Thursday, January 13, 2005

Society Neglecting Those It Considers Less Valuable

An Excerpt From Erich Fromm's 1965 book Escape From Freedom

The term normal or healthy can be defined in two ways. Firstly, from the standpoint of a functioning society, one can call a person normal or healthy if he is able to fulfill the social role he is to take in that given society. More concretely, this means that he is able to work in the fashion which is required in that particular society, and furthermore that he is able to participate in the reproduction of society, that is, that he can raise a family. Secondly, from the standpoint of the individual, we look upon health or normalcy as the optimum of growth and happiness of the individual.

If the structure of a given society were such that it offered the optimum possibility for individual happiness, both viewpoints would coincide. However, this is not the case in most societies we know, including our own. Although they differ in the degree to which they promote the aims of individual growth, there is a discrepancy between the aims of the smooth functioning of society and of the full development of the individual. This fact makes it imperative to differentiate sharply between the two concepts of health. The one is governed by social necessities, the other by values and norms concerning the aim of individual existence.

Unfortunately, this differentiation is often neglected. Most psychiatrists take the structure of their own society so much for granted that to them the person who is not well adapted assumes the stigma of being less valuable. On the other hand, the well-adapted person is supposed to be the more valuable person in terms of a scale of human values. If we differentiate the two concepts of normal and neurotic, we come to the following conclusion: The person who is normal in terms of being well adapted is often less healthy than the neurotic person in terms of human values. Often he is well adapted only at the expense of having given up his self in order to become more or less the person he believes he is expected to be. All genuine individuality and spontaneity may have been lost. On the other hand, the neurotic person can be characterized as somebody who was not ready to surrender completely in the battle for his self. To be sure, his attempt to save his individual self was not successful, and instead of expressing his self productively he sought salvation through neurotic symptoms and by withdrawing into a phantasy life. Nevertheless, from the standpoint of human values, he is less crippled than the kind of normal person who has lost his individuality altogether. Needless to say, there are persons who are not neurotic and yet have not drowned their individuality in the process of adaptation. But the stigma attached to the neurotic person seems to us to be unfounded and justified only if we think of neurotic in terms of social efficiency. As for a whole society, the term neurotic cannot be applied in this latter sense, since a society could not exist if its members did not function socially. From a standpoint of human values, however, a society could be called neurotic in the sense that its members are crippled in the growth of their personality. Since the term neurotic is so often used to denote a lack of social functioning, we would prefer not to speak of a society in terms of its being neurotic, but rather in terms of its being adverse to human happiness and self-realization.