The importance of eye contact, the “fascist nature” of traffic lights, how Britain’s unwritten constitution is holding up better than America’s written one; Steven Reisner weaves together these and other curious and unexpected details of our pixilated times in the first episode of his new podcast – “MADNESS”.
I’m Steven Reisner, and this is Madness, where psychology and capitalism collide.
I’m speaking to you today from rural, Southwestern France, specifically the Charente-Maritime, which is about an hour North of Bordeaux. I spend about six months out of the year here in rural France and today I will be drawing from some of what I’ve learned about the culture of this area to help me understand the topic which I want to address, which is across the channel and what is going on in Great Britain.
I’m sure you’ve heard that Great Britain is currently facing a constitutional crisis, but you might not have heard that Great Britain doesn’t actually have a written constitution. The idea that there is a constitutional crisis, even though there is no written constitution sounds like madness, but I’m going to make the case that the British constitution, which doesn’t actually exist, appears to be holding up a whole lot better than the American constitution, which does exist. I think that if we’re going to understand what’s going on in Britain, and by contrast what is happening to the American constitution currently, we would do well to go back a couple of thousand years to the origins of philosophical debate and take a look at what Socrates had to say about a written tradition and unwritten tradition.
Now, Socrates is known for refusing to write down his ideas and thoughts and we basically know what Socrates believed because of the writings of his disciple Plato, who wrote the dialogues of Socrates, and apparently was fairly true to Socrates’s words and ideas. Socrates refused her write his thoughts down, first of all, because he was afraid that they would be used against him, but more profoundly he had questions about what happens when you commit ideas to writing. We find Socrates’s argument in Plato’s Phaedra’s, which is a series of dialogues between Socrates and his friend Phaedrus on many topics, mostly about madness. Socrates believed that madness was a kind of gift from the Gods, a in fact, they expression that we use now is divine madness. I will have a lot more to say about the gift of madness in future episodes. But for today I want to stick with what Socrates had to say about writing and about writing things down. Socrates basically made the case that people think that if you write things down, it will improve memory. But for Socrates actually, writing things down, permitted forgetfulness, it was a deferring of responsibility to the written word, to quote the Phaedrus. Socrates says that writing will provide a forgetfulness in the souls of those who learn, at the expense of memory. Since they do not remind themselves by themselves internally, but because of a dependence on writing, they are reminded externally by a foreign impression. So, what Socrates is basically saying is that once something is written down, it becomes its own authority, and one doesn’t appeal anymore to reason or values or understanding or what he would call the soul, the sort of the divine internal sense of good and right, but rather that people begin to look for the written word, which is in fact an image of the soul of true memory and true learning. So Socrates is basically arguing is that there’s a kind of laziness in transmission of ideas put to writing.
I don’t think that we can conclude from this that nothing should be put to writing, but I think what Socrates is saying is that we have a great responsibility, not to simply respect the word as an authority, but the argumentation, the logic, the quest for goodness that is behind what we put to writing. And it’s reminiscent of the question of written tradition and an oral tradition, even if you take the Jewish tradition of the written law as opposed to the oral law. So, in equally ancient Jewish tradition, maybe more ancient Jewish tradition, there is the writings in the first five books of the Bible. And in those first five books are what is called the written law. Jewish scholars and religious scholars and rabbis from time and Memorial have argued that alongside the written law was also the oral law. And what is the oral law? The oral law is the interpretation of the written law. And it’s thousands of years of history, of interpretation of the law in the Jewish tradition. The most obvious example is the question of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Literally it would be taken to mean that if somebody causes you to lose your eye, that person should have to lose their eye, et cetera, et cetera. But the interpretation from the very beginning is no, the compensation for the loss of an eye should be equal to what that means, and judges should determine what that compensation should be. So, already the idea is not the literal interpretation, but the value underneath the interpretation. And in the tradition you have the majority opinions and the minority opinions and these change over time. And of course the whole oral tradition goes way beyond Judeo Christian history and includes oral traditions in Hinduism and Buddhism and native Americans. I think every culture teaches their value system through storytelling, through the myths and tales that exemplify a certain way of living and a certain value system that underlies the code of living so that people in general know the rules, they know though that there are laws, but there is also a responsibility to know what the laws are about, why the laws exist, what the value system is behind the laws.
So what I am trying to argue today is that sometimes the written law can have a kind of a tyranny that the unwritten law does not. And, in fact, the written law can sometimes be abused for reasons of power, where the unwritten law tends to reflect the value systems and are less likely to be abused in the same way. I’m going to bring it right down, for the moment, to my daily experience here in rural France. One of the things that an American notices immediately in rural France are the roads. It is very rare to find a traffic light in rural France. In fact, the only traffic lights that I have found in the small towns and villages in this area, are when streets are so narrow that only one car can go through. So they have a traffic light, which allows cars to go one direction and cars to come in the other direction without hitting each other because it has to be a one way road.
