Scientific Challenges to Over-Socialization

19 February 2011


Theodore Kaczynski, AKA the Unabomber, whose manifesto in defense of his violent militancy has had a certain influence

Theodore Kaczynski, AKA the Unabomber, whose manifesto in defense of his violent militancy has had a certain influence

Lately I have been reading Theodore Kaczynski’s Industrial Society and its Future. This work is better known as the Unabomber Manifesto, and Theodore Kaczynski is (or was) the unabomber. While I do not share Kaczynski’s commitment to militancy, or even the conclusions of his manifesto, the concerns that prompted his manifesto overlap in significant ways with the concerns that I have been writing about in this forum for the past couple of years.

Kaczynski was apparently a true believer in what I have called revolutionary violence, which is to be understood as a special case of violence and not merely as violence simpliciter. Presumably Kaczynski hoped or believed that by targeted killings of individuals who represented advanced industrialized society, that his actions could be the trigger for a change that would grow and gather momentum until its unstoppable power brought an end to technological-industrial society.

Kaczynski’s manifesto reveals that he has thought passionately about the issues with which he engages. While he won fame as a youthful prodigy in mathematics, his sociological writing is quite rough around the edges, and lacks the polish and distance that one would find in dispassionate scholarship, or even in the writings of sympathetic anarchists like John Zerzan, who visited Kaczynski while the latter was on trial. Anyone who has ever read an academic paper written in accordance with contemporary norms of scholarship immediately recognizes the tone, and this tone is utterly absent from Kaczynski’s writing, despite his use of technical terms and concepts. Nevertheless, the passion of Kaczynski’s ideas more than makes up for the rough-and-ready mode of exposition that he employs.

A disproportionate part of Kaczynski’s manifesto is taken up with the problem of distinguishing true revolutionaries (this is my term, not Kaczynski’s) from mere rebellious leftists who like to criticize industrialized society and its institutions, but who are not willing to take direct action to bring an end to these evils. In pursuit of his critique of leftism — which is, in my estimation, pretty near the truth — Kaczynski formulated an abstract profile of the psychology of a typical contemporary leftist.

Kaczynski introduces the concept of over-socialization as an extension of the concept of socialization. Kaczynski develops the concept of oversocialization in sections 24 to 32. Here are sections 25 and 26:

The moral code of our society is so demanding that no one can think, feel and act in a completely moral way. For example, we are not supposed to hate anyone, yet almost everyone hates somebody at some time or other, whether he admits it to himself or not. Some people are so highly socialized that the attempt to think, feel and act morally imposes a severe burden on them. In order to avoid feelings of guilt, they continually have to deceive themselves about their own motives and find moral explanations for feelings and actions that in reality have a non-moral origin. We use the term “oversocialized” to describe such people.

Oversocialization can lead to low self-esteem, a sense of powerlessness, defeatism, guilt, etc. One of the most important means by which our society socializes children is by making them feel ashamed of behavior or speech that is contrary to society’s expectations. If this is overdone, or if a particular child is especially susceptible to such feelings, he ends by feeling ashamed of himself. Moreover the thought and the behavior of the oversocialized person are more restricted by society’s expectations than are those of the lightly socialized person. The majority of people engage in a significant amount of naughty behavior. They lie, they commit petty thefts, they break traffic laws, they goof off at work, they hate someone, they say spiteful things or they use some underhanded trick to get ahead of the other guy. The oversocialized person cannot do these things, or if he does do them he generates in himself a sense of shame and self-hatred. The oversocialized person cannot even experience, without guilt, thoughts or feelings that are contrary to the accepted morality; he cannot think “unclean” thoughts. And socialization is not just a matter of morality; we are socialized to conform to many norms of behavior that do not fall under the heading of morality. Thus the oversocialized person is kept on a psychological leash and spends his life running on rails that society has laid down for him. In many oversocialized people this results in a sense of constraint and powerlessness that can be a severe hardship. We suggest that oversocialization is among the more serious cruelties that human beings inflict on one another.

As Kaczynski develops his social critique throughout his manifesto it becomes obvious that he relegates most of contemporary culture, including both art and science, to the status of mere substitute gratifications erected in place of authentic gratifications denied to us in industrialized society. In so far as these substitute gratifications are taken up by oversocialized individuals, art and science are products of the oversocialized mind.

While Kaczynski develops in parallel the extent to which people deceive themselves in terms of their true motivations for pursuing substitute gratifications, he did not attempt to formulate a concept of self-deception in the same way that he formulates oversocialization. Kaczynski could have greatly improved these sections of his manifesto if he had taken over Sartre’s conception of self-deception, but Kaczynski’s orientiation is clearly sociological rather than philosophical, and so it seems he probably didn’t read Sartre, or if he did he didn’t understand it, or if he understood it, it stood too far outside his orientation in order to make use of this far more sophisticated conception of self-deception than the intuitive conception that Kaczynski employs.

Any honest person today can look at contemporary science and discover in it attempts to use science for ideological purposes. I have earlier written an account of The Political Uses of Science, as well as a more specific account of The Political Dimensions of Mental Illness. The politicization of science is, in Kaczynski’s language, a result of science being pursued as a surrogate activity for the sake of fulfillment.

