Religion Can Divide. Joking about It Can Help Unite.
Faith is absurd — let’s embrace the comedy in that.
Adam Mansbach is a novelist, screenwriter, cultural critic and humorist. He is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Go the Fuck to Sleep, which has been translated into forty languages, named Time Magazine's 2011 "Thing of the Year," and sold over two million copies worldwide. The 2014 sequel, "You Have to Fucking Eat," is also a New York Times bestseller.
Mansbach was recently nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and an NAACP Image Award for his screenplay BARRY. The film premiered to rave reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was acquired by Netflix. Released as a Netflix Original on December 16, 2016, BARRY was directed by Vikram Gandhi and stars Devon Terrell, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ellar Coltrane, Ashley Judd, Jason Mitchell, Jenna Elfman, and Avi Nash.
Mansbach's novels include The End of the Jews (2008) which won the California Book Award, and the cult classic Angry Black White Boy, or the Miscegenation of Macon Detornay (2005), which is taught at more than eighty schools and was adapted into a prize-winning stage play in 2008.
Mansbach also writes in several other literary genres. His debut thriller, The Dead Run was published by HarperCollins in 2013, and the sequel, The Devil's Bag Man, in 2015. The first book in a middle grades series co-written with Alan Zweibel and entitled Benjamin Franklin: Huge Pain in my Ass, was published in September 2015 by Hyperion.
Mansbach is the recipient of a Reed Award, a Webby Award, and a Gold Pollie from the American Association of Political Consultants for his 2012 campaign video "Wake The Fuck Up," starring Samuel L. Jackson. He was the 2009-11 New Voices Professor of Fiction at Rutgers University, a 2012 Sundance Screenwriting Lab Fellow, and a 2013 Berkeley Repertory Theatre Writing Fellow. Mansbach lives in Berkeley, California, and is a frequent lecturer on college campuses.
Adam Mansbach: For me as a writer across all kinds of genres and disciplines, whether it’s screenwriting or literary fiction or obscene fake children’s books, humor is always one of the most important tools in my palette.
There are things that you can get people to come to the table on if you make them laugh that they’ll never sign on for if you don’t. It’s always a problem to be too pedantic, to hit people over the head, so things like satire and absurdity are both important ways to engage and start a conversation, and also fundamentally at this point critical ways to look at the world.
And I think all of those things are heightened when you’re dealing with faith because it’s so divisive, it’s so important to people, and at the same time feelings and tensions around it also run incredibly high.
So, for me, you know, with “Haggadah” in particular and some of the other work I’ve done in the past around faith, around Judaism, around religion as an identity and something that gets weaponized and something that people pick up and put down as they see fit and as they need to, you know.
The Jewish community, the Jewish faith is an interesting one because you can be Jewish without being religious. You can be Jewish without believing in anything. You find Jews who say shit like, “I’m Jewish, but I’m Buddhist.” Like Episcopalians don’t say shit like that. Do you know what I mean?
For me as somebody who grew up culturally Jewish but in a very secular family and household and community, Judaism in particular has margins that are wide and very well-populated in the sense that there are many ways to be like alienated from the faith and yet not want to separate yourself entirely.
And in my mind that’s really where all the good art comes from, is the margins of any community, the people who feel like they have one foot in and one foot out. The people who feel invested yet not entirely accepted, et cetera.
When I look at the Jewish artists in particular that I connect with, who resonate with me, you know, I find folks like Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer. None of these people were like hardcore in the bosom of Judaism. They all felt that sense of marginality, of alienation, and that’s where the pain and thus the art come from.
So I think humor plays directly into that. You have to have a sense of humor about it. You have to explore the fissures and the ways in which faith is observed, the ways in which constructing any community on this arbitrary set of ancient principles that folks may or may not even invest in in the current day and age. There’s something hilarious about that.
And the part of the Jewish tradition in particular that I connect with is the idea of arguing about everything incessantly forever, and the sensibility and the humor that have allowed folks to persevere through a lot of horrible shit throughout the centuries and maintain some grace in the face of all that. So for me ultimately Judaism comes down to the jokes.
With something as sensitive as faith, humor isn't just a handy way to bring people of various religions together, it's an essential tool for social cooperation. Adam Mansbach finds plenty to laugh about within Judaism, the faith he grew up in, and believes that being on the margins of that community provides an incredible vantage point to witness how modern people try to squeeze themselves into the mold of millennia-old faith doctrines. A lot of creative talent has come from that uncomfortable squish: Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer all had one foot in the faith and the other foot out. Mansbach is Jewish, but he's not you know, "Jewish". And that is another absurd duality that is unique to Judaism. You can be Jewish and Buddhist — but if you are, put on a light suit of armor, because the comedians are coming. Adam Mansbach's most recent book (co-authored with Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel) is For This We Left Egypt?.
Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.
- Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
- At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
- Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.
- Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
- Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
- Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.
Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.
Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.
"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."
Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.
Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.
The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.
That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.
Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.
Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.
First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.
Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.
More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."
This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.
"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."
The Oedipal complex
The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.
That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.
Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.
But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.
Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.
An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.
The Freudian slip
Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."
"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."
In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.
According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.
"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.
Freud's case studies
Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."
It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.
For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.
Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.
Sigmund Freud and his legacy
Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)
Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.
If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.
When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).
Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.
But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.
With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.
It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?
- Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
- Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
- Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.