Individual and collective conversion disorders

Last Wednesday, I took in Jamieson Webster’s seminar at GCAS rather than the afternoon session of Wake. I did the same on Thursday, and then took in Barry Taylor’s session on Friday morning, as Wake had finished on Thursday evening.

(It finished with a pub crawl for which I managed an “Irish goodbye”, i.e. never got to the first pub, but without announcing that to more than one or two – and I apologise to anyone who would have liked me to buttonhole them and say “goodbye” properly, but pubs are absolutely not my thing, particularly when they’re full to the gills with a sudden influx of 40-odd extra people – I’d been pushing the envelope of my anxiety disorder all week, but only for things I really wanted to go to – and that didn’t include watching other people drink while not being able to hear myself think).

Jamieson Webster is a practising psychoanalyst and teacher of psychoanalysis with a string of books to her credit, including “Conversion Disorder” about which I wrote a couple of years ago. She talks about Freud and Lacan in a way which actually manages to make me think I might want to read a bit of those two thinkers, which is an achievement. I’m a novice to psychoanalysis, which is virtually the only psychological therapy I’ve no experience of at all, but have been getting the idea over the last few years that I should get to know more – after all, both Freud and Lacan feature large in the works of Slavoj Zizek, Todd McGowan and Peter Rollins, all of whom I have a lot of respect for (even if, in the case of Pete, I disagree with him a huge proportion of the time these days – not least because of his use of Lacan). Zizek talks very engagingly, but his writing I find mostly impenetrable, Mc Gowan also talks well, and his books are slightly more accessible but I still find very many points of disagreement, and Pete talks wonderfully well, his books are pretty accessible, but that merely enables me to disagree with him more easily without fearing too much that I’ve totally misunderstood him. Yes, I tried reading a little Freud way back when, and found his ideas difficult-to-impossible to agree with. Lacan, I don’t dare trying to read without a “native guide”!

So, some of the Wednesday session involved her talking of conversion, not merely conversion disorder. I noticed that she had in mind something very like the modern idea of conversion, which is very much an individual matter (it is also that in the very fine book “Paul, the Convert” by Alan E. Segal). But that got me thinking. Early Christianity, at the very least, often aimed to convert by dint of approaching the king or other leader and converting them on an individual basis, but then counting the whole nation as being converted. This seems to have been the general case, at least until Christianity hit the jackpot and managed to convert Constantine (and the Empire broadly followed, largely due to more and more preferential treatment of Christians and less and less kindness towards other religions). Indeed, there were places where Christian missionaries came into direct conflict with Jews seeking to spread Judaism in a similar way. Judaism managed to convert Helena of Adiabene inaround 30 CE (before there were Christians to mount an opposing bid) and Judaism is generally thought to have gained the Khazars sometime between 740 and 920 CE, very possibly in competition with Christian missionaries. The conversion of the Germanic and northern European peoples was fairly typical.

Now, to my 21st century Western European, enlightenment-oriented, religiously pluralist eyes, the idea that you might adopt the religion of your leader, just because it’s their religion, seems very strange. (In passing, I’m not 100% confident that the same goes for Americans generally. It probably does for the “liberal elites”, who are broadly Western European in oiutlook, even though they’re substantially more politically conservative than I’d expect an otherwise similar European individual to be, but I do note that the US is yet to elect as president anyone who is not avowedly Christian…) We tend to think that if there’s a mass conversion, it must be under duress. However, I thought, that isn’t the way Iron Age people (i.e. those of the first centuries CE) or mediaevals tended to see things, even up to the dawn of the enlightenment. Their idea of leadership meant that the king was the incarnation, in a way, of the people as a whole. You got rid of the king/leader and the whole nation or tribe tended to crumble (as happened with the Mongols when the great khan Ogadei died,  anld with the Huns on the death of Attila). They were far more communitarian, in a hierarchical way – in a sense which was, I think, very real to them, you were represented by the king, and the king was a part of you, a part of your identity. Biblically, of course, the Hebrews had a strong tendency in that direction until the fall of the monarchy – we can recall the pleas of the Israelites to be granted a king, against the wishes of their prophets for the most part (and one has to suspect that those prophets did not want to be supplanted as a kind of theocratic king-equivalent). Daniel 10:13 talks of the “Prince of Persia” opposing what we tend to characterise as an angel serving the God of Israel, but which might just be closer to actually being that God than we like to think, and it is clear that the Prince of Persia is thought of as a spiritual entity which, on the supernatural plane, can frustrate the intentions of YHVH. Thus, kings were thought of as spiritual, as encapsulating the spirit of the nation.

