Hegel, Sartre, Freud and BossBabe: Language, Recovery, Self-love and the Past

The stimulus for this blog post is the following, which appeared on my Facebook feed very recently:

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I’ve just recently upgraded my commitment to pursuing the best level of thought of which I am capable  – both within and outside of language. Language barely bears the weight of what we expect from it, but that’s why some of us, even as we interrogate it fiercely, respect it in ways which we recognise are less-than-universal. Self-help publications blathering about the functional irrationality of adult human beings are increasingly ignored. But on the flip side – it remains true that much of what passes for ‘coherent’ and ‘plausible’ and ‘profound’ fails the smell test very quickly when one really examines the language use being deployed and comes apart at the seams irreparably when really scrutinised at close quarters. No-one loves the philosophers of language because they often question the linguists who have made things easy – and when philosophers get it wrong (e.g. the notorious ‘verification principle’), other philosophers are right there to point out the conceptual shortcomings.

What’s the point, you ask? At this point, a very simple one: thinking about languge is always (or SHOULD always) in fact be rethinking about language, because using language responsibly is the work of a lifetime and a duty to all all those who understand themselves to have positive mental health (read: cognitive functionality) have been called. So someone like me who has watched mental health service users very close to me struggle desperately to use words and really hate the fact that they have to depend on mind-altering (in some cases, make that ‘brain-altering) substances to operate in society in some way that can be called ‘normal’ – I cannot ever go soft on badly contrived language when it has the potential to actual have the reverse of what was intended.

Those of you still reading (thank you!) and actually following should now be able to start guessing where this post is going: that’s right, I am about to take this very well-intentioned would-be-aphorism that also functions as a ‘would-be-profound-self-help’ soundbyte apart. Although I have not seen the person who posted this for several years, I know that person very well and we have some very important shared experiences. They are always trying to empower and uplift – that’s who they are – and so my disavowal of this particular soundbyte (is this also a ‘meme’ or is that the wrong word?!) is not to be understood as any sort of disregard for this person. Again, we need philosophy to help us remember that an individual person is an individual person who has the same right to respect as every other – and so to disagree profoundly with one idea a person has is not to dismiss that person (or their entire catalogue of thought) as worthless. [This emotive projection (read: stupid mistake) is made time and time again, hence this disclaimer…if you’re not that sort of weak-minded individual, I give thanks for you!]

~

The above is not an ‘argument.’ It does not qualify. [Google ‘structure of argument’ and ‘logic’ (which is not only ‘philosophical’) if you don’t genuinely understand why I’ve said this}. It is a soundbtye – a statement, and a categorical one (by which I mean that there are no caveats or qualifications offered). This means that the two ladies behind BossBabe who have put this out are taking it that the above is universally true – end of.

This is what I call a first-order analysis of the soundbyte:

  1. It is possible for one to love who one is, and by inference, this is desirable.
  2. Who one is has come about in part by virtue of past ‘experiences;’ these experiences could be the kind of negative which might mean that one is predisposed to ‘hating’ said experiences (whether understandably or not, whether rationally or not).
  3. Irrespective of what kind/type/dimension of experience/s one may have had in the past, if one is to ‘love oneself,’ then one MUST not hate ANY previous experiences whatsoever.
  4. As such, one’s ‘experiences’ and ‘one’s self/identity are to be conflated into one [entirely non-defined] entity – because if hating an experience that one has undergone is tantamount to not loving oneself [the inference being that loving onseself is desirable] due to the fact that by hating an experience one is hurting one’s ability to love onseself – then the author/s of this soundbyte do not believe that  one can hate (in what might be described as a sort of ‘present continous’ tense) any experience and still love oneself.

Now, despite what some of you will have noted is a pretty tightly-worded sequence of thought, some would-be-clever-clogs is guaranteed to pipe up: “Wait a second: Natalie and Danielle (CEO/COO of BossBabe respectively) haven’t said that you ‘must love’ the experiences that have shaped you (in order to love yourself) – they’ve said that you can’t hate them!

Excellent. 10/10 for basic English language reading skills. Those are the words that have been used. And the point behind this observation is…? [I spend my life saying to people: “did you not hear me say that?” It’s okay, I accept this, but I am only human and allowed the occasional rant!]

So now that we’ve established that I have not claimed that Natalie and Danielle have said that you must ‘love’ every experience, let’s look at what it would mean to ‘not hate any experience.’

