One month after giving a divisive speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston, Pat Buchanan wrote that “…we Americans are locked in a cultural war for the soul of our country”. He’s not wrong; interested parties across the nation are committed to ensuring that the “soul” of the nation, if such a thing can be said to exist, reflects their personal beliefs. He is mistaken, however, if he believes that culture war is a recently begun conflict. This is a war which has been waged for thousands of years. That this culture war originates in Freud’s theories of mind may come as a surprise to commentators who have made a living insisting it is a new issue that threatens our nation. Sigmund Freud wrote that there are primarily two forces, the Id and the Ego, which are at work in each of us. Buchanan or his modern contemporary Sarah Palin might be further shocked to know that this internal strife stems from the ancient idea that one can know the absolute truth and that all others are idolatrous. This ancient idea is known as the Mosaic Distinction, and originates with the founding of the Jewish religion. The ultimate reason for this divide, and the cause of the conflict which plagues our culture to this day, is our brain structure. The very composition of our brain dictates that we will always be subject to a culture war; it is inevitable. Culture war is the result of our hemispherical minds. To truly understand the origin of culture war, one must begin with Freud’s theories of Id and Ego.
Id vs. Ego
Sigmund Freud is rightly called the father of modern psychology. One of the most famous of his ideas is that of the Id and the Ego. According to Freud, our Id is the impulsive and wild part of our personality, a more primitive part of our psyche that desires only to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Our Ego, conversely, serves to restrict these impulses. The Ego is called the reality principle and provides a rational restraint of the Id, which allows for things like communal living that would not be possible without moderation and self-control. These two forces are opposed, working against each other yet in balance for the betterment of the individual and society. Another of Freud’s theories, regarding neurosis, stated that an individual might experience an obsession with cleanliness as the result of an over-generalization of the need for hygiene. Extended to an entire culture, Freud felt that religion is a neurosis, an over-generalization of taboos such as incest. In this way, the same mental illness can afflict both the individual and a culture. Since one psychological issue, neurosis, impacts both a society and a person, we are able to conclude that conflicts of Ego and Id can as well. This interpretation of Freud is best understood with an example of Ego and Id conflict in society. For this it is best to consider the 1960s, a time of intense change in culture. There had long been brewing an undercurrent of rebellion; conditions in this time caused an explosion of expressive music, free love, and drug use. Parents of this generation saw cause for concern. Their children were openly expressing themselves in ways that established culture saw as strange, different, dangerous, and lewd. The societal Id had overtaken, and the societal Ego worked to rationally control this free expression. Eventually, the Ego and the Id reached equilibrium. The hippies of the sixties are parents and grandparents, having limited their desire for expression and creativity in favor of a rational and logical existence. Some of these people, imbued with a kernel of creative liberty, have become the greatest thinkers and artists of our time. Freud’s concepts of neurosis, Ego, and Id apply to both individuals and also society as a whole. These ideas have their roots in the ancient Mosaic Distinction.
The Mosaic Distinction
Freud argued that the Moses that brought religion to the Hebrews was likely a disciple of the disgraced pharaoh Akhenaten, who sought to establish a monotheism that differed starkly from previous forms of Egyptian religion. Devoted to the idea of a single all-powerful deity, Moses wanted to convince the Hebrews to take up the forgotten religion. Akhenaten had failed, and his religion was all but wiped from the land shortly after his death; Moses was determined to succeed. To ensure his success, he convinced the Hebrews that they were the special and chosen people of god. Furthermore, he instilled in them the idea that there was only one true god, and that all other gods were idolatrous. Followers of these false idols, then, were heathens and heretics. This is the Mosaic Distinction, the concept that what you know is the unmitigated truth and that all others are wrong in their beliefs; the right and good versus the wrong and bad. With the introduction of this division, a change began to occur in people’s perspectives. As the idea spread, unity began to dissolve and religious conflict became prominent. This is not to say that there were no wars before the Mosaic Distinction, but the justification for war began to change. Increased religious conflict was a consequence of the Mosaic distinction. However, to truly understand culture war, we must understand where the Mosaic Distinction originated from. Before people would go to such lengths to distinguish themselves from others, their brain structure had determined the duality inherent in society.
The Id and the Ego are not strictly abstract concepts; they are rooted in our brain structure, as is the justification for the Mosaic Distinction. The human brain is unfathomably complex; however, there are some simple characteristics. Most notable upon a visual inspection of the brain is the distinct halves. These are the left and right hemispheres. Each half has some characteristics which are unique, and some that are shared. The left side of the brain can be thought of as the logical half. The right side of the brain, conversely, is generally more artistic and imaginative. Hand dominance is opposite from hemisphere preference; that is, left handed people tend to be more creative, and right handed people tend to be more rational. The human brain, full of contradictions, causes an inner conflict we feel every day. We have both impulsive and self-sustainment drives. We desire danger, yet seek comfort. When we consider the characteristics of each side of the mind, we can correlate Freud’s theories to brain structure. The Ego is the left brain, rational and self-sustaining. The Id is the right brain, creative and impulsive. These two forces are always at odds, contradicting each other to create a stable psyche. We established earlier that Freud analyzed the mental state of a society as well as that of the individual. Today, a modern equivalent to Freud’s investigations into the psyche would be neuroscience’s studies of the human brain. We can apply Freud’s concepts of society and individuals exhibiting similar psychological traits to neuroscience. Furthermore, let us say that it is possible not only to study the human brain as it manifests itself in an individual, but also how it influences a society or culture. For example, neuroscience established the idea of the hemispherical makeup of the human mind. In a society, we can see the left and right brain manifested. Recalling our earlier example of sixties culture, we can interpret the rebellious youth as the right brain rather than the Id, and the conservative “establishment” as the left brain rather than the Ego. Broadening the scope of our analogy allows us to view any element of culture war as a conflict between opposing sides of a communal mind. The Mosaic Distinction becomes an attempt by the left brain to restrict the non-judgmental attitude of the right brain. Within the brain, the two sides are not always on the same page. The division is quite pronounced; communication between hemispheres relies solely on the corpus callosum. We can think of the corpus callosum as an intermediary responsible for ensuring that the two sides of the brain can cooperate. The two halves of the brain will never see an issue the same way, but the corpus callosum makes sure that they are working towards the same goal.
To review, Freud’s theories of Id and Ego apply both to individuals and to society as a whole. This division between impulse and restraint stems from the ancient Mosaic Distinction, which is the cause of much conflict in our society. The Mosaic Distinction is an inevitable consequence of our brain structure, divided as it is into the left and right hemispheres. When we think of culture as the result of a community of minds working in concert, we can see that the structure of these minds is likely to influence society. In our culture, we can see definite “hemispheres” arise. Think of the political slant of the coasts of the United States. The West Coast tends to be politically and socially liberal, with California working to legalize marijuana. The East Coast tends towards the conservative, with the federal government’s attempts to enforce strict federal legislation on marijuana. In truth, the opposing forces of society will never truly come to terms. Ego and Id. Left and right. Conservative and liberal. Democrat and Republican. Secular and spiritual. Humanist and deist. It is a folly to think that all human thought can be split along such clear lines as to put everything in either one category or the other, but when considering these polar opposite perspectives, we know that each side will never truly agree. Just like we will always desire a luscious bar of chocolate even though it is contrary to our diet, certain conflicts will never be totally removed from our cultural consciousness. Culture war is unwinnable and inevitable. When humanity realizes this, and attains a societal corpus callosum to keep society in harmony, the commentators who have built a career on picking a polemic position on cultural issues will be out of a job.
The Inevitable Conflict by Steve Richey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
This post was originally submitted for a class on religion and culture.