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The Big Answer

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A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character

a book by Charles J. Sykes

(our site's book review)

The title is good—it says a lot. It is indeed true that victimization has become an equal-opportunity sport in this country. It’s bad enough that the lesser members of the U.N. sing this song. But now we have a nation full of mercilessly caterwauling bellyachers. And he’s right on target with his bemoaning of the new cult of illnesses that explain away responsibility for one’s actions. Twinkie defense indeed! If one causes a wreck while drunk, sue the bartender. If one gets caught in criminal behavior, explain how one is a victim of a bad childhood. Ad nauseam . . . The amazing thing about all this is not that people have the gall to offer such lame excuses for their misbehavior, but that courts and juries are letting them get away with it.

Victim: If one causes a wreck while drunk, sue the bartender
Victim: If one causes a wreck while drunk, sue the bartender

Sykes takes a pratfall when he asserts that David Riesman defines inner-directed individuals as autonomous. He did absolutely no such thing. Riesman used the word autonomous to mean free, self-responsible, self-directed and not a conformist for conformity’s sake. He used the word inner-directed to mean unfree, controlled by a superego imposed by parents and society, and dedicated to conformity for conformity’s sake in order to experience the pseudosecurity and indirect self-acceptance of pleasing one’s controlling superego. Autonomous people often dovetail with and act in harmony with the values of their societies, but out of genuine choice—which is why they’re truly free. They can choose based upon their own self-chosen values to go along with social expectations. Or they can choose not to, since they know what works even better for themselves and those their actions affect.

Tradition-directed, inner-directed and other-directed people have no such choices—they’re confined to conform out of being at effect of extrinsic control factors. Even when they violate society’s rules, they’re conforming to peer-group expectations and are not free. Sykes misreads Riesman and believes that Riesman admired the inner-directed and felt this character type was autonomous and free. This is wrong. Riesman admired the autonomous person only and knew that the inner-directed was as incarcerated by his controlling superego as the other-directed was by his peer pressure. Both were conformists. Sykes joins a long line of authors who’ve misread Riesman—he must have read what others said about the man. This has all the signs of an error that got passed down from one author to the next. Few seem to have actually read Riesman’s entire book, The Lonely Crowd. Perhaps they found this classic work to be difficult reading.

Sykes disparages the “therapeutic culture” and their “preoccupation with the self.” Why he doesn’t understand that with affluence and the satisfaction of the material things in life there is a natural concern with lifestyle quality that, by its very nature, has to look inwards, is hard to say. The great philosophers and teachers—even Jesus—have seen the vital nature of such an inner meditation and advocated it to one and all. It is in this inner search that mankind finds himself, finds the meaning in his life, discovers the unity between himself and all of mankind and nature, learns to love self and others and eventually all of his fellow man, and finally chooses to do good and compassionate works among his fellow man.

Sykes seems confused by consciousness, self-awareness, self-actualization, and the phrase 'know thyself'
Sykes seems confused by consciousness, self-awareness, self-actualization, and the phrase 'know thyself'

True spirituality can never be the product of conformity and respect for/fear of authority—if it isn’t a product of finding oneself, it isn’t real
True spirituality can never be the product of conformity and respect for/fear of authority—if it isn’t a product of finding oneself, it isn’t real

Sykes may feel that going to churches and having religious authorities tell you to act in this humanitarian way because it says to do so in the Scriptures is a better way to go. This may work for some, but true spirituality can never be the product of conformity and respect for/fear of authority. If it isn’t a product of finding oneself, it isn’t real. The soul cannot express itself to “please” someone—only the false self can. The soul must give out of a context of being and expressing one’s true human nature.

Autonomy is anything but the disconnection from mankind and community and the obsession with self that Sykes and others have concluded. It is the freedom to choose that makes acts truly chosen more meaningful than those chosen by inner-directed people who were following the dictates of values that run them. It is the freedom to be that makes spirituality deeper and more pure in the autonomous, self-actualized person (see Maslow’s peak experience descriptions and his being-cognition concepts—in Toward a Psychology of Being). And it is often autonomous people that innovate new ways of thinking, being and acting that have been the key to man’s progress, growth and evolution for centuries. Such people are the key to human survival.

Generally, when people denigrate all things therapeutic, and champion orthodox and authoritarian values and institutions, they’re advocating what George Lakoff refers to as the Strict Father mindset, and putting down what Lakoff calls the Nurturing Parent mindset—see Moral Politics. Others would call the former conservative and right and the latter liberal and left.

We need a solution that satisfies both sides, that empowers both responsibility and compassion, that transcends the right-left continuum, and that comes from individual choice, not tax-and-spend social engineering
We need a solution that satisfies both sides, that empowers both responsibility and compassion, that transcends the right-left continuum, and that comes from individual choice, not tax-and-spend social engineering

To the degree one connects the bleeding-heart, social-engineering, socialism-favoring, big government, tax and spend, bureaucracy-loving and political-salvationism-believing values of the darker side of liberalism to the so-called therapeutic culture, we join Sykes in his disparagement of it.

But to the degree one connects the therapeutic with the honest search for self-actualization, meaning, human understanding and compassion, Sykes is dead wrong to scorn it. He even overgeneralizes to the point of belittling “psychological man,” even though the contributions of the best psychologically educated and attuned minds in the 20th century were some of the most profound and beneficial gifts to mankind in all of history—see Toward a Psychology of Being. Without their contributions, mankind’s chances of either happiness or long-term survival would be nil. Sykes’ penchant for painting with too broad a brush dilutes and muddles his otherwise perceptive thesis about the ludicrous victimization trend.

