On the Future of Illusions

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2In 1927 Sigmund Freud published a short book entitled The Future of an Illusion.  The specific illusion he had in mind was the combined illusion not only of the existence of God but also the impact of God’s activity on human life and particularly on what Freud liked to call “civilization.”  For Freud, and illusion was a belief originating not in empirical evidence but in wish fulfillment.  Illusions for Freud are the things we “would were so”  and help us cope with all of the threatening aspects of life.


What is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes. – Sigmund Freud

In this short essay, I would like to take this kernel of Freud’s thought and draw an analogy to current considerations of race relations in the United States.  To this day, many Americans (and I would venture to say many people globally) think there is a biological phenomena called “race” which refers to a group of people who not only share biological characteristics like skin pigmentation but other characteristics like temperament,  intelligence, industriousness and moral rectitude to name just a few.

These “racial” differences are assumed to be largely a function of biological destiny and to explain differences in the life outcomes of what are thought of as “racial groups.”  Some have even imagined a kind of hierarchy of races often with their own race in the superior position–a wish fulfillment of sorts.

In the absence of verifiable empirical evidence, imagining these sorts of racial differences has provided humankind a handy way of explaining differences in behavior between varying groups.  The science of past centuries new nothing of DNA and the workings of the human genome yet we (humankind) wished to be able to account for difference not just in appearance and economic/social outcomes but in how differing groups should orient themselves to one another in order to secure their future and even to prosper.

The concept of race is a bit like the concept of God from the Freudian point of view.  It is a kind of wish fulfillment: We would that it were so.  We would that race explained fundamental differences between people. We would that if some races were better than others, we would be a member of the better race, share in its blessings and take comfort in being able to ‘justifiably” keep others in their biologically ordained place.

In this sense, racial difference, beyond the most superficial, is an illusion. illusion Modern genetics has given the lie to this illusion just as science and the general advance of human knowledge has given the lie to all manner of previous illusions: the sun orbiting the earth, bleeding a patient being an effective medical intervention, evil spirits bringing disease to our communities, or the salubrious impact of sacrificing animals or one’s first born.

One thing that is not an illusion, because we have plenty of empirical evidence for it, is that we human beings make lots and lots of errors.  We do, however, continue to wish that we did not and thereby give birth to new illusions; for example, the oft repeated declaration racism no longer exists, America is the land of the free, social and economic oppression are things of the past, enlightened self-interest is an effective regulator of excess etc. etc.

Perhaps the greatest illusion of all–that hubris is the other person’s problemcontinues to rule the day.  Illusion may be part of the human condition. We will surely continue to wish for things we do not have but, as we do, we cannot afford to let what we wish were the case to take on the status of settled and all inclusive knowledge.  In fact, abandoning known illusions is the only path to the a viable future.  Clinging to illusions is deadly.  Race as we have used the word for several hundred years is a meaningless term.  It is an illusion to think otherwise.

racist-save-white-americaRacism is, however, not an illusion.  It is all too real.  Combatting racism is a pressing issue especially as the world shrinks in size daily.  The illusion of race has had a large hand in creating the reality of racism.  Perhaps, one of the first steps in the right direction is for each of us to examine our innermost selves and root out the vestiges of the now illusory definition of race ensuring that this particular illusion does not take another step into the future.

It’s not my fault. It’s yours.

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2We all like to be able to better understand and explain the world around us, especially when times are difficult, threatening or in some other fashion profoundly unsettling.  Recent deadly shooting incidents between police officers and young Black men and the subsequent public protests raise troubling questions in our minds whether we are Black, White, police or civilian. We look around us for the reasons that will help us to understand events, protect ourselves, punish culprits and “prevent this sort of thing from happening again.”  In this process, we often move quickly to assign or attribute blame.

Infrequently do we start this problem solving process by attributing the cause of the situation to a factor internal to ourselves.  For example, the police do not start out trying to understand an incident like the shooting of Michael Brownmike brown by declaring that a primary reason for the incident was a negative attitude toward Black male youth in general on the part of police in general (or the particular officer/s involved). The police do not attribute their action to, what social psychologists call “the internal disposition” or moral character of the involved officer/s.  Rather, the tendency is to point to some aspect of the external situation for an explanation.  In this circumstance, the police are most likely to point to the situation in which the officer/s find/found themselves.

Not only will the police tend to explain the incident by focusing on situational considerations to characterize their actions but also they will tend to focus on the internal disposition or character of the person who was shot, in this case Michael Brown et al. to bolster their argument.

Police are not unique in explaining contentious events in this way.  We all have a tendency to do this.  This very human tendency is so ubiquitous that social psychology even has a name for it: the fundamental attribution error or correspondence bias.  Simply put, the error is to blame personal flaws in others when accounting for their behavior while explaining our own behavior in terms of situational factors rather than any personal internal flaw.

Consequently, just as police will focus on justifying situational factors in explaining their behavior, those affected by that behavior will likely attribute the lion’s share of the blame to the internal disposition of the officer/s rather than any situational factor.  Individual racism, cowardice, fear and fury will be the sort of language used most frequently.

Community or societal failure to realize our natural tendency to commit the fundamental attribution error (FAE) can lead to a vicious cycle of FAE upon FAE until groups of similar people no longer consider varying life situations at all and simply attribute all behavior to the internal dispositions of the members of a particular group.  All Black men become shiftless and criminal.  All policemen/women become rigid, violent bullies.  All poor people become lazy social leeches. All rich people become greedy and uncaring. All intellectuals irrelevant and all who care impractical.  Et cetera, et cetera in an ever descending vortex of social disintegration and devolution.

Not a pretty picture of the human condition or early 21st Century America.  But, this is where we might be and that we got here by reflexively blaming “the other guy.”  Perhaps, there is a note of hope in this latter, simple realization.  If we got here by blaming the “other,” perhaps the hope lies in the realization that there really are no “others” per se only others-like-ourselves.