In a very similar way, tribal or family leaders represented and incarnated the people who followed them. Abraham, for instance, was to be blessed with countless descendants, even if he didn’t live to see them spread over the earth himself. Many of us these days are not so focused on propagating our genome as to find having masses of descendants something particularly comforting or rewarding. And, of course, this meant that the leader, whether of family, tribe or nation, should have unquestioning obedience (in Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory, one can see that all of the “binding cluster” of loyalty, authority and sanctity are at work there; it was therefore a fundamentally conservative outlook, and again I wonder whether those on the political right, particularly in the USA, can better understand this mechanic than we liberals, who tend to focus more on the “induvidualising cluster” of care and fairness ). This positioning of the King as the “spirit of the nation” may go a long way towards understanding the divinisation of Alexander the Great and then of multiple Roman emperors; the cult of the emperor was the cult of the nation, hence the persecution of Jews and then Christians, because as monotheists they had to deny the cult of the emperor, and so were traitors. (The same mechanic applied to the much later persecution of Catholics and, briefly, Protestants in England in the 16th and 17th centuries particularly).

In Northern Europe, the conversion of the Saxons was by force after Charlemagne conquered them, but that of the Anglo-Saxons and Celts in the British Isles was more along modern individual lines, although there may have been some “follow the leader” going on, as they were very much “top down”, gradual conversions. The Franks largely followed their king, as did the Vandals and some of the Goths. The rather weaker penetration of Christianity in Mesapotamia and points east may be because missionaries failed to convert ruling houses (which frequently had identities tied up with local religions). In Georgia, Armenia and Ethiopia, the kings forced their subjects, but otherwise alternative mechanics seem to have been in play . The Roman empire, of course, was a case of individual conversion for some years, then a massive increase under the “follow the king” principle (or Emperor in that case) and afterwards increasingly by force, even if for some time that was more economic force than physical. This may equally go some way to explaining the rapid spread of Islam through the lands formerly part of the Eastern Roman Empire (and some of the Western) – they fell out of the rule of the Emperor, and thus the Emperor’s cult, which was now Christianity, became far less attractive. It would seem that contrary to widespread popular opinion, there was not much forced conversion in the earlier days of Islam, ᵈ  and the force later used was chiefly economic (you were taxed more as a non-Muslim in most Islamic countries).

This third mechanism of conversion I put forward tentatively, as it is my own idea and not one I’ve seen in any literature. Mass conversion without obvious force was, however, definitely a phenomenon, whatever the explanation. Even if we tend now not to invest a substantial amount of our identity in our leaders (although I will say that I am well able to be embarrassed by our current leader in the UK, and aware that non-UK citizens tend to think he’s emblematic of all the citizens), the phenomenon of hero-worship is alive and well and explains a lot of the aping of famous people and the level of disillusion when they turn out to have feet of clay. Johnny Depp springs to mind as the currently controversial example of this (I note replaced as Grindlewald in the most recent Harry Potter film by Mads Mikkelsen, raising the issue of “is he a less good actor because his private life is a mess?”).

All of the above is about conversion, not conversion disorder (and, indeed, Jamieson talked more about conversion than conversion disorder at that point). From the link, conversion disorder arises from a stressful situation, and involves “blindness, paralysis, or other nervous system (neurologic) symptoms that cannot be explained by medical evaluation”. We can obviously think of Paul’s blindness here, and of the physical ills reported by very many mystics (including, I suspect, stigmata). Can we, however, talk of conversion disorder in relation to a group, tribe or nation: doesn’t that argue that one could talk of the mind of a nation, and perhaps subject that to psychoanalysis or other psychological therapies?

