Blogging as Violence

Richard Beck

Richard Beck, thoughtful as always, decides to break his own rule and blog about blogging. Having been flogged in some quarters and praised in others for taking on liberal icon Marcus Borg last week, Richard’s post has been supremely helpful to me:

One of the things I’ve learned from writers like James Alison, a theologian deeply informed by Rene Girard, is how rivalry is intimately associated with our self-concept. Specifically, most of us create, build up and maintain our self-esteem through rivalry with others. Our sense of self-worth is created and supported by some contrast and opposition to others. I am a self in that I am over and against others. Better. Smarter. More righteous. More successful. More authentic. More humane. Less hoodwinked. More tolerant. More insightful. More kind. More something.

In short, selfhood is inherently rivalrous. Rivalry creates the self. Rivalry is the fuel of self-esteem and self-worth.

Which means that the self is inherently violent. The definition of the self is an act of aggression and violence. To be “Richard Beck” is to engage in violence against others, if not physically than affectionally. From sunrise to sunset every thought I have about myself is implicated in acts of comparison, judgement, and evaluation of others, allowing me to create a sense of self and then fill that self with feelings of significance and worthiness.

And this also applies to those with low self-worth, those who define themselves negatively in comparison with others. The violence here is simply internalized, directed toward the self rather than toward others. But at the end of the day it’s the same mechanism, you are either winning or losing the rivalry, having either high or low self-esteem, but in either case the self is still being defined by violence.

Things like blogging, given its nature, can bring these rivalrous feelings to the surface making them more transparent (if you are self-reflective). But it’s just a symptom of a deeper sickness, that the self in inherently rivalrous and that self-esteem is a feeling of significance achieved over against others.

read the rest: Experimental Theology: Self-esteem as Violence.

  • Scott Paeth

    Very intriguing, but I’m not sure I’d call this “violence.” The idea that every act of the ego is violent toward the altar strikes me as a very distorted sense of the self-world relationship. While we may be implicated in sin through all that we do, that’s because of the perverted sense of self that it incapable of recognizing the inherent dignity of the other, not through the very nature of the ego itself. That perspective strikes me as quite gnostic.

    • Richard Beck

      “Violence” is probably too broad. Something like “affective violence” might be more precise. Basically, in violence I’m including the psychological processes of dehumanization that produce physical violence. Similar to Jesus’s focus on hate and insult in the Sermon on the Mount, the “murder in the heart.” So I tend to talk about “violence” as a gestalt. Because if you just focus on the end point–the physical act of violence–you’re showing up pretty late to the game. Especially if you’d like to address the social-psychological causes of violence.

  • Dan

    Liberal, postmodern misuse of words. Go tell the Christians being slaughtered and tortured in Nigeria or Iran that the mental act of comparison of ideas is violent. They would rightly ignore such notions as absurd academic wasting of time.

    • Richard Beck

      I think the violence you mention is very much rooted in the psychology described in the post, the logical outworking of it all. See Ernest Becker’s Escape from Evil.

      That is, it’s no surprise that the violence you describe is driven by an ideological in-group targeting ideological Others. And what is ideology (per Becker) than a means for self-esteem and a sense of significance and meaning? The differences you are pointing to are of (extreme) degree rather than kind.

      In my opinion.

      • Craig

        It’s more plausible to say that all forms of violence and competition share a common root (possibly a morally neutral trait or tendency), than to say that all forms of competition and interpersonal comparison are essentially violent and rooted in a deeper sickness.

        • Richard Beck

          I agree. It’s a blog post, not a careful analysis about how self-esteem is related to violence. The post was written to promote self-reflection–how self-esteem is often tied up in social comparison, which fuels envy and rivalry–rather than to articulate a psychological theory.

          That said, I do think there is a connection between self-esteem and violence. I think if you combine the work of Ernest Becker and Rene Girard you get something close to what the post is trying to summarize.

          • Craig

            Richard, like I say, I am refreshed by the spirt of your reflections. I wonder, however, if you would agree with me on the dangers of making too much of motive-questioning, even when such inquiries are primarily self-directed. That is, while the more prevalent tendency is to justify one’s own behavior and motivations, is there not another tendency (less common, but also destructive) to overly moralize common behaviors and motivations? In this post, aren’t you in danger of erring on this side?

            • Richard Beck

              I’m sure I’m erring in some way. The basic thrust of the whole post (Tony only posted a bit of it) was that we should step away from a self-esteem based upon social-comparison (which fuels envy, jealously, rivalry and, thus, sows the seeds of violence) into a self-esteem rooted in the experience of gratitude and gift.

              I’m sure there is a lot wrong and overly simplistic about all that, but I’d stand by it as a general point.

