A Tough Uncle: On “Being Losers”

In the latest example of what are becoming all-too-frequent acts of unspeakable horror, homemade bombs killed three people and seriously wounded dozens more at the beloved Boston Marathon this week. The act itself seems to fit the definition of terrorism perfectly: an indiscriminate strike at ordinary, innocent people in a moment of national celebration, forever tainting the memory of the event, and forever changing the lives of thousands or millions of people who had to witness it, even apart from those directly impacted.

Now that (as of the moment) one of the suspected bombers has been killed, and another is still at large, the media have seized upon any story they can find. In doing so, they spoke to the uncle of the suspected bombers, who gave the reporters his unvarnished opinion about the crime (this from an Associated Press story):

Asked what he thought provoked the bombings, Tsarni said: “Being losers, hatred to those who were able to settle themselves. These are the only reasons I can imagine of. Anything else, anything else to do with religion, with Islam, it’s a fraud, it’s a fake.”

People often criticized Alfred Adler’s Individual Psychology because they thought it was too simple – “It’s just common sense.” Indeed, to a profession (and, increasingly, a public) who look for elegant explanations of psychopathology, Adlerian psychology can seem to be like this man’s opinion: Blunt, obvious, and unsophisticated. But – assuming that this man’s nephews really did commit these acts – there is wisdom in the uncle’s words. He seems to have an intuitive understanding of Adler’s “striving for significance.”

After every horrific act in the news, we immediately look for a larger context in which to place it, in order to accomodate it to our world view. We seek an explanation in the ideology, or the perpetrator’s affiliations, about what must have motivated the act. We wonder if there is a biological explanation. As if that would help us to feel less threatened. If we are unable to come up with a satisfying explanation, some of us shake our heads sadly and assert that these acts are proof that “there is true evil in the world.”

Evil, however, can be seen as a twisted version of what could be good in people, and Alfred Adler understood this.

Adler posited his notion that social interest – the need to belong – is the strongest motivation for human behavior. He claimed that this drive is stronger than sex or aggression (Freud’s main motivators) and can even be stronger than the instinct to survive. My Adlerian teacher, Bernard Shulman, often talked about the Japanese tradition of hara-kiri, and the self-sacrifice of adults to protect children (seen in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School) as examples of the way people will give up their own lives for what they perceive to be a more important goal: preserving honor in the first example, or protecting the vulnerable, in the second. These goals may be socially useful, as at Sandy Hook, or socially useless, as in the case of a suicide bomber.

When an individual is discouraged – when he or she has what Adler labeled an “inferiority complex” – the individual no longer believes that significance among other people is possible, at least not in the usual ways. Among children, this discouragement leads to attention-getting behavior, power struggles, seeking to be excused from responsibilities, or (in severe cases) vengeful behavior. In adults, if the individual accepts that fitting in would be a desirable goal but does not feel able to fit in, this sense of inadequacy can find its expression in symptoms such as depression, self-defeating behaviors such as procrastination, or anxiety in the face of social situations. However, if the individual decides to reject the goal of fitting in and making a social contribution, Adler said that antisocial behavior could be a result. This could take the form of seeking power and control, such as being a dictator or a ruthless CEO. It could take the form of narcissism, seeking the admiration of others without having to earn it. It could take the form of criminal fraud, such as being a con artist or embezzler. Or, it could take the form of violence, either physical or psychological. Torture, murder, rape, cruelty, and terrorism are all possible outcomes. The people who engage in these acts are “losers” who don’t want to feel like “losers,” but use only destructive ways to try to feel significant. They take the childhood goal of revenge to its ultimate conclusion: hurting people who don’t deserve to be hurt in order to make themselves feel more important, more powerful, or more special. Some of them are willing to die in the process. That’s how strong the desire not to be a “loser” can be.

Certainly, these “losers” – or individuals who desperately don’t want to feel like losers – are easy marks for the even bigger “losers:” the gang leaders, mob bosses, dictators, and warlords of the world. It’s relatively easy to convince a loser that he’ll be less of a loser by joining a special group that inspires fear in people.

But the point I’m making is that it matters less what cause or ideology a loser identifies with, than what actions he or she is willing to take in order to avoid feeling like a loser. It’s all a matter of whether the behavior is socially useful or socially destructive. It matters little whether they are Chechen separatists, Irish Republican Army supporters, or American guards at Abu Ghraib. If their goal is to make themselves feel better by hurting others, they are all exactly the same kind of people.

They are the “losers.” And they cause untold misery and evil in the world. So we all lose as a result.

 
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