In Britain a 63-year-old woman described as a church-going mother who kept to herself appears to have killed herself after being found out posting abusive messages on Twitter to a couple whose three-year-old daughter was abducted seven years ago. The McCann case has sparked a strange viciousness in members of the public. The Guardian, unique in the contemporary newspaper press for struggling to take a moral line noted that Mrs Brenda Leyland was ‘said not to be the worst of the alleged online abusers’ targeting the McCann family. But to take a quantifying approach to morals is immediately to miss the point. Probably several points.
The novelist hated this middle-class couple for their wrong way of thinking, as she saw it, and Mrs McCann for her beauty. But at least Enright wrote a considered article analysing the dark paths of her own soul, and signed it. The ease and anonymity of social media means anyone can fire off abuse and not be held to account. Except in Mrs Leyland’s case: somehow Sky News found out and confronted her. I’m willing to speculate. She told the reporters it was her right, but she felt mortally ashamed. Perhaps the result of her church-going: she saw herself tragically.
It is meanwhile a scandal of its own that this whole case should be passed over without real comment. After all what is human nature, and what kind of self-destruction does the anonymity of the new media invite?
Two thousand five hundred years ago Plato set out his view of humanity in an image in The Phaedrus. Two powerful steeds speed us through our experience of life, steered by a charioteer. ‘One of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character. Therefore the driving is necessarily difficult and troublesome.’ The Charioteer represents intellect, reason, or whatever in human makeup is capable of seeking truth (and harmony and virtue and so on), and he has to master two horses pulling in opposite directions. One is rational and moral while the other represents base appetites and desires.
When Christianity absorbed into itself this basic view of human nature it transformed it into a doctrine of self-control and self-abnegation. A Christian tried ever after not to fail in steering his or her own soul.
Sigmund Freud recast this image less than a century ago, when he figured the human personality as made up of Ego, Superego and Id. In Freud’s case the Superego (das Über-ich) was the noble steed, and the Ego (Das Ich) was the driver. The Id (das Es) was the other force that would upset the chariot. Freud was writing presciently for a secular twentieth century. In contrast to Plato and the Christian Idealist heritage his view of the human removed all element of blame. He said, that’s how we are. At our most basic level what we want often conflicts with what the correctnesses of society (the Superego) lay down. The power of the anti-social Id, literally the anonymous and unspeakable ‘it’, surges through us all. The only question then is how we can live a relatively happy life in which we can still play a fulfilling part in society, courtesy of our more moulded and tempered ambitions. That achievement is the work of the Ego, the power that speaks the name ‘I’. And it really is an achievement.
Now, it’s easy to dismiss Freud’s seemingly mechanical characterization of human nature and thus to fail to see that his mechanisms and entities are only more imagery. He was above all a doctor to inner conflict. Out of those mysteriously competing human impulses which make up civilized humanity he tried to create a new wisdom.
But we’re not with Freud any more, as we are not with Plato. The Superego is just too authoritarian and we’ve decoupled the noble horse from the yoke. In Freud’s terms, we’ve not only given up on the Superego, but on the self-regulating Ego too.
Instead we have minimal regulation from without: that light touch in morals that the bankers had in financial speculation.
It’s true you can’t say just anything on the web, in chat rooms, using hash tags, responding to blogs. But even when these controls work they are outside us. We do and say anonymously what we like, what we think we can get away with, and risk the chance of being found out. A few self-possessed souls prefer to go by their own names, but not many.
It faintly amuses me that the Charioteer, who made way for the less picturesque Superego, has now become a characterless team of moderators, themselves anonymous, who presumably spend their days wading through messy verbiage. I’m amused only because the history of ideas is invariably ironic. The rest of me is glum.
Who knows what the moderators suppress, given what they allow. Read through any thread following up on a newspaper article, a tennis match, even a quest for information how to repair a bit of hifi kit, as I have done recently, and you’ll find that the vast majority of the comments are people attacking each other, with the original goal of a democratic ‘have-your-say’ quite forgotten.
The technology is inviting. Even quite grand names from the literary scene have been caught out hurling midnight abuse at their negative reviewers — and shamed for it, by the press. It’s easily done, tired, in the evening, after a drink or two.
All the same, how primitive we’ve become in our post-bourgeois society, outsourcing our self-control to the internet moderators and the snooping press.
(I’ve written more about what’s valuable in Freud in The Secret Artist A Close Reading of Sigmund Freud.)