chaos with a mind that demands order; it is, rather, a wrong that must be set right so that the injured party can achieve closure. Once it’s been established that suffering is not your birthright but rather evidence that your happiness has been hijacked, it’s easy to get into the habit of going after the thieves.

The Parent Trap

“Mama, I can’t sit here”: in her moment of anguish in Brisbane, Abdel-Magied turns to her mother. We can’t know much about their relationship, but one thing is clear: Abdel-Magied’s beef is not with her mum. Even if she is gently chiding (“she suggested . . . perhaps I was being too sensitive”), she is her companion, and it’s hard to imagine Abdel-Magied blaming her mother for making her skin so thin.

Parents, teachers, therapists, all of us lefties—we taught our children that school and team, culture and society, will fuck you up.

But those of us who have raised children in the past quarter-century might recognize in Abdel-Magied’s sensitivity a certain entitled outrage. We might remember the meetings at school where we pleaded for accommodations, or the times we did not force our kids to participate in an activity they were not good at, or sheltered them from demands we felt would overwhelm them. We might recall explaining to them that their disadvantages—the qualities that made it harder for them to fit through the ever-narrowing doorway to prosperity and security—were only differences, and that any discomfort they felt was inflicted by a world that had failed to make sufficient room for them. We might confess that we taught them not to suffer in silence but to use their words to assert those identities, to insist that the school or the job or the team be made safe for them and that when it was not, when the pain was inflicted, they should stand up for themselves and seek justice (if not vengeance).

Those of us who provided them psychotherapy gave them names for their suffering—attention deficit, social anxiety, on the spectrum, bipolar—each of which commanded its own set of accommodations. We urged them to seek such remedies whenever available, on the grounds that it would be unfair to exclude them because they were born that way. And those of us who were their professors inducted them into the secrets of close reading: the dogmatic certainty that oppression always lurks in the interstices of the text, that no example is too small to call out, that to fail to reveal an instance of unfairness, no matter how seemingly trivial, is to allow it to reproduce.

Parents, teachers, therapists, all of us lefties—we taught them that school and team, culture and society, will fuck you up. To judge from the Yale student who harangued a housemaster over his wife’s Halloween letter or the Columbia student who bore a mattress on her back to protest the school’s sexual assault policy or the Oberlin students who complained that the dining hall’s lousy sushi was an intolerable act of cultural appropriation, we have taught them well. As Donald Trump might put it if Donald Trump were capable of a thought, they are the left’s comeuppance—in the same way, come to think of it, that Donald Trump, gleefully shouting with the hatred that Republicans have been dog-whistling for decades, seems to be comeuppance to the right.

We had the best intentions. We didn’t want to fuck up our children in the well-documented manner of our own mums and dads. And we didn’t: we fucked them up differently. We fetishized their suffering, no matter how trivial, showed them how to follow the royal road of their discomfort to the citadel of their identities, to cultivate their wounds as the stigmata of their selves. We let them know that if a speaker dons a sombrero to make a point, they should wonder how that would feel if they were Mexicans, and if the answer is that it would feel bad, they should object. This protest should, in turn, be registered not only on behalf of the hypothetical Mexican in the audience, but on their own behalf, because they have learned to see the world in a grain of sand (or a piece of mediocre sushi), to descry the spread of empire, the exploitation of peoples, and the pillaging of cultures in the theatrics of a sententious novelist.

If they are earnest and pious and even snotty when they speak up, if they are self-centered in their insistence that the world not inflict suffering upon them, if their idea that culture and language can be cleansed of oppression is callow and even a little frightening—well, they are young, and they are just doing the job of the young, which is to let us know that they are going to inherit the earth. And we are doing ours, being shocked and outraged and even sometimes panicked by their stridency, by their impudence, by their temerity in informing us that we are not so fair-minded and liberal as we might think we are, that the world we are leaving them is not in such good shape, that we have become The Man.

Maybe this is why Lionel Shriver complained, from under her sombrero, that “this climate of scrutiny has got under my skin,” that she is now “anxious about depicting characters of different races, and accents now make me nervous.” Perhaps she was trying to wrest the victim mantle back from her tormentor, so that she could have what all victims have: the feeling of being right. Maybe she was trying to elude what that scrutiny revealed—about her and about all of those over whose survival she is fretting: that we have failed to live up to our own ideals.

Aggression on Auto-Pilot

I don’t know about you, but I have spent more of my six decades on earth than I like to admit taking offense, without spending much time wondering whom I could scold or shame or sue for my trouble. I experience a foray to the grocery store as a series of insults—microaggressions, if I might borrow (with gratitude) a word from the millennials. From the moment I get in my car to the moment I return home, I am assaulted by the stupidity, the venality, the sheer unrelenting horror of the execrable social order in which we live. I can drive a high-tech car that slows the impending climate catastrophe by a nanosecond, I can be kind to the sullen cashier who can’t possibly live on the money she earns, I can pay with cash so as to evade the corporations that would otherwise track me like a tagged animal, and I can feel marginally better. But I do not hurl a trash can through the window of the store, I do not hack big data, I do not sabotage the natural gas pipeline being laid right now just a few miles away from my home. Nor do I rebuke the clerk who just told me to have a nice day for her insensitivity to depressive-Americans, or go to the bank, announce that I am an independently wealthy person trapped in a middle-class body, and demand a class-change operation. After all, I have students to teach, patients to therapize, articles to write, a son to raise. So I simply seethe. And sink into the meager comforts of irony, that strange blanket of knowing detachment that muffles my outrage and softens the fact of my complicity.

I’ve learned to tolerate the pain of the world’s being out of joint with my expectations and wishes, but then, I’m a straight white guy, beneficiary of the greatest affirmative action program on earth, fucked up by my mum and dad in all the usual ways but still fed and clothed and educated well enough to remain in the professional class into which I was born. And while I bristle at the latest report of a youngster upbraiding an elder for having breached some cultural sensitivity, I have to admit that I have no idea what it is like to be a Mexican watching a privileged white lady wearing a hat that demeans my heritage to make a point about her right to write a novel. Likewise, I have no idea what it is like to be a Sudanese-Australian woman engineer listening to that privileged white lady.

I also have to admit that much as my natural sympathies lie with Shriver, I am at the same time rooting for Abdel-Magied, despite her hypersensitivity and hyperventilating and hypercriticism. I may be foolish to think that her wish to turn the world into a universal safe space does not represent an existential threat to the left, but only a conviction, leavened by youth into an aspiration that is bound to fall short of its goal. In the meantime, there is something beautiful about her high dudgeon, her fearlessness, and her hope that the world can be made a better place: she hasn’t given up yet.