Though many of you look to me as someone who understands Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD) pretty well, I’m still not an expert. I want to be clear about that, because today I’m tossing out an idea that popped into my head a couple hours before I started typing this. I may ultimately decide this idea doesn’t hold up, but would love to think it through with you.
So. A week after the Democratic Socialists of America’s biennial conference (digression: here‘s some solid reporting on us!), I’m still exhausted. We’re seeing crisis after crisis; the tragedy in Charlottesville is the most recent and worst. I wasn’t there, but members of my DSA chapter as well as courageous unaffiliated friends were; at least two were on the street to see a terrorist murder a comrade.
Which isn’t even why I started reading Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right on Sunday; I had been planning to do that anyway. I was only a couple chapters into it when it struck me that the book is about negative disintegration. I’d even go so far—and here’s where I step out of TPD orthodoxy—as to describe it as a book about reintegration at a lower level.
To be sure, in TPD, there is such a thing as negative reintegration. Dabrowski spoke of this happening, for instance, to people at the very unstable Level II, where their inability to discern higher and lower paths causes them to fall back to the known and stable primary integration of Level I. (If you’re interested in digging further into the details, here are some good pages on Dabrowski’s levels and how he conceived of Level I.) Basically, what gets you to the higher levels—Level III-V—is your recognition of a higher path. Once a person recognizes this, she presumably incorporates it, autonomously, into her personality ideal. That’s the culmination of Dabrowskian development.
So here’s a question: can someone’s personality ideal be negative?
Built into TPD is an assumption of pro-social values. The role of empathy as one of the all-important dynamisms shows this clearly. Dynamisms, in case you need a refresher, are the instincts, drives, and intellectual processes combined with emotions (Dabrowski, 1972, p. 294) that propel personality disintegration and reintegration. There’s also the centrality of emotional overexcitability, which manifests through compassion and identification with others’ feelings. Dabrowski was clear that without emotional OE, a person would not be able to reach the highest levels of development. In other words, to score maximum developmental potential, you’ve got to be a good person, or at least have the capacity to be one.
And then there’s the darkest depths of the Internet. I knew these people were out there lurking in virtual cesspools, but Kill All Normies gives you details you’ll wish you’d never heard about. Mobs of misogynists who bombard women who speak up about sexism in gamer and atheist circles with rape and death threats. People get their kicks from trolling parents whose kids who committed suicide. All manner of white nationalism and other racist bigotry. I’ll stop with the examples before everyone gets too depressed.
It seems to me that these trolls are not just lacking empathy, but exhibiting the opposite of it: an anti-empathy, a force that excludes, that actively feeds off of the suffering of people outside the troll’s circle. And this is extra chilling because these losers otherwise might well look at TPD and say, hey, I went through disintegration, but now I’m acting in line with the third factor, pursuing my personality ideal! I’ve reintegrated at a more evolved level! I’m putting these words into their mouth, but if you try to imagine how they think of themselves, doesn’t it seem like something they might think? The only thing that’s missing is that a certain ingredient—the dynamism of empathy, the lack of which is what defines psychopathy. Consider this passage from Kill All Normies:
Norman Mailer posited the psychopath as a noble and transgressive figure in fiction. He saw the hipster (which had somewhat different connotations at the time to the beard oil-applying variety of today) as borrowing from the tradition of the noble psychopath of fiction in his disregard for social conventions and the mainstream, and perceived the fictional psychopath as a symbol of being freed from sexual, social, and moral inhibitions. The psychopath, like the artist, privileges id over superego and desire over moral constraints. […] Also in Press and Reynold’s analysis, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization and R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience, madness was consistently recast as nonconformity in this transgressive style. For de Sade, the Surrealists, and later for the 60s anti-repression cultural politics most closely associated with R.D. Laing, insanity was considered a creative source, a rejection of mainstream norms and a political act of rebellion. (p. 31)
I’m not familiar with the work of Mailer, Blanchot, or Laing, and the term “psychopath” connotes something that is wholly different from the positive maladjustment of TPD. In reintegration at a higher level, of course, inhibitions play a key role: you don’t let the impulses of the first factor guide you; and empathy is a big reason why. But it sounds like these authors are talking about a maladjustment that looked positive from the perspective of the person going through it, citing freedom and creativity and clarity of purpose and so on.
