The Moral Mind Trap

Lately I’ve been struggling. It’s a kind of mish mash of feelings, somewhere between fear of offending, feeling like my thoughts aren’t good enough, and a feeling (justified or otherwise) of not being able to bring my thoughts to the forefront of what it is I’m trying to write. For someone who writes, it’s kind of paralysing.

The mind is a strange beast. Intuitively (especially in this age of computerisation) we imagine it to be very simple. The standard (naive) mental model is something like this: input goes in, intelligent man (because of course we have a completely different prevailing mental model for women) applies his carefully constructed logic, and decisions come out like manna from heaven. Who would question the results of rational thinking?

But the reality of the situation is of course much deeper than this, and much more dangerous for our misconceptions of the process. I’ve talked before, for instance, about the different voices that vie for control when we think, such as for example (as Freud termed it) the superego. This is just the tip of a very large iceberg of ignorance, hypocrisy, and just plain bad thinking. Not to be deterred by the vastness of the problem however, that’s exactly where we shall begin.

Freud described the superego as that part of our mind that seeks to impose moral ideals onto our conscious thought. It’s not an actual part of our brain hardware, but rather it can be thought of as a piece of software that is intended to protect us. You can think of it as the squishy gray version of antivirus software (unless you find the thought of squishy gray things slightly erotic, in which case your superego has been informed and has got his eye on you). You probably know it under several incarnations: the conscience, the little angel on your shoulder, self criticisms (like repeating catch phrases that an influential figure from your childhood might have said), or that image of father that comes to me at night and insists I spank myself for all the bad deeds of the day (I “swear” I just tripped and fell into this harness). Mostly (at least as Freud theorised) it is even unconscious, that feeling of dread you get when doing something that may not be in the publics (and therefore vicariously your) interest.

For the most part the superego is a super neat guy. It’s the part of our brain that stops society from descending into chaos. Don’t rape people in the street, don’t eat your sister, don’t murder your neighbour (no matter how annoying country music is…but that’s another story).

When distorted through trauma or extreme oppression (which I suppose is a kind of trauma as well) however it can become a destructive force in your mind. It seeks to punish you for natural feelings, to the point where you are not making decisions in life from a position of clear rational thought, but simply out of trying to avoid the wrath of the superego. Left unquestioned, or even worse, reinforced by certain seemingly rational behavioural patterns, and we become its slave.

This becomes a real problem for society, because the next step (once the thinking has ceased) is to turn the fear outwards. Hatred very often is fear inverted. It’s almost certainly not true (in spite of being completely comforting to imagine) that most people hate something because they secretly desire it themselves (like the classic “You’re only homophobic because you’re gay”). But there may be a shred of truth to the concept. More likely, when confronted with something that contradicts someone’s personal moral code, the superego steps in and starts a conversation that goes something like this: “Are you sure you’re strong enough? Maybe you’ll be doing that next. And if you do I’m going to whip you like a butter pancake. If it was me, and I sincerely mean this as a suggestion devoid of any threats, I’d stop that person.”

We don’t like to think about this effect. Part of the superegos makeup is to punish us for even thinking of discussing it. The first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club. The second rule of fight club is you do NOT talk about fight club. Well fuck the rules. I’m talking about fight club.

For the sake of the argument I’m going to coin a phrase. It may not be of my devising since it most likely comes from my subconscious which may have come from others writings. Regardless it’s a term I often use in my thoughts. I call it a mind trap.

A mind trap could be defined as “a series of (seemingly) logical statements, which taken together form an unbreakable circular argument, that specifically ensnares our thoughts so that we can’t break our pattern of thinking without extreme effort”. I’ll also add that usually we are oblivious to the mind traps that ensnare us, primarily because the logic seems so sound and rational. It’s often not a passing thought but a fundamental way of life. It will be seen (by the person ensnared) as a part of WHO they are, and therefore by definition to escape said mind trap is to deny oneself (this is even a mind trap in itself).

There is a common mind trap I’ve observed, and it goes a little something like this. Thomas is good. We know Thomas is good because Thomas does good things. How do we know the things Thomas does are good? Because Thomas does them. To question Thomas’s actions is heresy. Thomas said so. I call this the moral mind trap.

This is one of the most insidious traps a mind can fall into. Since morals are so fundamental to our identity we will fight to defend it. It will come as a personal front for another to suggest we question our reasoning.

Taken alone, I suppose, this isn’t the most terrible thing someone could fall privy to. A well balanced mind could probably overcome Thomas. It’s when the superego becomes a fan of Thomas that the problem arises. That is when hatred is born, both inward and outward. The moral mind trap becomes the holding pattern the superego uses to divert our incoming critical thought. By diverting our regular rational thought, terrible things are done in the name of reason and decency.

My name is Tyler Durden. This is my story.

“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives.” – Fight Club


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