Do Black Lives Matter? – A Freudian View
The murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis reminded me of another incident in the UK, which I wrote about in 2004 (and is reprinted below). Those of us who think that the shameful lack of empathy and humaneness (as one US police chief called it) could not happen here, should think again. The following is one example.
11th Dec 2004 – Standing By
News that five police officers in Hull are to receive early retirement and payoffs of up to £64,000, has caused a ripple of disquiet in the press. The five were captured on CCTV laughing and making monkey noises as black Falklands veteran Christopher Alder lay handcuffed and choking to death on the custody room floor with his trousers around his ankles. After an inquest jury had returned a verdict of unlawful killing, the five were acquitted at a criminal trial, but release of the CCTV footage by the BBC’s ‘Rough Justice’ programme prompted Home Secretary, David Blunkett, to order an internal inquiry. We are still awaiting the outcome.
Freud would not have been surprised that people could stand around joking while someone dies before their eyes. As one of the inquest jurors put it: “They did not think of him as a human being”, and Freud knew well enough that tight-knit groups of people often regard themselves as the only human beings and that strangers are regarded as non-human.
Attachment theorists would have you believe that human beings are born to ‘relate’ to other people. In fact they sometimes give the impression that it is our most fervent desire. In doing so they radically underestimate the narcissistic core which make each of us, to some extent, “a small island of pain floating on a sea of indifference” as Freud once described his cancer-wracked self to his friend Marie Bonaparte. Of course we relate to others for all kinds of reasons, and there is certainly a genetic propensity to do so (as Freud asserted), but ‘other people’ are also potential enemies whose very existence is an insult to our overweening narcissism.
Freud’s vision is not a cheering one, yet it is at the heart of his work. In ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ he introduces the Oedipus complex (though not the term) by considering children’s death wishes against their parents and parents’ death wishes against their children. In ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’ (1915) he considers the indifference with which we can view the death of another human being at a time when men were slaughtering each other in their millions. Freud’s argument is worth repeating:
“Primeval man … took up radically different attitudes towards the death of other people, of strangers, of enemies, and towards his own. He had no objection to someone else’s death; it meant the annihilation of someone he hated, and primitive man had no scruples in bringing it about.
“Pious souls, no doubt, who would like to believe that our nature is remote from any contact with what is evil and base, will not fail to use the early appearance and the urgency of the prohibition against murder as the basis for gratifying conclusions as to the strength of the ethical impulses which must have been implanted in us. Unfortunately this argument proves even more for the opposite view. So powerful a prohibition can only be directed against an equally powerful impulse… In our unconscious impulses we daily and hourly get rid of anyone who has offended or injured us… Indeed our unconscious will murder even for trifles; like the ancient Athenian code of Draco, it knows no other punishment for crime than death. And this has a certain consistency, for every injury to our almighty and autocratic ego is at bottom a crime of lèse-majesté…
In Le Père Goriot, Balzac alludes to a passage in the works of Rousseau where the author asks the reader what he would do if – without leaving Paris and of course without being discovered – he could kill, with great profit to himself, an old mandarin in Peking by a mere act of will. Rousseau implies that he would not give much for the life of that dignitary. ‘Tuer son mandarin’ has become a proverbial phrase for this secret readiness, present even in modern man.”
This may seem like a counsel of despair, and it is hardly mollified by Freud’s famous declaration of ‘love’ and ‘work’ as the foundation of civilisation (see FAQs). However, there is also cause for hope. If there is little ‘instinctual’ reason to be unduly disturbed by another person’s death it allows us to focus on the question, in this case, of training. What kind of training would be appropriate and adequate to result in these police officers regarding Christopher Alder as a ‘human being’? Is it possible to change the culture of policing and police training so that ‘empathy’ becomes a value that is introjected in much the same way as ‘loyalty’ to one’s fellow officers (that is to say ‘the willingness of officers to cover for each other even when they know it’s wrong‘)? What kind of ‘training’ would allow the ‘other person’ to enter the ambit of their communal narcissism so that by his death they are losing a piece of themselves?
We are talking about the possibilities of institutional and social change here. But if we want to integrate the police service into the fabric of the community then changes to the inner world of the ‘rank and file’ cop has to take place as well.