To highlight this author’s naïveté, one has only to dredge up the example of his surprise at finding that 25 percent of New Yorkers (from a 1950s study) were found to have some psychological impairment while only 20 percent were entirely “well.” Sykes is in awe of finding out that the psychologically knowledgeable are not surprised that 80 percent of New Yorkers have some sort of disorder, “even if they appeared to be living relatively normal and competent lives.” Frankly, we’d have expected worse statistics than that. One guesses that the same studies today would come out less “rosy”!

MOST people have some sort of psychological impairment
MOST people have some sort of psychological impairment

This awareness of psychological reality and these statistics about said reality indict all of psychology, in Sykes-think. Of course, for those who have a better grasp of theses realities, they represent facts about modern life that need to be dealt with by improving community connectedness (the social webs/networks of human interrelationships and interdependencies), parenting, communication, relationships, discipline methods, education relating to all of the preceding, and adequate nurturing to support self-actualization and autonomy rather than inadequate nurturing that supports the above disturbing psychological statistics. He’s right that therapists see pathology everywhere because it is in their interest. But it’s also their job to call a spade a spade. His implication that they’re pumping up the numbers out of self-interest is silly. There’s more than enough dysfunction to go around in today’s society. There’s no need to exaggerate.

Sykes thinks that people don’t deserve love, respect or happiness—these things must be earned. This is almost a caricature of the conservative market-oriented mindset. It brings immediately to mind the question: How did Syke’s children earn his love as infants, and why weren’t they loved for the fact of their being—why did they have to do something that pleased him first so they could earn it? Love as a commodity . . . hmmmm.

According to Sykes-think, these babies deserve no love—they're not earning it!
According to Sykes-think, these babies deserve no love—they're not earning it!

He even criticizes Wayne Dyer’s books as being too self-involved, implying that Dyer is antagonistic to social connections, community values and responsibilities, which he is not. Dyer would be the first to echo the words of the great teachers that clearly assert that the inner journey and the actualization of self are merely the prerequisites for the full and deep connection to truth, being, nature, mankind, relationship, connectedness, unity, responsibility for self and others, and integrity.

Sykes’ book has an accurate, overall sense that it would be better if we empowered families, communities and society to function more successfully so that we could avoid the need for the “intervention” of services, bureaucracies, professionals, agencies, experts and social engineers. But then he muddies the water with assertions that we’re already doing it right and the therapists are selling us all a bill of goods and pulling the wool over our eyes. He can’t have it both ways.

Sykes says society needs no help—the therapists are pulling the wool over our eyes. Really!?
Sykes says society needs no help—the therapists are pulling the wool over our eyes. Really!?

He accuses Maslow of harboring a hostile view of social reality. This is incorrect. Maslow’s view was one of the most compassionate, insightful, productive, honest, creative views ever—but also the most realistic. He saw the dynamic influence of the social reality as a potentially wonderful force that could empower and inspire self-actualization and happiness, but also one that often holds back such growth. In this he dovetailed with the best thinking of two other intellectual giants: Fromm and Riesman.

He errs when he says that the new psychologies substitute rebellion for adjustment. They don’t advocate reactivity, but proactivity. They prescribe not thumbing one’s nose at social conventions and conformity but rather autonomous self-actualization in which one transcends the conformance-rebellion continuum entirely and evolves values of one’s own—many of which coincide with society’s values, and some of which are more real, honest, sincere, humanistic, insightful and useful than those of the dominant culture. The only rebellion is against the tyranny of conformity for conformity’s sake where peer pressures and superegos control one’s life and decisions and make one’s life about being at effect rather than being at cause.

The autonomous are not, nor do they consider themselves to be, the elite that rose above the seething masses of commoners. They are, in fact, the self-controlled that rose above the fear of being their real selves when the conformity pressures around them were pushing them to continue the hollow living of being their false selves—which are the ones that most others want and expect them to be rather than the ones that they actually are. They rose above the temptations of indirect self-acceptance.

Indirect self-acceptance is an impossible goal à la Putney and Putney in their classic The Adjusted American. It is impossible because if you yourself do not accept and respect yourself, others doing it for you indirectly will fail and only act as a diversion or distraction. If it actually worked, people would not have to keep getting it as though addicted—think Facebook. But it fails, since only you can accept yourself—others' acceptance, while nice, is existentially irrelevant.

And in the final analysis, that's what self-acceptance requires: an existential confronting of beingness that must be done alone, although being in a loving and secure environment is the best way to support this process. Others supporting your being in a nurturing way is helpful, but if one's orientation is toward this exterior love for oneself, self-love will not evolve until your orientation focuses inward toward your existential being. See The Motherhood Survival Manual for more on self-love. The autonomous rose above the pressure of Second Wave mass-man conformity in favor of being authentic, self-directed individuals of the Third Wave who value knowledge over “going along to get along,” and whose locus of control has transcended pleasing others, obedience, or any external-to-self controlling force such as peer pressure, superego, or any other expression of conformity, and it now resides in one's autonomous, self-actualized self.


The book has other distortions of Maslow-think that serve to illustrate just how far over his head Sykes was when he tackled this great thinker. By studying the most well rather than the most sick, like Freud did, Maslow has made one of the most enduring contributions to mankind in all of history. It took courage and the soul of a great healer. Assertions to the contrary are simply erroneous. Sykes may be on target with some of his criticisms of Charles Reich’s counterculture ideas, but his carping on Maslow and Dyer are misguided symptoms of lack of understanding.

Unfortunately, Sykes’s thesis indicting our culture for its new victimization trend gets so bogged down in erroneous theories about who’s to blame for this phenomenon and why it happened that the book’s impact is blunted and undermined until it has no power to attract or logic to convince. He’s correct that the trend represents a decay in our national character, and that good examples to emulate would help in the needed revolution in quality of character and values. But beyond that, this book has little with which to inform.