Genius and Madness

From Elvis to Picasso and the thorny intersection of "madness" and creativity.

Superego Tripping

Why we relish punishing the guilty

You know the (by now) ancient rite. It's embarrassingly formulaic, and like all such formulas, pathological in its compulsiveness and utter lack of imagination. Some major or even minor celebrity/notable says or does something he or she "shouldn't" have. The press and mainstream media pounce (24 hour news cycle! Got to have something to say something about). Over one or more days the celebrity/notable is pilloried. Much fake abashed righteous indignation ensues. Then the celebrity/notable appears on Larry King or Oprah or Wolf Blitzer and issues a hackneyed and clearly less than heartfelt apology accompanied, if he or she can act, by crocodile tears.
A recent example is Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun who, of all things, yelled at a reporter and called him stupid. Dutifully, Calhoun apologized to Jim Nance. There was Howard Dean, who screamed at a rally-so unpresidential! (Personally, I figure Presidents ought to scream a lot more). He lost his lead in the polls, apologized (naturally), and dropped out of the primary. Long ago John Lennon said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. True, of course. He too issued the requisite bewildered and in his case sideways apology. This list goes on and on. Doubtless you've already thought of about a zillion additional examples.
This got me thinking. First of all about how pathetically thin-skinned and fake polite we all are. But then about Alan Elms's wonderful concept of the "super-ego trip." Everyone's heard the expression ego-trip. The super-ego trip ought to be just as well known. What is the super-ego? An internalized conscience, our mostly unconscious sense of guilt. It's one portion of Freud's tripartite structural model of the mind, along with the ego and the id. It-the super-ego-stands above the ego as its judge and censor.
So, here's the moral of the story. These sanctimonious, indulgent, pompous, morally superior reactions to celebrity acting out episodes are our little superego-trips. We get to feel puffed up with censorious pride by denouncing behavior that in fact deserves far less attention than it receives. We get to pretend that we don't yell and call people stupid (Calhoun), that we don't scream with excitement in a way that conflicts with our artificial role in the world (Dean), that we don't point out obvious but possibly offensive facts (Lennon). The harsh reality is that, at least in Freud's view, the more punitive the super-ego, the more repressed we all are. Nasty, overreaching super-egos are a sign of psychological weakness, a fear of our own impulses. So lighten the heck up. When something like a "nipple slip" sends us into seizures of simulated shame, we've got a problem. Don't we?

William Todd Schultz, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Pacific University in Oregon and edited the Handbook of Psychobiography (Oxford University Press 2005).

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