Fantasy, Action, and Acting Out

As a child, I often fantasized about killing Hitler. Many of these fantasies involved gruesomely humiliating him—and this, more than his death, seemed to be their salient aspect. As I remember it, when I felt emotionally paralyzed—beset by an uncomprehending nausea at the magnitude and inventiveness of evil—these fantasies distracted and pacified me. Oddly, in these imaginings I never quite appeared or acted; I pictured the violent scenes in such a way that the perpetrator remained anonymous. This anonymity shielded me from the painful irony that I had unwittingly stumbled upon the same violent fantasies in myself that I detested in others. Perhaps then, the true horror stemmed not from my inability to comprehend the subterranean roots of evil but from sensing these roots in myself and grappling with the possibility that forbidden, half- conscious impulses could be acted on.

Today’s collegiate consciousness suppresses this uncomfortable fact, disavowing perverse fantasies, exiling them to the realm of perverse action. The art of Socratic ignorance and self-questioning is thus abandoned. Certain values and moral judgments are taken for granted, and assumed patterns of thinking and reasoning are confused with thought and reasoning as such. Biased and exclusive modes of consciousness masquerade as objective and inclusive totalities of consciousness. Where we might ask questions, we instead assert unassailable facts of human relations.

Abuse and abuse of power, from police brutality to rape to misuse of privilege, are almost never considered in relation to individual desires and fantasies—in terms of psychological structures present in all our minds. What is thus lost is an awareness of the distinction between natural feeling and aberrant behavior. We (justifiably) vent our frustration and rage, belittle and exclude those with disagreeable viewpoints—and refuse any kind of identification with those guilty of or sympathetic to violent or oppressive acts. Ironically, in doing so, we betray the presence in ourselves of the same impulses that, when outwardly expressed by others, we reflexively disown and condemn.

Would it even make sense, or be conceptually possible, to experience rage and indignation over acts committed by people with feelings and desires utterly foreign to our own? When an animal is killed for killing a human, our empathy tends to attach itself to both the human and the animal, both the victim and the culprit—our psychological distance from the animal allows this. Why, then, when solely humans are concerned, do we recoil from empathizing with the guilty? Perhaps our revulsion obscures the inward injustice we feel upon discovering that, where we tyrannically inhibit ourselves, others indulge.

Our wrath is consistently aimed at institutions and impersonal offenders. We confront the puppet strings of oppression in political, legal, and educational systems—but these puppet strings are anonymous, invisible, difficult to grasp, impossible to control. At Harvard, University policies and Final Clubs are frequently scrutinized for condoning reprehensible behavior—while quietly, imperceptibly, we become unable to stomach the innateness of impulses that deserve censure as actions, not as fantasies. The recent controversial Spee Club invitation sparked a fervent backlash against ‘structures’ and ‘cultures’ that reflect power imbalances and promote the degradation of women. Students are eager to discuss and reform these structures and cultures, but how can such an endeavor possibly succeed if we do not first explore the individual feelings and motives such incidents betray. If the loathsome desires at stake were not shared by perpetrators and condemners alike, I cannot see how Final Clubs would be a problem—no one would attend their parties.

It is likely that an uncanny half-awareness of the omnipresence in imagination of that which we detest in reality defensively directs our scrutiny toward policies and practices and away from individuals—toward an institutional unconscious and away from our own unconsciouses. However, if we cannot acknowledge the existence of aggressive and base desires in ourselves—if we do not dare investigate the repulsive majority that underlies the rational minority of the mind—how can we hope to do more than retroactively address instances where the mind ceases to function democratically and its hostile and unprincipled majority forsakes the lofty demands of socialization? How can we strive not merely to punish and protest but to anticipate?

The rise of political correctness expresses precisely the opposite of that which it purports to represent. Targeting fantasies and impulses that have leaked into gesture and speech but not action, PC dogma also gratifies tamer versions of them. The desire to censor, to include all by excluding some, undoubtedly stems from aggressive feelings. Moreover, unreflective political correctness suppresses a crucial dimension of self- awareness, conflating the natural scope of feeling and desire with reprehensible behavior. Such a paradoxical collective attitude is bound to depress and provoke, alienating us from both our communities and ourselves and exacerbating the same problems it addresses. Where feeling and speech become shameful and forbidden, acting out becomes more likely. Of course, PC dogma is itself a form of acting out, at once prohibiting aggression and indulging in milder forms (i.e. aggressing against the aggressors)—and it thus projects the imperative to resolve this conflict of feelings onto the external world. It requires offenders as fervently as it denounces them.

As Nietzsche observed more than a century ago, when such a vast portion of our inner lives becomes unacceptable and inaccessible to us, we become lost, aimless intruders in our own lives. We desperately need reasons to live, motivation to act, senses of purpose, and causes by which to stand. “When I think of the craving to do something, which continually tickles and spurs those millions of young people who cannot endure their boredom and themselves, then I realize that they must have a craving to suffer and to find in their suffering a probable reason for action, for deeds...These young people demand that—not happiness but unhappiness should approach from the outside and become visible; and their imagination is busy in advance to turn it into a monster so that afterward they can fight a monster.”