~

  1. American Football (NFL) is a sport I used to love to watch. Now I can only watch occasional highlights. Why? Since the litany of cases of former players whose game was built on ruthless physicality including the clashing of helmets (etc) and whose post-career lives were a train wreck due to mostly undiagnosed brain trauma has risen and risen and risen, and the NFL’s intransigence over this – I spent a long time looking into this and the more I read and learned, that more angry and sad I became. The cases of the players who were unable to show the kind of love to their partners and children and in some cases the premature deaths forced me to question the ethics behind not so much the sport itself but what it has become as professional entertainment. This might seem like a brutal analogy, but how far are we from the blood sports of Rome’s Coliseum where people died just for the entertainment of masses? So let’s say that a former player makes it through, with awards and trophies and masses of respect. But every day of their post-career lives brings reminders of what they sacrificed ‘to win’ and now the consequences are permanent and long-term. Some of those same players who lived only to win eventually become advocates of sporting fun for its own sake – and they do not want their kids or anyone they influence to follow their careers.  There is no way a sane, compassionate and humane response could include the idea that it was good that they had those experiences and made those sacrifices because now they are different and wiser and broader human beings as a result. What if they never lived long enough to learn to think differently?! And also, they should then encourage youngsters to do what they did because those experiences are the way in which they will become rounded human beings….WHAT?!?!?!
  2. Same type of theme – veterans of combat struggling with PTSD. In the past two years, two new dramas have been broadcast with ‘hero’ male characters fighting terrorists (one in London on British TV, one in Copenhagen on Danish TV) – both ex-soldiers who are also battling PTSD in ways which is ruining their relationships and hurting their work. And in the end, both men go to find the help that they need.
  3. Sexual abuse – some survivors reach the point of being able to actually experience reciprocal love with other human beings. Others would give body parts to be able to reach that place, but the effects of violent trauma are not the same for everyone. Therapy has helped some people find their way out of a spiral of hate for the perpetrator/s and self-abuse, but they have to be very careful when they revisit any memories of that trauma – because the effect on their actual overall physiology (yes, I mean the type of trauma that affects far more than just ‘brain biochemistry’) created by just the memories alone is HUGE and non-positive. Is that a example of an ‘experience’ which must be ‘non-hated’ JUST for a survivor to be able to love themselves? Christian counselling has a framework for actually loving (as opposed to merely not hating) even those of us who commit the worst sort of atrocities – but the experiences themselves are not in the same category – because this is now where we get to a bit of philosophy.

Towards the end of a plane of thought in the Shorter Logic, Hegel stated that “…a man is nothing but the series of his actions.” Now, we can’t get into Hegel’s philosophical anthropology and its relationship to his philosophy of history, but we can hopefully get that for him, who one is at a given moment is only to be understood in terms of the past. [This gets more interesting when we discover that Hegel also believed that there is no such thing as the present: only the past and the future, but let’s not get any more sidetracked than we already are!] And that is a very understandably popular way to make sense of ‘becoming.’

However, one philosopher questioned our understanding of the role of the past in who we become – more on that very shortly. Returning to this BossBabe soundbyte, we can safely assume that the authors believe that if one succeeds in not hating any part of one’s past experiences, self-love becomes possible – that’s why it is important to not hate any part of the past because (as Hegel said) all we are is the past….

HOLD ON JUST ONE SECOND! Did you see what happened there?!?!?!?

Hegel did not say that we are nothing but the sum of our past – he said that we are nothing but the sum of our ACTIONS! So that means that our own exercise of volition is who we become – but if others force themselves upon us, all we have is what we choose. So when various slavemasters on plantations selected black slaves with lighter skin tone and offered them emoluments for being on a higher level of the hierarchy of the slave economy in that context – some said ‘no’ and paid the price. Others said ‘yes’ and in the 21st-century we continue to pay the price….

Situation Ethics for teenage schoolchildren: you live in a part of Colombia where cocaine is the only available trade and means of making any sort of living. According to one Reader’s Digest article I read many years ago, cocaine ‘base’ is literal/actual currency in some communities. If you had children and had to provide for them and cocaine was the only way, what would you do?

Who we are is the result of our own choices – NOT the sum of our experiences! So however you answer the above question, that becomes who you are. And if you said ‘no’ to the regime and you or your loved ones were punished accordingly, it will always be true that the only power you ever had (and have) was/is to make the best decisions of which you are capable. This is not some easy cop-out – most of us won’t make the highest moral decision because we are so inherently selfish, but we can at least be honest about that. And if your child was killed and tortured because you would not say ‘yes’ –  no humane and emotionally intelligent response could suggest that one must ‘not hate’ an experience of that sort because it makes you who you are. To say so constitutes a huge abuse of language which is itself an abuse of good mental health.

~

But there is some more to say about ‘hate.’

  1. The great American sprinter Michael Johnson was a freak of nature long before Usain Bolt came along. To date, no athlete has succeeded at running 200 and 400-metre races like he did, winning Olympic golds at both. You want to know something? Johnson ran 19.32 for the 200 metres in Atlanta in 1996, LONG before Bolt ran 19.19. So he has earned the right to be taken seriously when he says that certain athletes for a country I could not possible name will never win because they have never learned to hate losing. They have insufficient incentive to find what it takes to win. The peerless basketball player Michael Jordan was also renowned for absolutely hating losing – and his name will remain a metaphor for sporting greatness long after others have scored more points and won more trophies. Two great sportspeople who learned from their mistakes and losses, but who, while accepting that they had been beaten, used the anger and negativity that came with loss to fuel a phenomenal work ethic that now means their achievements transcend both their respective sports. Don’t miss this: accepting the reality of a negative and horrible experience cannot possibly be the same thing as hating the experience of losing. Some guys lose a ball game and (like Tupac Shakur’s character in Above the Rim) want to kill their opponents right there and then. Others go away and work harder. Everyone chooses.
  2. Activists who take up causes because of some loss or trauma that they personally have suffered. A sister becomes a counsellor because she finds her sister hanging from her bedroom wall one day. Time heals, but she is never the same. Now, some well-intended folks (like my good friend) would say:

If you hate something that is associated with emotions…[it] may suggest not having fully healed or integrated the learning. You can “acknowledge” the pain is part of the process, and move on…and as you say…’still dislike / hate / despise what happened”. [However,] I would argue that’s not truly moving on developing. If I hate it it still has power over me. It is part of my ego.

