Our Collective Psychopathology

My op-ed in today's The News:


Our Collective Psychopathology 


Sigmund Freud contemplated a question of which I am reminded, as in the aftermath of the violent protests we witnessed last Friday. Freud wrote in Civilisation and its Discontents: “But there is a question which I can hardly evade. If the development of civilisation has such far-reaching similarity to the development of the individual and if it employs the same methods, may we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that, under the influence of cultural urges, some civilisations, or some epochs of civilisation-possibly the whole of mankind-have become ‘neurotic’?”

Freud restricts himself to the case of neurosis, an abandoned psychiatric term referring to emotional and psychological distress without a loss of contact with reality (in contrast to psychosis, which does involve such a loss of contact). However, let us not limit ourselves to a particular category of disorders and ask the question: Can a society collectively be said to suffer from something akin to a ‘mental illness’?

I cannot deny that from a scientific point of view the question stands on shaky ground, but the ease with which we employ psychiatric diagnoses to describe the state of our nation only makes one wonder. A reading of recent op-eds will reveal our society to be suffering from “collective psychosis,” riddled with “delusions” of “paranoia” and “grandiosity,” possessing personality traits of “psychopathy” and “narcissism,” and subject to “cognitive dissonance.” No doubt it is in part due to the journalistic tendency to use novel and big words, but it is also the case that the horrific events we get to witness on a daily basis for the last couple of years seem to resist any other description.

Just as rational thoughts, instincts, conflicting emotions, and various other dynamic forces of the mind are unified by an individual’s consciousness, there is a set of shared beliefs and moral attitudes which function as a unifying force within an otherwise heterogeneous and divided society. Durkheim referred to it as Collective Consciousness. (And may we be justified – with a nod to Jung – in speaking of a collective unconscious as well, the hidden puppeteer behind many of our outer motions?) Sifting through the contents of our collective consciousness for evidence of psychopathology will yield much.

We are a nation plagued by apathy in behaviour when it comes to making any positive change, but are often animated by a murderous self-destructive rage. We are paranoid and mistrustful, indulging in bizarre conspiracy theories of our endless persecution at the hands of America, India and Israel. At the same time there are the grandiose delusions of our being the fortress of Islam, because we are armed with the Islamic bomb; that we would have revived the golden age of Islam were it not for the vile machinations of Hindus and Jews! We feel the pain of our French sisters being deprived of their right to use the veil, but are psychopathic when it comes to inflicting and justifying violence on our own religious minorities. We are forever blaming foreign hands for our own misdeeds, and are blind to our own corruption. There is much that we have repressed and much that we are repressing. The historical circumstances surrounding the traumatic birth of our nation, the reasons for the separation of East Pakistan, the stern puritanical upbringing of the Zia era and the artificial construction of a national religious identity, divorced from our ancient roots of Gandhara and Indus, provide optimal conditions for collective madness.

Be this lunacy or folly, at the end of the day the question is: what can be done about it. Is there any remedy? The burden of this lies perhaps on the shoulders of our intellectuals. Just as a psychotherapist identifies the cognitive distortions in a patient’s thoughts, our scholars have the task of pointing out the errors of our national narratives. Just as a psychoanalyst digs out repressed and traumatic events from a patient’s past and brings them to light, our academics have to unearth the history of our nation that we are forever trying to bury and deny. The intelligentsia is already engaged in this endeavour, I do not doubt, but either their voice is trapped in an insulated bubble of English op-eds and social media, or ours is an insanity beyond cure.


The writer is a doctor. Email: awaisaftab@gmail.com

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