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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021


Parallel Papers Session 6
Sunday 7 July 11.00pm-12.15 pm, EEST
Paper Code: PP22

Civilisation and its Malcontents

Presenter: Ron Spielman
Moderator: Alexandra Gerny


This paper, following Freud’s lead in “Civilisation and its Discontents”, seeks to explore the role of individual psychodynamics in the relationship between citizens – individually and in large groups – to the ‘civilisation’ in which they live.

In recent times, there appears to be an increase throughout “the West” in the numbers of citizens expressing overt hostility to Western Civilisation itself.

In 2019 in Sydney, Australia, a conservative Foundation (Ramsay) offered funding for a University based course in “Western Civilisation”, together with funding for prospective students. This provoked considerable hostility and outright opposition from “the Left” in Australia who deemed the proposal ‘elitist’ and deriving from a ‘White Supremacist’ stance privileging Western Civilisation over all other civilisations.

One of Freud’s key statements cautions, “… every individual is virtually an enemy of civilisation” – and, further, “Thus, civilisation has to be defended against the individual, and its regulations, institutions and commands are directed to that task”.

This author hypothesises that the individuals involved in the storm of opposition to the proposed university course may have been motivated by unconscious hostilities to authority figures going beyond mere (sic.) ‘discontent’ to overt ‘malcontent’ – that is, moved from the ‘discontent’ Freud claimed to be inherent in a conflict between a requirement that individuals become ‘civilised’ in order to live among their fellow citizens, to ‘malcontent’ as a manifestation of failure to resolve personal psychodynamic issues involving authority figures.

Further, there has been a recent upsurge in Western societies of “wokeness”, wherein heightened sensitivities to perceived assaults on ‘diversity’ and ‘equal opportunity’, often seen as ‘race-based’, result in so-called ‘cancel culture’ and ‘deplatforming’ of people and groups seen to be transgressing ‘woke norms’.

For example,in the course of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, for all its legitimacy, there were repeated calls for ‘defunding the police’ which found widespread resonance among people in the West. While some policing incidents were well worthy of criticism, the rapid escalation to calls for defunding the police are seen to be manifestations of an irrational hostility to civilisational institutions.

Drawing on Freud’s discoveries about individuals’ conflicted inner life, Freud explored the ramifications of these internal conflicts in citizens’ relationship with their own civilisation and the need to conform to the need to ‘curb’ self-interest in the service of the common good.

This paper draws on similar concepts in an attempt to understand a growing number of individuals manifesting likely psychodynamic ‘chips on their personal shoulders’ to account for a state of malcontent with Western Civilisation itself.

Biographical Summary

Dr Ron Spielman
Prior to entering private practice working psychoanalytically with individuals, Dr Ron Spielman established a ‘Therapeutic Community’ in a public psychiatric hospital for the treatment of Personality Disorder and later was Director of a Community Drug and Alcohol Service serving the Sydney Metropolitan Region. All this led to him seeking Psychoanalytic Training in order to beter understand unconscious mechanisms involved in the aetiology of personality and its disorders. He became a Member of the International Psychoanalytic Association after completing training in 1984. His combined a long-standing interest in group dynamics and individual psychodynamics has led, in retirement, to thinking and writing about the role of the Unconscious in a variety of social and political issues.