The Ordeal of Civility Essay - Critical Essays

John Murray Cuddihy


A sociologist teaching at Hunter College, Cuddihy takes as his starting point the concept of modernization formulated by Talcott Parsons of Harvard University— what Cuddihy terms the “differentiation model” of modernization. “Differentiation,” he elaborates, “is the cutting edge of the modernization process”: the differentiation of home from job, fact from value, theory from practice, ends from means, ethnicity from religion, church from state, and the like. The crux of Cuddihy’s thesis is that because of the tribal nature of traditional Jewish culture, emancipation brought Jews into collision with the differentiations of Western society. Those most alien to the shtetl subculture of Yiddishkeit were those of public versus private behavior and of manners versus morals. “Jews were being asked, in effect,” Cuddihy sums up, “to become bourgeois, and to become bourgeois quickly. The problem of behavior, then, became strategic to the whole [problem] of ‘assimilation.”’ The key to that problem was what Cuddihy terms “the ordeal of civility.” Civility required, at the minimum, the separation of private “affect” (feelings, emotions, desires) from public behavior, required, in short, the suppression of too much of anything that would threaten to ruffle the surface calm of civil society. Cuddihy traces how this problem of Jewish assimilation into the Western bourgeois-Christian norms of civility shaped the ideas of Diaspora Jewry’s intellectual giants: Freud, Marx, and Levi-Strauss.

His related accompanying theme is that there was a “secret” adversarial relationship between the secular Jewish intellectual and the Jewish bourgeoisie (the ordinary Jewish businessmen). The intellectual saw himself as refined and sensitive and the bourgeoisie as crude and vulgar. Yet the fear of giving ammunition to the hostile Gentile world inhibited most Jewish intellectuals from openly attacking their fellow Jews. Thus, their criticism had to be disguised in such a way as to put the most favorable gloss upon offending Jewish behavior. The favored strategy for achieving that goal was “projection onto the general, Gentile culture of a forbidden ethnic self-criticism. Shame for ‘one’s own kind’ is universalized into anger at the ancestral enemy.”

Cuddihy applies this thesis most fully and systematically to Freud. He argues that the “Yid” (Jew) pushing for social acceptance is the model for Freud’s “id” pushing for admission from the unconscious to the conscious. His internal censor—or “superego”—represented the bourgeois-Christian nineteenth century culture “insisting that to ‘pass’ properly into Western awareness or Western society the coarse id-‘Yid’ should first disguise itself (assimilate) or refine itself (sublimate)— in a word, civilize itself, at whatever price in discontent.” Freud thus psychologized the sociological problem of the emancipated Jew. Most important, he translated the problem...

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