Had he been reading this blog, Brendan O’Neill would have found answers to some of his prayers. Most especially, he found have found some analysis of the role that therapy might have played in Elliot Rodger’s murderous rampage. And he would also have found an extensive, multi-year analysis of the therapy culture.
I think Rodger's reported reliance on therapists from childhood through to adulthood deserves more analysis than it has so far received, because it potentially speaks to a dark side—a very dark side—of the modern therapy culture. There has been a mad dash to blame Rodger's actions on the misogynistic websites that he was known to visit, with some claiming these sites warped his mind and made him murderous. There has been far less focus on the therapy culture which by all accounts, and according to his family and friends, was a far more longstanding part of his life than his Internet habits.
Elaborating a point that I made yesterday, O’Neill explains that Rodger might well have been suffering from inflated self-esteem:
For one of the main, and most terrifying, achievements of the modern cult of therapy has been to churn out a generation of people completely focused on the self and in constant need of validation from others; a generation that thinks nothing of spending hours examining and talking about their inner lives and who regard their own self-esteem as sacrosanct, something which it is unacceptable for anyone ever to dent or disrespect.
Could Rodger's fury at the world for failing to flatter his self-image as a good, civilized guy be a product of the therapy industry, of the therapy world's cultivation of a new tyrannical form of narcissism where individuals demand constant genuflection at the altar of their self-esteem?
Here is O’Neill’s analysis of the therapy culture:
Therapy culture has created a new army of little gods made fearsomely angry by any perceived insult against their self-esteem. It has generated groups of people who, like something out of the Old Testament, think nothing of squishing things that offend them or hurt their sense of self-worth. It has made a whole new anti-social generation whose desire to protect themselves from emotional harm overrides the older human instinct to engage with other people and be tolerant of their differences. When Rodger says "I am a living god," he is speaking, not from any kind of wacky religious script, but from the mainstream bible of therapy. The cult of therapy convinces individuals they are gods and that their self-esteem is a gospel that must not be blasphemed against.
While we are talking about Elliot Rodger, we can also turn to Ross Douthat’s comments in his New York Times column today.
Yesterday, I essayed to show how Freudian treatment might have helped produce the mindset that told Rodger that sexlessness was a fate worse than death and murder. The actions that constitute the Oedipus complex, being incest and patricide, are depraved and violent.
Perhaps it was a bit of a stretch, but clearly, Rodger’s multi-year work in therapy did not help him. Talk therapy was not suited to someone who was suffering from a psychosis, not a neurosis, a depression or a personality disorder.
For Douthat, however, the culprit is Hefnerism, that is the Playboy Philosophy of Hugh Hefner.
In Douthat’s words:
The culture’s attitude is Hefnerism, basically, if less baldly chauvinistic than the original Playboy philosophy. Sexual fulfillment is treated as the source and summit of a life well lived, the thing without which nobody (from a carefree college student to a Cialis-taking senior) can be truly happy, enviable or free.
Meanwhile, social alternatives to sexual partnerships are disfavored or in decline: Virginity is for weirdos and losers, celibate life is either a form of unhealthy repression or a smoke screen for deviancy, the kind of intense friendships celebrated by past civilizations are associated with closeted homosexuality, and the steady shrinking of extended families has reduced many people’s access to the familial forms of platonic intimacy.
Yet as sex looms ever larger as an aspirational good, we also live in a society where more people are single and likely to remain so than in any previous era. And since single people have, on average, a lot less sex than the partnered and wedded, a growing number of Americans are statistically guaranteed to feel that they’re not living up to the culture’s standard of fulfillment, happiness and worth.
As much as I would like to second Douthat’s notion that the Playboy Philosophy has defined the culture, the foundation for that peculiar call to decadence was Freudian theory.
Freud did not say that sexual expression was either the path to the good life or a sign of a good life. He said that sexual expression was the royal road to good mental health.
Despite what some of his followers proclaim, Freud did promote a freer and more open sex life for everyone. Yet, he defined the issue in terms of sickness and health, as though sexual repression, failure to have sexual experience, failure to talk about sex, failure to learn about sex from a very early age… would make people mental ill. To some of his followers, bad sex would also necessarily lead to bodily illness, too.
As much as we would love to give credit to Hugh Hefner, the founding father of this peculiar rhetorical flourish was Sigmund Freud.
Clearly, the attitude permeates the culture. But, one suspects strongly that Rodger learned it from a Freudian or neoFreudian therapist.