A Psychiatrist Looks at Personal Identity, Family Structure, and Identity Politics

source: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2016/07/17324/

If we ever hope to rid our country’s political discourse of the poison of identity politics, we must begin by rebuilding the psychological foundations of healthy identity formation in our children.

within Marriage, Politics, Sexuality

Over the past several decades, a series of social and political causes—perhaps most prominently, abortion and same-sex marriage—have polarized the American people. For many adherents of these causes, passionate political involvement now fills the place more traditionally occupied by religious belief. Virtually every cause, led by its militant true believers and enlisted activists, has exploited the tactics of identity politics, vilifying the opposition while proclaiming its aggrieved righteousness. Identity politics draws people in by appealing to fairness, inducing guilt, promoting fear, demonizing opponents, and attaching the cause to a political affiliation.

Not all people are equally vulnerable to these tactics. As a psychiatrist, I firmly believe that people’s susceptibility to identity politics, moral relativism, and situational ethics is determined, at least in part, by certain key developmental life experiences—both conscious and unconscious.

The field of psychiatry possesses a rich knowledge of human emotional and mental development. Unfortunately, this knowledge is largely ignored in the climate of biological reductionism that currently dominates the discipline. Still, the knowledge is there for those who care to make an honest inquiry, even if the realities of psychological development do not support their preferred political position. In particular, psychiatry clearly demonstrates the formative influence of the role models with whom children identify and underscores the importance of the traditional nuclear family. And understanding the crucial role of identification in personality development can shed light on why our country has fallen for the polarizing politics of special interest groups.

Fatherlessness and Identity

Certain universal truths govern human nature. Just as surely as an infant reared by English-speaking parents learns to speak English, so too does he or she assimilate parental attitudes and behaviors. A child’s mental development consists of an amalgam of parental characteristics, with both mother and father playing crucial roles. Identification—internalization and assimilation of parental attitudes and characteristics—is the building block of personality. And the most important constituent of personality is one’s sense of self or personal identity. This is formed not simply by emulating parental characteristics but by internalizing them.

Consider the role that identification plays in the multi-generational impact that single-parent households and absent fathers have had in this country. The pathology that results from broken homes provides a convincing argument for the importance of the married mother-and-father family structure in shaping children’s personal identities.

The most devastating consequences are borne by young boys without fathers. Without fathers to model mature and responsible manhood, boys seek other models of identification and other “families” to feel part of. Fatherless and directionless young men find each other, and the culture of the streets shapes their sense of self. Strong gang identifications contribute to the tragically high homicide rate among disaffected youths. Disputes between rival gangs, often in retaliation over real or imagined offenses against gang “brothers,” violently act out the rage that can consume young men whose fathers have abandoned them. Their displaced anger is often internalized as well, manifesting itself in self-damaging behaviors, such as substance abuse, that reflect their hopelessness and deficient self-esteem.

Nor do the girls reared in fatherless homes escape unscathed. Their experience with rootless men who abandon children and their mothers profoundly diminishes their full potential as women, often limiting them to childrearing as single parents in a culture of poverty that perpetuates itself from generation to generation.

Trust, Relationships, and Conscience

The unfortunate consequences for children raised in broken families can be predicted from what we know about human development. A consistent, loving, and physically affectionate maternal relationship during infancy is the emotional bedrock upon which a child’s sense of self is built. Self-esteem, the nucleus of personal identity, reflects the child’s identification with the loving attitude of mother. A cherished child will internalize a sense of self-worth. A trustworthy mother who lovingly satisfies her infant’s physical and emotional needs engenders a sense of trust in her child. The child learns not only to trust mother but to trust others as well. Mother’s dependability in meeting her infant’s needs engenders the optimistic expectation that other people, until proven otherwise, also will generally be upright and forthcoming. Absent a loving mother who is in tune with her infant’s biological and psychological needs, a child may approach subsequent relationships with pessimism and distrust.

read more at: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2016/07/17324/