Role Models

One common explanation for inner city youth crime, and the under achievement of Afro-Caribbean and working class youth, is that young people today lack ‘role models’.

Hardly a week goes by without another dire warning in the press. It is argued that the proliferation of single parent families is to blame, as if boys cannot grow up to be responsible members of society without a father to emulate. A hidden assumption, perhaps, is that the father himself will be an example of moral rectitude, social responsibility and psychological integration.

The argument can be embellished. The father having disappeared from the psychical landscape, ‘negative’ role models come flooding in to fill the gap. Thus anyone in the public eye is now regarded as a ‘role model’ whose every move has a determining influence on young people. Gangsta rappers, glamorising violence and misogyny, are thought to be a particularly bad influence on young black men. Strangely enough, the misogyny and violence of James Bond has never been thought to have a similar effect on white youth.

Freud would have been bemused by the notion of ‘role models’ even though it is part of the common currency of political discourse and pop psychology. The fact that most adolescents ‘find their identity’ in defiance and opposition to their parents should be enough to give us pause.

There are many reasons why someone would want to be like someone else, and the concept of role model does not encompass them. I may ‘admire’ someone and want to emulate them or acquire their qualities (fearing overreaching myself); I may ‘love’ someone and want to please them and seek their approval (fearing abandonment); I may envy someone and want to take their place (fearing retribution); or I may fear someone and want to placate them (seeking their protection).

Freud used the concept of ‘identification’ to consider how other people impress themselves on our minds and in a sense become part of us. But for him, the process and the influence was unconscious. The fact that ‘loyalty’, ‘honour’, ‘respect’ and adherence to arbitrary rules are key obligations of youth gang culture – all of them qualities imposed by the paternal instance and regulated by the subtle emotional semantics of the group – might imply that there is too much of the father in their lives rather than too little.

Freud reconciled this paradox by making the bold claim that our identifications are based on ‘abandoned object cathexes’, not current relationships, and that is why they have such powerful effects. The concept of role models turns a three-dimensional process into a one-dimensional one.

If there is a relation between youth crime and absent fathers, how would Freud consider it? Something about the father must be connected to obeying the law – a conjunction synthesised in the concept of the “superego”.

In The Ego and the Id, Freud puts it like this:

“It is easy to show that the ego ideal answers to everything that is expected of the higher nature of man. As a substitute for a longing for the father, it contains the germ from which all religions have evolved. The self-judgement which declares that the ego falls short of its ideal produces the religious sense of humility to which the believer appeals in his longing. As a child grows up, the role of father is carried on by teachers and others in authority; their injunctions and prohibitions remain powerful in the ego ideal and continue, in the form of conscience, to exercise the moral censorship. The tension between the demands of conscience and the actual performances of the ego is experienced as a sense of guilt. Social feelings rest on identifications with other people, on the basis of having the same ego ideal.” (p37)

“The ego ideal is therefore the heir to the Oedipus complex, and thus it is also the expression of the most powerful impulses and most important libidinal vicissitudes of the id. By setting up this ego ideal, the ego has mastered the Oedipus complex and at the same time placed itself in subjection to the id.” (p36)

For some reason, in the case of the ‘lawless youth’, these ‘most powerful impulses’ are not mastered. Why is this? Freud would say that the boys have not come to terms with ordinary ambivalence. Thus the ‘healthy’ development of the superego arises not because of the father’s guidance as a role model, but because of the father’s function as someone to fear, rebel against, and symbolically ‘kill’. The superego arises out of a ‘narrative’ process, an emotional psychodrama : ambivalence – remorse – reconciliation, which in Freud’s account goes back to the killing of the primal father and the origin of society itself.

In Civilisation and its Discontents Freud writes:

“His sons hated him, but they loved him, too. After their hatred had been satisfied by their act of aggression, their love came to the fore in their remorse for the deed. It set up the superego by identification with the father; it gave that agency the father’s power, as though as a punishment for the deed…, and it created the restrictions which were intended to prevent a repetition of the deed. And since the inclination to aggressiveness against the father was repeated in the following generations, the sense of guilt, too, persisted… Now, I think, we can at last grasp two things perfectly clearly: the part played by love in the origin of conscience and the fatal inevitability of the sense of guilt. Whether one has killed one’s father or has abstained from doing so is not really the decisive thing. One is bound to feel guilty in either case, for the sense of guilt is an expression of the conflict due to ambivalence, of the eternal struggle between Eros and the instinct of destruction or death. This conflict is set going as soon as men are faced with the task of living together.” (p132)

What then stops us symbolically killing the father – a thing we must do to grow up? There are two possibilities; either the father is too powerful and the danger of rebellion too great; or the father is already half dead – castrated – and needs to be protected and vindicated by the son. (It may come as a surprise to non-psychotherapists how often children act as parents to their parents). In a society in which black men are second class citizens and routinely humiliated by the normal exigencies of living, I will leave you to decide which is the more likely.

Schools question
In what ways can an absent father exert an overbearing influence on a child?

Added 10 August 2011
This week has seen a wave of rioting and looting in the UK. In an effort to explain the unexpected and shocking scenes, one commentator produced an interesting twist on the ‘role model’ theory. ‘Look at the role models these kids have to look up to. MPs fiddling expenses, newspapers hacking phones, police taking bribes to look the other way, large corporations avoiding tax. No wonder they have no moral compass to regulate their behaviour!’


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