              Incidentally, the general thrust of the post is much more Buddhist than Christian, in my opinion. The stepping away from a self based upon “valuation” (my focus was on social and self valuations) into anatta, or kenosis for Christians.

              • Craig

                The basic thrust is interesting and important. It strikes deep. I wonder, however, about the extent to which we should (try to) avoid/replace self-esteem based upon social comparisons and valuations (interpersonally comparative or otherwise) of the self. If, e.g., it is replaced entirely with self-esteem rooted in gratitude, I suspect it could result in an overly servile frame of mind (servility, I take it, can be a vice). There has to be appropriate kinds of self-”valuation”.

                • Richard Beck

                  I agree. Comments/criticisms along these lines are getting at something important, pushing me to think a bit more about this. Thanks.

                  And, to be honest, it’s one of the things I’ve wondered about Buddhist views of the self. Where, to be crude about it, is the anger and fight in the face of abuse and oppression to come from? Where is the ego-strength for that to be located?

                  Because it is true that the fight against oppression is often tied up into neurotic needs for self-esteem. We like riding in on the White Horse. There’s the allure of a Messiah-complex. The specter of liberal guilt. The myth of redemptive violence. And how the “rightness” of my cause often perpetuates the cycles of victimization.

                  I have no good answers about this. But I agree with your general point, that there should be a location for a sort of valuation that promotes activism and resistance but does so in a non-neurotic way.

                  But, boy, that place in the heart seems like balancing on a knife-edge. For me at least.

                  • Craig

                    Well, thank you for pointing us to a place with so many enticing questions. My tendency is to try to deflate any apparent paradoxes, but likely some of the tensions here are at least unresolved. Some folks try to manage tensions by distinguishing one’s value as a person from one’s value in any particular skill, achievement, character trait, etc. One idea is that we can duly recognize interpersonal comparisons of the latter sort if we maintain a healthy appreciation of the former basis of respect (where interpersonal comparisons have no place). I’m intrigued, however, by the other angles you’ve added–the suggestions that valuations of the self of any kind may be helpfully replaced by turning our attention elsewhere (gratitude/the concerns of others), and that interpersonal comparisons may be more insidious than ordinarily realized.

  • Craig

    Bowling as violence. Poker as violence. Publishing as violence. Musical performance as violence?


    Is all competition a symptom of a deeper sickness? Maybe, but it strikes me as implausible.

    • Andrew Dowling

      Agree. While I concur somewhat with the first paragraph about rivalry and self image, violence is when I walk up to someone and punch them in the face. Disagreement/competition is not akin to violence . . .are two track runners competing in a violent act? Ugh, over-indulgent fluff IMO . . .

      • Craig

        Not to disagree with someone so agreeable, but where I’m coming from there’s also something refreshing and admirable about Richard’s reflection, or at least about the spirit that I take to be driving it. I like the morally pointed self-questioning, and the concern about questions of one’s own character. Naturally this sometimes becomes overly-scrupulous and moralizing in the extreme (perhaps if I were a church-goer, I’d just be disgusted by this sort of thing), but in some spheres perhaps there should be more of it.

        • Andrew Dowling

          I also concur with that. I generally like Beck’s viewpoints, but I feel like many use “language as metaphor” too flippantly.

  • Thursday1

    It seems to me that Beck is doing violence to language. The word tortured comes to mind. Yet another lapse in judgment on his part.

  • James Kalb

    “The self is inherently violent.”

    Interesting claim.

    It makes sense if you get rid of a creator God who makes particular existences good. In that case they would be unjust impositions on the peaceful equality of nonexistence. Sounds rather Buddhist, although I don’t know enough to say. It’s interesting though that Beck’s discussion views the self as constructed only horizonally, with no transcendent reference point.

    It also sounds a bit like Heraclitus:

    The difference is that Heraclitus is OK with strife, so he calls stable existence brought into being by the balance of opposing forces “justice.” Maybe a problem with blogging even on that view is that it’s an attempt to enlarge one’s own existence and therefore disturb the stability. That concern would seem to go against the grain of Heraclitus’ thought though since no balance is permanent.

    The attitude toward writing may even be a bit reminiscent of Samuel Beckett: “I could not have gone through the awful wretched mess of life without having left a stain upon the silence.” In the absence of transcendence truth evaporates and writing becomes pure assertion and thus a violation.

    And then there’s always Nietzsche’s idea that the will to power is the driving force of life.

    It seems though that for a Christian the self–the subjectivity of the individual soul–would be fallen rather than intrinically violent. But that requires a self that still retains a transcendent reference and is not wholly caught up in the immediacy of the present world.