If I have accepted it. Healed it. It no longer has an emotional hold. I have accepted it whole heartedly. “What an honour” that painful experience has given me…. x,y,z and in fact…I give thanks to it. Even though it may be painful.

So applying this reasoning to my hypothetical scenario in this case: what is being argued is that the living sister should give thanks to the ‘experience’ [some might rephrase that to say “give thanks for the experience] of not only going through her sister’s suicide but discovering the body.

This is now where I am going to say that this view of ‘hate’ is remarkably simplistic. It is breathtakingly preposterous to insist that everyone will process very strong non-positive emotions in the exact same ways. One of the reasons why Buddhism is ultimately rejected by some folks who are initially incredibly attracted to it is because the concept/process of detachment is in the end not possible with an integrated view of a self as a being with the capacity to exercise any actual volition for good or bad. It is not stated explictly, but the process of ’emptying’ and ‘detaching’ actually makes it impossible to hold a rigorous grasp of any kind of embodied self – human or otherwise. [Too complicated? Brutal summary: ‘detachment’ ultimately means that you cannot ‘own’ ANY part of your own story – is that really what BossBabe want to promote?!] This is why Wittgenstein talked about ‘language games’ – because for some minds, ‘hate’ cannot be anything other than destructive, but this is a projection! For another, hate in a specific context is the way in which they remember why they do what they do. And the idea that an experience must be owned in a specific emotional framework for ‘the learning to be integrated’ is at the heart of what Sartre found reprehensible about Freudian psychoanalysis.

Sartre argued that psychoanalysis prioritises the past in order to generate any sense of what the future might hold. He used the lexeme ‘ultimate possible’ as being that which psychoanalysis holds is not possible in any domain other than the past (by inference of the view of consciousness held). And this plays into what is broadly understood today (which owes more to Freud than many realise – that’s how powerful Freud’s ideas were and are!) – the past MUST be redeemed before any ‘ultimate possible’ can exist. So one can never be anything other than some form of defined entity from the past. Now, in a more complex rhetorical move, Sartre also argues that psychoanalysis denies the future (even while claiming that the future is what matters) – but that requires its own blog post.

Sartre’s existentialist conception of self-realisation reverses this conceptual polarity – in order for an Ultimate Possible to actually become a ‘realised actuality’ one must start by looking to the future. Now, this can really only make the best level of sense if one has something of a grip on the role that ‘negation’ plays in Sartre’s concept of freedom. In 1943, when Being and Nothingness is being completed, Sartre is on an evolving roller-coaster journey with phenomenology as explicated by Husserl and Heidegger – because back in 1938’s Nausea Sartre is arguing for redemption through the morality of art (he would later renounce that completely). In 1943’s Being and Nothingness his thinking is essentially that self-realisation is only possible if one first understands that conciousness is freedom and then from that vantage point considers the future and makes a choice to move towards it – which then impacts on how and what we choose in any given moment. Again, this explication deserves more than a mere blog post (even my notorious long-form efforts such as this one!) but Sartre’s categories of “Being-in-Itself” and “Being-for-Itself” need at least their own blog post (if not blog series…!). And the whole of twentieth-century Western academic-and-later-generally-socially-accepted thought about teleology, meaning, freedom and existence proceed from those foundations, whether understood or not, and whether acknowledged or not.

~

As a religious thinker, I have long argued against ‘soundbyte religion.’ This BossBabe soundbyte is nothing like that, but it absolutely requires uncritical acceptance of certain presuppositions of an exactly type/dimension which many secular people accuse religious adherents of. This soundbyte is dangerous because it is specious, badly contrived and altogether redolescent of the kind of pseudo-profundity authored by people who have not ever come close to experiencing trauma of the kind that is never actually overcome by what Thomas Szasz describes as the ‘technology’ of ‘therapy.’ [That language about ‘overcoming’ genuinely chronic mental health disorder is only ever used by well-meaning non-mental-health-service-users.] The notional hypothetical state of ‘non-hatred’ as proof that one’s ‘ego’ has been overcome is at singular odds with the construction of coherent ‘self-love’ and means that words are being used without adequate understanding. So if one is not going to do the homework, one should avoid the propagation of soundbytes. Hegel and Sartre would have had something to say about the morality of what I’ve just said regarding the ethical responsibility of language use and mental health, so I beg you: put down Instagram and Twitter and look for an actual book with sentences and paragraphs and chapters – maybe not one on Kindle this time?!

😉

 

 

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