Dabrowski wanted his theory to encompass everything from the best to the worst of human behavior, so he addresses psychopaths. The language of TPD, however, offers less precise language for parsing the lower levels of humanity, placing decent-but-unreflective (and therefore integrated) people within Level I alongside psychopaths, whom Dabrowski describes as the most well-integrated people of all. (They don’t have that pesky empathy to disrupt their pursuit of selfish impulses!) Psychologist Elizabeth Mika addresses the breadth of Level I her paper on psychopathy and TPD:
Even though both an average person and a psychopath inhabit level 1, primary integration, they function differently most of the time. While a psychopath’s actions are expressive of negative maladjustment (disregard for social norms and conventions in pursuit of one’s own egocentric goals), an average person represents negative adjustment (a faithful, often unreflective adherence to social mores). The difference between the two, though disappearing in times of social upheaval and disorder, is the difference between evil and (often harmless, sometimes not) complacency with the societal and personal status quo.
Since he was trying to draw attention to the question of integration vs. disintegration, I can see why Dabrowski put all these integrated people on Level I. We should also note that Dabrowski witnessed greater evil than most people on Earth today have seen in our lifetimes, so it’s not like he didn’t give the issue a lot of thought. Nevertheless, I agree with what Mika is saying here: there’s a difference that matters, even within the bounds of TPD.
Let’s return now (sorry) to those Internet cesspools. Reading Kill All Normies made me think that some of these people are actually going through a disintegration of the type that TPD describes—with the result being that they reintegrate at a lower level. They aren’t merely lacking empathy; they appear to be experiencing that dynamic anti-empathy that combines with the third factor to create a human catalyst for evil. They do have a personality ideal; it’s just one that most of us find abhorrent.
Don’t get me wrong: most of these self-proclaimed beta males are merely lacking empathy and following the most selfish impulses of the first factor. It’s not worth proposing new levels of
development devolution to describe what clearly fits in the muck at the bottom of Level I. If my suggestion of negative levels has any use, it would be to describe the few negative catalysts who are giving the Level I trolls something to rally around. Kill All Normies made me think that these people may well have passed through a level where they recognize a multilevelness of paths—a Negative Level III—and because they’re fueled by anti-empathy, their priorities are flipped. There are even some Negative Level IVs: people who look like autonomous exemplars of a perverse ideal to those whose social worlds are wrong-side up. (I’m not talking about POTUS, by the way. I think he’s a pretty solid low Level I, having never experienced disintegration in his life. The Negatives are more like leaders of alt-right movement. They’re the ones who could catalyze something.)
And that’s got frightening implications, as we saw this past weekend in Charlottesville. As described in Elizabeth Mika’s paper:
Dabrowski maintained that the more individuals on the borderline of the average person and neurotics/psychoneurotics, the healthier the society and the better the chances that its most creative and developmentally advanced members will be recognized and appreciated for the universal human values they embody in their lives. The more so-called ‘normal’ individuals bordering psychopathy, the greater possibilities of serious social maladies, since a society structured around low level values, represented most vividly in actions of prominent psychopaths, will create and foster “suffering, mass terror, violent oppression, genocide and the decay of civilization.” (Dabrowski et al. 1973, p.40)
This is all just calibrating a mental model, so perhaps it doesn’t matter if it’s “right.” But if there’s value to what I’ve proposed here, it will be in helping us recognize and thwart those negative catalysts. Maybe looking at TPD from an upside-down perspective can help us do that. It also speaks to the need to empower the catalysts who are standing right-side up. It’s much easier to let gravity pull us down, after all. Let’s do everything we can to amplify the creative and empathetic authenticity of those trying to fly up.
So, what do you think? Does this explain anything? Are the leaders of the alt-right just highly integrated Level I’s, or does negative disintegration help make sense of them? Remember, this is not orthodox TPD; I threw this idea out there for your pondering pleasure, so I invite you to post your thoughts below.