[All posts in this series can be found at The Arab Mind archive.]
Narcissism and Honor-Shame Dynamics
The intersection of the Arab child rearing practices that I have been describing and Arab culture is nowhere so clear as in the Honor-Shame dynamics which dominate Arab culture today. Honor-Shame is nothing less than the summation of the pathological narcissism that Arab child rearing engenders.
Whether discussing sexual play with boys, the instant gratification afforded pre-Oedipal boys, the mirror image deprivation afforded young girls, or the sudden change for the boy to a posture of submission enforced by physical abuse, the consistent underlying pathological feature is a disrupted empathic connection between the parent and child. The young boy who is always gratified does not develop the necessary ability to tolerate reasonable frustration; at the same time he develops an exaggerated sense of self, a grandiose self. The young girl who is deprived of gratification develops a deeply impaired and damaged self, what has been called in its extreme form "soul murder" and what in more attenuated forms can evidence as poor self-esteem. In the cases of extreme gratification and extreme deprivation, the parent responds to their own designs and needs as opposed to the Western ideal of responding to the child's infantile needs. Such needs include a deft dosage of deprivation and a reasonable amount of gratification; at the extremes, narcissistic vulnerability is the result.
Deficits in parental empathy are instrumental in developing narcissistic pathology. Dr. Sanity has described the developmental lines of Narcissism in her excellent series on Narcissism and Society. She points out the need for the healthy character to integrate the parallel lines of grandiose self and the idealized parental image which originally emerge from the fused self/object symbiosis of the early Mother/infant dyad:
It is because of the slow separation of Self from Other that the two developmental lines come into being. The first line (Heinz) Kohut refers to as the “Grandiose Self”(or idealized self image) and the second is referred to as the “Idealized Parent Image”. Both of these images represent psychological attempts to save the original experience of "perfection" by the infant when the Mother (Other) and the infant (Self) were “one”.
The “Grandiose Self” will develop over time (if not disrupted) into healthy Self-Esteem; and the” Idealized Parent Image” will eventually lead to the development of Ideals that give meaning to the individual’s life; and to healthy interpersonal relationships.
The psychological developmental lines of Narcissism is a difficult concept; I urge you to read her series (Part I, Part II, Part III) as well as my series on Narcissism, Malignant Narcissism, and Paranoia (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV) to gain a better understanding of the concept. For the purposes of this series, suffice to point out that Arab child rearing practices seem ideally suited to the development of Narcissistic pathology. This has important implications for Arab culture and there are two especially significant features worth emphasizing. However, one more aspect of Narcissism must be considered before expanding the discussion to include the Honor-Shame dynamic.
In Narcissism, Malignant Narcissism, and Paranoia: Part III, I described the inner poverty of the Narcissist who had grown up in a relatively non-empathic, emotionally deprived, environment and his need for others to act as "need satisfying objects."
One of the outcomes of this kind of family and environmental (emotional) impoverishment is that such children grow up with minimal reserves of self esteem. They don't feel valued and the need to fend off despair requires them to find ways for the environment (the other) to support their self esteem. Other people become important props who can buttress or threaten their self esteem. (Think again of the “gangsta” who "demands" respect; if he is feared and respected, he is powerful and safe; once the fear is gone, he trembles. We see this at work on a larger scale in Afghanistan, the Ukraine, Iraq, now Lebanon and Syria, perhaps Egypt and Saudi Arabia; once the people are no longer afraid of the tyrants, the system can not long be maintained.) Other people are not related to as independent people (objects or selves, in analytic terms) who have their own desires and emotional lives, but as "need satisfying objects" whose sole purpose is to enhance the self esteem of the damaged one. In mild forms, this can lead to people who literally cannot conceive of another person's mind working differently from their own. We all know people who insist that “everyone cheats”; since they cheat (and justify their cheating by rationalizing that everyone else does it, too) they cannot believe that you might not cheat, if faced with the opportunity.
In more severe cases, the existence of the other person’s mind and life is simply of no consequence. For the Malignant Narcissist, other people are mere props in the pageantry of their lives. A tyrant can throw someone into a shredding machine without a second thought because the victim only matters in relation to how he can support the grandiosity of the tyrant; beyond that, he is faceless, nameless, worthless. It was no accident that Saddam Hussein was surrounded by sycophants who all grew mustaches to look just like him.
Now we move to the cultural manifestations of the summed individual narcissistic pathology. This involves the concept of the Honor-Shame dynamic in Arab culture which has become familiar to many people. Once again I am indebted to Dr. Sanity for her clear exposition of this dynamic. In her post on Shame, The Arab Psyche, and Islam, she succinctly describes the difference between a Guilt culture and a Shame culture:
The guilt culture is typically and primarily concerned with truth, justice, and the preservation of individual rights. As we noted earlier, the emotion of guilt is what keeps a person from behavior that goes against his/her own code of conduct as well as the culture’s. Excessive guilt can, of course, also be pathological. I am solely referring to a psychologically healthy appreciation of guilt.