If the road is slightly larger than one way, something else happens, which is that the drivers make eye contact and one driver will pull over and let the other driver pass. There are traditional rules for that about whether you’re on the right or the left, but the most important thing is eye contact and respect. And you wave when the person passes – the French equivalent of an American thumbs up. This has been ritualized in the roundabout, what we in America call the traffic circle. Throughout rural France, what you have instead of traffic lights, instead of stop signs, four way stop signs, two way stop signs, whatever — what you have most frequently are roundabouts: traffic circles where there are rules, the person who has entered the traffic circle first has the right of way, but in order to see whether the person who is coming into the traffic circle is coming past you or exiting before you, you really need to be sensitive to the nuances of the other driver. It’s nice when they signal, that would be best, but in small traffic circles, people tend not to signal, but you make eye contact, you tell by the speed and direction of the car, and there’s a kind of cultural knowledge and respect for one another that you develop when you reach a traffic circle.
And it turns out that traffic circles are so much safer than stop lights and stop signs. They’ve done research in America, and they have found that roundabouts have a third fewer accidents altogether. They have three quarters fewer accidents with injuries and 90% fewer fatalities than stop lights or stop signs.
So in Great Britain, roundabouts are very popular, and I think that there is something about the British sense of themselves as holding up certain kinds of etiquette, tradition and values, that make traffic circles, or roundabouts, popular in Britain. There’s a British Roundabout Appreciation Society and the President of the UK Appreciation Society, Kevin Beresford, has put it this way, and I love this quote: He says, “Traffic lights are so fascist and dictatorial, telling you when to stop and when to go. Roundabouts, on the other hand, are quintessentially English and democratic in their etiquette.” Now, I see a direct line between the democratic process of roundabouts and the lack of a written constitution in British law and parliamentary procedures, versus stoplights and stop signs throughout America, the written constitution and the dilemma of where we stand now in America and in Britain. I’m going to talk about where I think the constitutional crisis ought to be in a moment, but I want to turn to a psychological understanding of the difference between the dictatorial traffic lights and the democratic roundabouts and think psychologically about what Socrates may have been talking about.
So, I want to talk a little bit about Freud’s theory of the super ego. When we think of Freud, we think of the id, the ego, and the super ego. The whole idea in the way most people think about Freud is that the id is our rampant desire. It has no rules, it simply wants pleasure and satisfaction. The super ego are the prohibitions, the moralistic prohibitions: Thou shall not run a red light, as it says in the Bible. Really, the commandments are very “super ego” in their tone: Thou shalt not kill, thou shall not steal… Even the “Thou shalts” are super ego, like, thou shalt, you know, obey God and not take the Lord’s name in vain. They’re a set of rules determined by an authority figure. And then there’s the ego, which, according to most people’s view of Freudian psychology, has to mediate between the demands of the id and the restrictions of the super ego. And it is true that you can read Freud’s theory and find that there.
I remember when I underwent my personal analysis with the analyst Martin Bergman, one of my great mentors. When you walk into Martin’s office, there was this famous lithograph of a portrait of Freud, and I always thought that it was extremely stern, and some days it seemed more stern to me than other days, which Martin liked to analyze why I was feeling guilty or afraid or whatever. But, the interesting thing for me is that Martin himself, as an analyst, was not stern in this Freudian way. When he wasn’t happy with something that I described that I had done, Martin would sigh as if he was sad by this fact and he would say, “That wasn’t you at your best.” This introduced a way of thinking about my wishes, my desires, my life in society that wasn’t about the authoritative rules. This introduced this idea of what is me at my best, meaning, what are values that I aspire to? In going back and reading Freud and reading psychoanalytic theory, I would say that what Martin was trying to teach me was that, okay, yes there are these rules of right and wrong: though shalt, thou shalt not, but at the same time, and perhaps more importantly, there is what Freud actually called the Ego Ideal: The ideal self that one aspires, or, the “best self.” This Ego Ideal represents a value system that we are trying to aspire to. It’s not about punishment, it’s much more about disappointment. It’s about living by a code that we can align with. And that, I think, is true of society as well.
So when the members of parliament are showing a lack of confidence in their prime minister, what they are basically saying is not that that prime minister violated the words of the constitution, but the spirit of the constitution. That prime minister is violating the values that have been codified over centuries in the laws and traditions, but that don’t have to be written down because we constantly have to be reminded what the values underlying our constitution are. Socrates put it this way: He said, “The living word of knowledge has a soul.” The written word is no more than an image of the soul, of the living word, the spoken word, the taught word, the interrogated word of now. So what is happening in Britain is not chaos — it’s an eruption of the soul of the British constitution, written or unwritten. The question that is probably the most important question of our time right now is “Why isn’t the same thing happening in the United States of America?” Why aren’t we erupting in the face of an executive that manipulates all the branches of government that is supposed to put a check on that power? The judiciary, the Senate, the military, the border patrol, even the national weather service…How is it that he has transformed them into instruments of his power and how is it that there is no eruption stopping him?
Socrates was put to death because he believed that knowledge and truth and profound values have to be a check on power. He believed that sometimes, madness, a mad eruption of the truth is necessary in times of crisis to confront power that manipulates language, and manipulates words, and manipulates our constitution for its own ends. What we have in America instead of truth confronting power and truth dominating power, we have power dominating truth, altering truth with a Sharpie. What our country needs now is more of what happened in Britain’s parliament. We need a chaotic eruption of the truth confronting the manipulation of our constitution by this president and his government.
This is Steven Reisner. This has been Madness, where psychology and capitalism collide.