Well, something looking a lot like conversion disorder does seem to play a part in many instances (perhaps all) of mass hysteria. That thought, during the talk, reminded me of the theme I see in Zizek, in Todd McGowan and in Peter Rollins, which seems to argue that psychoanalysis (particularly of the Lacanian variety) can be used on a group, tibe, civilisation, even a society of many nations (such as the current Western paradigm of financialised free market-ish capitalism). Now, I’m very keen on the idea of finding solutions to the problem of financialised free market capitalism, which I’ve elsewhere described as the System of Satan. Which post was, I suppose, my small contribution to trying to see the system as it is, from a Christian perspective. I saw no solutions there, however, aside trying to convince a decent slice of Christianity that this system is fundamentally a bad one. Other avenues are warmly appreciated…

But can you psychoanalyse the whole society? Psychoanalysis, after all, depends on the construction (generally through the development) of human mental patterns in an individual, not in a group of people. Yes, there is talk of mob psychology, but is that really a psychology, or some parapsychological phenomenon which may involve individual minds but, as with most emergent phenomena, can’t be explained at the level of the individual? Freud (from the link) thought that crowd behaviour stemmed from the unocking of the unconscious mind of the crowd, and the replacement of the individual superego by a charismatic crowd leader. I’m not wholly sure I buy that theory, given that leadership of a crowd only rests with the charismatic one as long as the leader goes in something like the direction the crowd wants, and if they don’t, they are apt to be trampled by it as it seems to take on a character unmediated by any superego-substitute.   It may be, however, that this effect is equivalent to a weakening of any superego effect similar to that postulated in delinquency, and certainly out-of-control crowds tend to be very delinquent. I postulate that the same mechanism might well be at work in law-enforcement personnel who are tasked with controlling the situation: certainly there seems a strong tendency for otherwise fairly responsible people on both sides of these conflicts to behave in ways they wouldn’t otherwise contemplate, and there is probably a massive contribution from how terrified they are – I suffer from an anxiety disorder, and I can note how, if I am sufficiently anxious or scared, I lose several levels of consciousness, become much more stupid than I normally am and am prone to “4 F’s” behaviour which stems from a pre-conscious level of functioning. 

Many years ago, I nursed for a while an idea that societies of people went through stages of maturation similar to those in individuals. At the time, I was focused mainly on late childhood and early adolescence. I thought, for instance, that 16th and 17th century England displayed characteristics similar to those of adolescents, while the USA was only displaying similar characteristics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mediaeval England, on the other hand, bore some resemblance to the “might makes right” dynamics of a school playground between (say) the age of 9 and the onset of adolescence. I didn’t take that thinking any further. However, I’m now wondering if the “follow the leader” dynamic I talk of above in relation to conversion might link with the infantile stages where the individual is not yet truly separate from the parent, the “parent” in these cases being the leader, who could have a psychology which was broadly speaking at any developmental level, likely closer to a parental than an infantile one (although, looking at some recent leaders, I’m not so certain about that).

If that were the case, if might conceivably be that the founding of much of psychoanalysis in childhood experiences just might be replicated in societies, and that would lead to some very interesting possibilities. One avenue of research I can immediately think of would be a minute analysis of multiple bodycam footages from such an event, provided it were one which got somewhat out of control. But this is emphatically not within my areas of expertise, having no academic background in psychology, psychoanalysis or sociology… I’d love to see someone work on it, and their results, though!


Haidt is somewhat conservatively oriented, and considers that liberals neglect the binding cluster in favour of the individualising cluster, while (for him) conservatives treat them all equally. Personally I identify as thoroughly liberal, but I find those in my area of the political spectrum do recognise and have regard to the binding cluster, although we tend not to want to sacrifice the individualising cluster, while I see many conservatives as neglecting the individualising cluster in favour of the binding cluster, so that individual values always take second place to binding ones.
ᵇ There is a good overview of Christian conversions on Wikipedia
Wikipedia also talks of this process.
ᵉ It is not, I think, the case that all mystics have such symptoms, as some people seem to want to suggest, but it is very common in the accounts of Christian mystics of the middle ages and later.
ᶠ This might correspond to the “Emergent Norm theory” in the article on crowd psychology. I rather discount the convergence and social identity theories as grounding this behaviour, as they would tend to operate contrary to the descent into a “lower form” of thinking. There might, of course, be some aid in Jung’s “collective unconscious” thinking, if only there were some believable mechanism for that to come about. Mere meme and/or imitation would not seem to me to do the job, given (in particular) that both are nearer the conscious than I think such a mechanism would need to be.
ᵍ  I remarked in a previous post on the aftermath of the George Floyd shooting how people who were scared enough do stupid things, in paarticular reference to policemen.

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