Science, however, is not so easily put in a box. A person can begin their scientific research with an agenda, but if they pursue science in accord with the ideals of the discipline, they will find that their conclusions do not always agree with the bias with which they began. This is not to say that there are not a lot of dishonest people who never get beyond the presuppositions with which they begin, but the intrinsic controls imposed by scientific method do not favor dishonesty. Science is, however, very vulnerable.

While it was the turn of the previous century academic philosopher G. E. Moore who formulated what he called the naturalistic fallacy, it is only recently that the opposite number of the naturalistic fallacy has been formulated, and this is the moralistic fallacy. We can understand the naturalistic fallacy and the moralistic fallacy in terms of the is/ought distinction. The naturalistic fallacy makes an illegitimate inference from is to ought; the moralistic fallacy makes an equally illegitimate inference form ought to is. That is to say, naturalistic thought is vulnerable to concluding that what is, is right, while moralistic thought is vulnerable to concluding that what is right, is. Science taken up in an ideological or moralistic spirit, then, in contradistinction to a naturalistic spirit, is vulnerable to reading its aspirations and ideals into the world.

I was put in mind of this by a book I’ve just finished, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, by Nicholas Wade. This was an excellent book, and Mr. Wade does not hesitate to take up a number of sacred cows and controversial issues, including sacred cows of the scientific community. Really good science challenges us. It embodies what Nietzsche bravely called not the courage of our convictions, but the courage for an attack on our convictions.

In so far as science makes possible the courage for an attack on our convictions, and does so in a methodical, systematic way, science can be a challenge to what Kaczynski sees as our modern, oversocialized society, a challenge, that is to say, to an impossibly demanding moral code, for our moral codes are precisely the convictions of which Nietzsche spoke.

In the very last paragraph of his manifesto Kaczynski continued the theme of the oversocialized individual:

We have portrayed leftism in its modern form as a phenomenon peculiar to our time and as a symptom of the disruption of the power process. But we might possibly be wrong about this. Oversocialized types who try to satisfy their drive for power by imposing their morality on everyone have certainly been around for a long time. But we think that the decisive role played by feelings of inferiority, low self-esteem, powerlessness, identification with victims by people who are not themselves victims, is a peculiarity of modern leftism. Identification with victims by people not themselves victims can be seen to some extent in 19th century leftism and early Christianity but as far as we can make out, symptoms of low self-esteem, etc., were not nearly so evident in these movements, or in any other movements, as they are in modern leftism. But we are not in a position to assert confidently that no such movements have existed prior to modern leftism. This is a significant question to which historians ought to give their attention.

While Kaczynski may be right about the general trend, much of what he described when he wrote that, “The oversocialized person cannot even experience, without guilt, thoughts or feelings that are contrary to the accepted morality; he cannot think ‘unclean’ thoughts,” is typical of guilt-based cultures in which a moral code is internalized. Kaczynski even employs the term “unclean” in scare quotes, plainly recognizing that he is drawing on traditional religious terminology, which points to the non-uniqueness of the phenomenon that he described in relation to industrialized society.

The intellectual elites of agricultural society who produced the ideological infrastructure of medieval feudalism created a robust suite of psychological conditioning techniques that made it impossible for generations of Westerners to experience without guilt thoughts or feelings contrary to the accepted morality. There is nothing new in this, and far from it being unique to industrialized society, it has its origins in the far narrower and more restrictive institutions of agricultural society. At this point we will only observe than then, as now, it was science that forced men to see that the moralized cosmology in which they had believed was without foundation.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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9 Responses to “Scientific Challenges to Over-Socialization”

  1. emmajoey said

    Reblogged this on Situation Nominal and commented:
    Oversocialisation, we certainly know now where this can lead..

  2. A. Karhumaa said

    Interesting story about Kazcynski devotees and other primitivists at:

  3. […] He once tried to date a female supervisor, who turned him down. He reacted by writing offensive limericks and was fired by his own brother as a result.[5] […]

  4. […] He once tried to date a female supervisor, who turned him down. He reacted by writing offensive limericks and was fired by his own brother as a result.[5] […]

  5. […] Certa vez, ele tentou namorar uma supervisora, que o recusou. Ele reagiu escrevendo limericks ofensivas e foi despedido por seu próprio irmão uma vez que resultado.[5] […]

  6. […] He once tried to date a female supervisor, who turned him down. He reacted by writing offensive limericks and was fired by his own brother as a result.[5] […]

  7. […] He once tried to date a female supervisor, who turned him down. He reacted by writing offensive limericks and was fired by his own brother as a result.[5] […]

  8. […] He once tried to date a female supervisor, who turned him down. He reacted by writing offensive limericks and was fired by his own brother as a result.[5] […]

  9. […] Whereas once we we were able to follow our own instincts without hesitation or self-reflection, the tightening grip of the social consciousness has tamed and weakened these drives, turning us into guilt-ridden, manipulable, and tame creatures; […]

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