How Not To Become a Sociopath: The ‘Rest of America’ and the Role of Joy

Does having fun in your life protect you from becoming a sociopath?

Since 2020, we have witnessed charming, well-educated, “civilized” people all around us — especially from what my husband calls (as others do) “the laptop class” — reveal, during ‘lockdowns” and medical tyranny — a side that is, bare teeth and all, nakedly sadistic.

Now, as our stunned society slowly tries to set itself upright from having wallowed for nearly three years in an irrational, animalistic seizure of hatred and cruelty — as it struggles to settle its hat and to brush the dust and mire of the gutter off of its suit, and to straighten its necktie — few indeed from that group want to glance back at the Lord of the Flies-type scenes of savagery that these “civilized” people cheered on.

But we who were targeted know what happened and cannot forget it. We click, sometimes ruminatively, on compilations in social media of “respectable” politicians, comedians, talk show hosts, and thought leaders, avidly stating that they wished we would just die, that we should be denied medical care, that we should be locked indoors forever, lose our jobs, and so on.

We — the targeted — must reckon with the traumatizing fact that we were on the receiving end of cruelty which the perpetrators seemed really to enjoy.

Remember all of those affluent ladies (so often affluent ladies) — total strangers — who gestured wildly at you to pull your mask up over your nose? What was their energy like? Almost eager, almost erotic, right?

They liked it. They liked the power.

Remember the tone of the society hostess who told you that you can’t come to a private event at a major philanthropist’s penthouse — because “he is being careful”? Was there a bit of a thrill, a sensual savoring, for the hostess, of the words that excluded you, and that included all of them?

Remember the stories of disabled children who came home from schools, weeping, with their masks tied to their faces by their special education teachers? Remember the tone of the elementary school principals who told anguished parents that there was nothing that they could do about the forced masking, or about kids being socially exiled in full view of the class for shamingly-structured weekly testing? Remember the Ivy League deans who told distraught parents that there was nothing they could do about mandated mRNA injections that had been tested on only eight mice? Recall the hospital administrators who told miserable adult children that they could not sneak Ivermectin to their elders, or even hug them?

They were sorry, but there was nothing they could do. Remember that?
“We are just following CDC guidelines,” all of these gatekeepers parroted, not noticing, or choosing not to notice, the famous phrase, from about 85 years ago, that this recalls.

What was the frenzy of 2020-2022 but Sigmund Freud’s and Wilhelm Reich’s repressive hysteria?

Early 20th century psychologists, notably Wilhelm Reich in The Mass Psychology of Fascism, presciently published in 1933-34, believed that when people deny themselves pleasure and meaning, they become ripe for the attractions of sadism and the lures of totalitarianism. [] Reich believed that the repression of German interwar culture resulted in that population’s attraction to Nazism.

Even earlier than Reich, in 1920, Sigmund Freud formulated the “Pleasure Principle,” (Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud suggested that in pleasure and joy there is a release of tension, and that hysteria and other neuroses manifest when these instinctive impulses to joy and pleasure are blocked.

While much controversy has swirled around Mattias Desmet’s 2022 The Psychology of Totalitarianism, and its core proposal of “Mass Formation” as an explanation for the mania of the recent “lockdown” past, his thesis is far from new, as he himself has plaintively had to argue. [] Indeed, Desmet’s is an updating of directly antecedent work from Reich, which he cites, and even more centrally from Hannah Arendt’s classic The Origins of Totalitarianism, which he also cites. []

Though many readers today, in the health freedom community especially, think Desmet’s thesis is novel and controversial, it truly isn’t; it is far from novel for sociologists, social commentators and psychologists to speculate about what psychological dynamics cause paroxysms of totalitarian or Fascistic behavior in populations behaving hysterically as a mass. They’ve been doing so for a couple of centuries.

Desmet largely bypasses the aspects of Reich’s work that centers on the suppression of pleasure, for a more mechanistic focus on general thought control.

But could these theories of suppressed pleasure and the hysterical reactiveness that can arise from it — theories from the past — help usefully to explain the mania of the past three years?

Many progressive urban elites, especially, while expressing themselves on social media, seemed to like being “locked down”; seemed to boast about how isolated they were, in the depths of our mass incarceration; seemed even to enjoy being scared of “the virus” — seemed to like having something larger than themselves, larger than their $12 green juices and their Pilates workouts at Equinox Gyms, larger than their swiping right on dating apps, larger than the “Culture” section of The New York Times, on which to focus, and to which to yield their passions.

They were hungry for a cause, for a way to be part of the collective “greater good”, for a methodology to demonstrate their self-sacrifice; and so the “rules” handed down one after another by what friends of mine are now calling “our overlords,” seemed to stimulate, fulfill and gratify that longing for greater meaning, that desire to yield to authority and to lose one’s troublesome, bored, neurotic self in the collective “altruistic” hive mind.

Their lust for obedience had in it an element of pleasure; an erotics of submission as captured in the only half-joking phrase on a meme, “Lock me down harder, Daddy”.

The past three years, this social lust for submission, coinciding with a lust for domination and control; this embrace by certain elites of the performing of cruelty and of imposing cruelty (injections, more and more of them; the masks, the isolation) on oneself — recall of course the Sylvia Plath poem, “Daddy”:

“ Every woman adores a Fascist,

The boot in the face, the brute

Brute heart of a brute like you.”

But in this case those adoring the Fascist were of both genders, and the Brute was the worshipped State.

What could have contributed to this neurosis, this perverse dynamics of dominance and submission, this desire of millions to lose their individuality, their willingness to sacrifice in what should have been obvious ways, the wellbeing of their children, and their acceptance, at Zimbardo-experiment-speed, of more and more levels of dystopian sadism in their own and in others’ lives?

What contributed to turning the culture of liberal elites in cities especially, into a fertile soil for breeding acts of public cruelty?

Coming from that world, and having lived in it for decades — and now living in a totally different world, a world which we may call “the Rest of America” — I suspect that one contributing factor to this sadism/sadomasochism of the elites is what Freud and Reich both suggested could be dangerous: that is, the systematic denial of pleasure, spirituality, fun and meaning in the lives of the “laptop class.”

The world of liberal elites is one of workaholism, in which family life is often downgraded as a priority, and in which spiritual life has little focus on it at all; it is also made joyless by constant self-surveillance and self-denial.

It is a world full of opaque rules, and the rules constantly shift; some of the rules are about virtue signaling, so you don’t get kicked out of your tight, judgmental, privileged little society; but many of the rules are about maintaining a class status that feels, to members of this group, as if it is constantly in danger.

Only by one’s knowing the secret codes of the elite — how one is supposed to talk, dress, decorate one’s home, entertain — can one signal to others that one is a member of the in-group and that one knows its rigid signifiers.

The code serves to keep everyone else out, even as it reinforces the status of the insiders. But the code, along with the workaholism, contributes to the self-denying atmosphere — the sense of deprivation in relation to spontaneity and fun.

I once sat in a LaZBoy recliner, and I loved it; so secretly, I always longed for a recliner. But you can’t have a recliner if you are in the world of liberal elites. Don’t ask why, you just can’t. “Those people” — the people who support “Don’t Say Gay”, who love Trump, those “out there” who are benighted, the “deplorables” — — they have recliners.

So you can’t. Your friends will smirk.

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