In the heart of Berlin sit three landmarks that reflect the multifaceted power of historic Germany, each one being just a short walk from the other two.
The Brandenburg Gate is, perhaps, the most well-known symbol of the city. This iconic 18th century neoclassical monument featuring Quadriga, an ancient symbol of victory, represents well the prodigious military power that Germany and her Prussian fore-bearers exercised over the past quarter of a millennium.
One city block to the north of the gate is the Reichstag, a legislative building that served as the center of German political life from 1871 to the end of World War II, and then again from 1999 to the present. This impressive structure reflects the immense social and political power of a unified Germany.
A couple blocks south of the gate sits Potsdamer Platz, an intersection of commerce that was once the most bustling traffic center on the continent. This iconic “Crossroads of Europe” captures well the mighty economic muscle of the German people.
Each of these landmarks, however, were left in ruin at the end of the second world war. When Germany finally surrendered, this entire area was devastated and in total disarray. Within a few years, the Soviets built their infamous wall which ran right through or nearby each of these three landmarks, causing them to sit unused and abandoned for decades.
These three symbols of national power and their demise can serve as a visual representation of an important theory of aggression, perhaps one of the most significant ideas to come out of social psychology in the past half-century. Traditionally, aggression was understood to be the product of individuals who possessed low self-esteem. Aggressors, it was believed, suffered from an inner sense of worthlessness, an inferiority complex. Violence, then, was understood as an act of desperation, a lashing out against a cruel world that had no need for them. Correspondingly, the solution to the problem was for society to find ways to help these sad souls develop a more positive picture of themselves. Not surprisingly, this line of thinking fit well with the widely-held enlightenment-based assumption that we all would be in a much better place if only we loved ourselves more; if only we could internalize and fully grasp the truth that “man is the measure of all things.”
Compelling research conducted over the past few decades, most notably by social psychologists like Roy Baumeister and Brad Bushman, however, has turned this argument on its head. They contend that aggression is committed not by those who think poorly of themselves, but rather by those who think quite highly of themselves. The picture they paint, however, is a bit more complex because those with high self-esteem can also be some of the least prone to act violently. The interpretive key, argues Baumeister, has to do with the nature of the high self-esteem; in particular, its stability. The high self-regard of some individuals is well-grounded and resilient; that is, their picture of self is based on consistent affirmations from others who are seen as highly credible and objective. The self-esteem of these individuals is not easily shaken by a critical comment here or an uncharitable interpretation over there. However, others exhibit a high self-regard that is not particularly stable. Their positive view of self is largely built on self-affirmations and selectively interpreted feedback from, oftentimes, low credible sources. This fragile and oftentimes narcissistic form of self-esteem is forever vulnerable to the threat of critical self-related information. According to Baumeister and others1, 2, 3, it is this unstable form of egotism which, when threatened, opts for violence and aggression.
So then, here we have an example of one of the dangerous ramifications of self-manufactured esteem. Even something as private and intimate as our individual sense of value and worth is formed by and experienced in community. No amount of inner strength and determination to value oneself, if not also genuinely echoed by one’s social environment, can create a healthy self-image, one that is stable, mature, pro-social, and supportive of human flourishing. Self-affirmation alone does not work. To have a healthy self-image, we need credible external validation and affirmation. Greater peace with ourselves and others would surely follow, if only we could find credible external validation… if only it existed… if only…
Circling back to the iconic symbols of German strength. The once-lofty sense of German national pride was seriously challenged in the economic, social, and political chaos of the 1920’s and 30’s. Germany, which only a few years earlier had imagined itself sitting at the pinnacle of western culture, was now being held under-thumb by lesser others. Their sense of national-esteem became terribly unstable. This was, perhaps, too much for this once proud and mighty national community to tolerate. Politicians rose to prominence by tapping into the threatened egotism of the country and then proceeded to lead the nation into an abhorrent aggression; a global brawl was started that, in the end, cost the lives of tens of millions of people.
Over the past few decades, each of these three great symbols of German strength have been restored. Now, however, smack dab in the middle, sits a fourth important landmark; one that does not reach to the sky, but rather lays humbly very close to the ground – the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Its provocative positioning, situated amidst these imposing symbols of national power and prestige, will hopefully serve as an instructive reminder of the relationship between pride and aggression.
1 Baumeister, R., Bushman, B., & Campbell, W. K. (2000, February). Self-esteem, narcissism, and aggression: Does violence result from low self-esteem or from threatened egotism? Current Directions in Psychological Science, pp 26 – 29.
2 Baumeister, R., Smart, L., & Boden, J. (1996). Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: The dark side of high self-esteem. Psychological Review, 103, 5 – 33.
3 Bushman B., & Baumeister, R. (1998). Threatened egotism, narcissism, self-esteem, and direct and displaced aggression: Does self-love or self-hate lead to violence? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 219-229.