  • Deck

    The word “abuse” has been trivialized. Let’s not do the same thing with “violence.” Rivalry is not the same thing as violence. If we keep moving down this track, we will only need two words: “good” and “bad.” I think communication needs a wider vocabulary.

  • jeffstraka

    Violence (and evil) is a human concept. We might think it violent when we see a lion attack and devour a gazelle but in the natural world, it is simply survival to live another day to procreate and pass on your genes. In the natural world, there IS no violence, only our perception of it as we observe and consider how it impacts others or ourselves. Like it or not, humans are evolved animals and we have a drive to survive and procreate as well.

    Human thought/language is a relatively recent evolutionary event, and I don’t think we fully understand how we process “thought” (though, neuroscience is beginning to shed light on it). It may be that we see words/thoughts/ideas as another “sense” and might not see them as separate from reality or from us. Thus, when someone confronts us with an idea or thought that is in direct conflict to our own, perhaps we perceive that as an direct threat or attack on US. And the more their idea disrupts our constructed worldview (our idea of essentially how we survive), the more our fight/flight genetic defense mechanism goes into overdrive.

    What makes “digital words” of blogging (or Facebook or Twitter) even more apt to create this reaction is that the “thought world” is ALL we have. We are not able to engage our other senses to help us SEE that the “attacker” is not really a physical threat – they are a feeling, loving, human being. It’s likely similar to the snake/stick phenomenon. We’ve all experienced the sensation walking in the woods where you see an dark, shadowy object that you think is a snake, and you immediately tense up, your heart races, and you feel the hair standing up on your arm. As you suppress your amygdala and engage your higher brain to sharpen your focus, you notice it’s simply a stick and you let out your breath. That is simply a self-preservation mechanism that helps us live another day. So maybe we (and I’m hugely guilty!) just need to keep in mind that words in a debate are not snakes that will harm us, but simply a harmless, dead stick.

  • Gary in FL

    Richard (and anyone else), what do you think about the Buddhist principle I recently learned about, that in reality, there is no “self”–self is an illusion we’d all do well to put behind us.

    I’m not a Buddhist, but I find this idea intriguing, and wonder if such a realization (if it’s true), points to a way forward and away from the inherent violence?

    • Craig

      I’d also like to hear what others know about this, but I’d suggest that the “self is an illusion” claim is unhelpfully mystical. I am tempted towards something like it though (I think that the self–as commonly conceived–either doesn’t exist or isn’t what we really do have reason to value).

    • Richard Beck

      I’ve done a bit of reading and have worked with sitting meditation, but I’m no expert in Buddhism. Buddhist readers will want to correct what I’m about to sketch.

      As I mentioned in this thread, my post may be more reflective of Buddhism than Christianity. Though I do see connections between the two.

      The Buddhist connections, as I see them, are these. One of the main sources of psychic suffering (dukkha) comes from attachments to the world in the form of valuations, liking this and disliking that. In the post I focused on social and self valuations, attaching to this or that sort of social comparison to create a sense of “worth.” According to Buddhism, attachments of this sort, a self that “clings” to the world, creates anxiety and frustration which, as I argue it in the post, sow the seeds of violence. That bit might be overstated, but the general Buddhist point is that a self of this sort, the evaluative self that is our natural state, isn’t a good state to be in.

      The cessation of suffering, then, is cultivating a self or, rather, letting of a self, that does not engage in such valuations and attachments, does not cling or attach to the world in this way. Practices here are sitting meditation and mindfulness, being fully attuned to the present without the evaluative filter. No thinking, just being.

      Now, from here you can get, like Crag mentions, pretty mystical about all this. Things like experiencing the extinction of the self. But for the purposes of my post the key link is the letting go of evaluation, social evaluation in particular. And given that self-esteem is inherently evaluative it will be a chronic source of psychic suffering (and violence in my opinion).

      Those seem to be, in my mind, some of the Buddhist connections.

  • Kien Choong

    Hi. This seems to be a very self-interested understanding of a person. It is a trap that many economists seem unable to transcend. It might be helpful to distinguish between 3 ways in which self is central:

    - self-centred welfare where the Pearson’s welfare depends only on the self;
    - self-welfare goal where the person’s goal is only to promote her own welfare; and
    - self-goal choice where the person acts only in pursuit of her own goals.

    The first two assumptions are unjustified. To the extent we feel distressed by another’s misfortune or rejoice at another’s gain, our welfare is not exclusively self-centred. We also often care about other people’s well-being independently of how this affects our own welfare. The last assumption is rarely violated but one can think of commitment to the rule of law (or to justice) as an example where we might make choices that are inconsistent with our own goals. If we are to make this world a better place, we need to avoid an overly narrow understanding of people.