In contrast, a typical shame culture (e.g., Japan as discussed by Benedict; or the present focus of this discussion: Arab/Islamic culture) what other people believe has a far more powerful impact on behavior than even what the individual believes. As noted by Gutman in his writings, the desire to preserve honor and avoid shame to the exclusion of all else is one of the primary foundations of the culture. This desire has the side-effect of giving the individual carte blanche to engage in wrong-doing as long as no-one knows about it, or knows he is involved.
Richard Landes has written extensively on the topic and has elucidated the ways in which a Shame Culture can be extraordinarily resistant to compromise and problem resolution; see especially Honor-Shame Jihad (HJP).
Raphael Patai, in his seminal book on The Arab Mind, described the scaffolding of the Honor Shame dynamic, a scaffolding that is still pertinent to today and which has its roots in the Bedouin tribes of the Arabian Peninsula:
(pp. 96) Honor in the Arab world is a generic concept which embraces many different forms. To mention only a few: there is the kind of honor a man derives from his virility as manifested by having numerous sons; another comes to him from engaging in certain types of work and refraining from others: hence, it is honorable for the Bedouins to tend their camels, dishonorable to engage in artisanship or agriculture. A third type of honor used to be associated with the sword - the ability to defend oneself against enemies and with bravery in general. To buy protection from a more powerful tribe by paying khuwwa (protection money) seriously diminished one's honor. To undertake a raid, within the prescribed rules, is honorable. To refuse participation in a raid is dishonoring. To defend one's livestock against raiders is honorable. To own livestock is honorable. Hospitality and generosity are matters of honor. To be inhospitable or ungenerous is shameful. It is honorable to have pure Arab blood, on both one's father's and one's mother's side. It is honorable to exhibit a strong sense of kin group adherence. It is honorable to behave with dignity and always to be aware of the imperative of wajh ("face"); under all circumstances a man must beware of allowing his "face" to be "blackened"; he must always endeavor to "whiten his face," as well as the face of the kin group to which he belongs. Cost what it may, one must defend one's public image. [Emphasis mine-SW] Any injury done to a man's honor must be revenged, or else he becomes permanently dishonored. And, of course, there is the sexual honor of the woman, through which her entire paternal family is constantly and dangerously exposed to the possibility of becoming dishonored. [This last point warrants a post of its own-SW]
Here is where the individual Narcissistic pathology intersects Honor-Shame Culture: both rely on the external environment for maintenance of their internal stability. The Narcissist, with his limited internal resources, (ie, healthy, loving internalized objects) relies on the adoration of the self-object (ie, idealized people) to support his self esteem. In an Honor-Shame Culture, this translates into a reliance exclusively on his standing with his community for self-esteem regulation. The individual narcissist idealizes the object (or parts of the object, as in the man who shows off his beautiful but denigrated girlfriend to win "props" from his peers) and thus receives confirmation of his ego ideal; losing the idealized object leads to deflation and despair. The individual in the Honor-Shame culture idealizes the greater culture and accepts the cultural determinants for his ego-ideal; when he receives honor in his culture his self esteem inflates; when he transgresses, he is not only in danger of violent retribution but loses the external buttresses for his self esteem.
The second important aspect is that the development of the ego ideal, described in Narcissism, Malignant Narcissism, and Paranoia: Part I as "the collection of abilities, traits, strengths and weaknesses, that make up the person who the child wishes he could be" is always partially culturally determined. In a more pluralistic, chaotic, and flexible cultural milieu, there are a myriad of potential ego ideals to choose from and one's ego ideal can change in many different ways before the young person finally settles upon who they wish to be and who they are. (The distance between the two can be a source of difficulty for some when the gulf is particularly great or the person is particularly rigid.) In an Honor-Shame culture, the ego ideal is much more tightly constrained. For example, in Palestinian Culture, the suicide bomber has been idealized; young children are directed through a program of intensive propaganda and indoctrination to internalize the suicide bomber, the shaheed, as the greatest aspiration they can have; the suicide bomber as ego ideal is the triumph of Narcissistic selfless idealism and Honor-Shame dynamics.
The implications of this are worth spelling out:
Child rearing practices that enhance narcissistic vulnerability support the power of the surrounding culture via Honor-Shame dynamics; this creates a situation in which the culture is highly resistant to change and individuals, even those who may have more flexible character structures, will be extremely resistant to change as long as they remain in the cultural milieu.
However, this also implies that if the cultural ego-ideal can be discredited, the community will be forced to find a new, more acceptable set of potential ego-ideals in order to maintain cohesion. There is some evidence from our current progress in Iraq, and especially in the growing devaluation and rejection of al Qaeda in Iraq, that just such an eventuality is developing.