Saturday, April 1, 2017

Psychoanalytic Reflections on Liberalism in the Wake of the 2016 election

Liberals, like me, keep being shocked and dismayed that there are all those millions of people out there who voted for Donald Trump.  We condescend to them when we say that they voted against their own interest.  Not that there isn't truth to this statement, as it has become apparent that 22 million or more people, many if not most of them Trump voters, would lose health insurance upon repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act. But we lose sight of the fact that we liberals, too, vote against our own interest in many ways.  Bernie Sanders succeeded in showing how votes for Hillary Clinton worked against the interests of many liberal people.  The neoliberal order reinforced the chains binding us liberals to the individualistic, materialistic treadmill on which many of us have the privilege of running.  The point is not that any of us can see clearly what is in our own interest, or in the best interests of anyone else.  Rather, everyone's interests are multiple and conflicting and ambiguous.  How arrogant is it of me to claim that I know what is in your self-interest, not to mention my own?

People in my community of liberal-leaning psychoanalytically inclined therapists and theorists have taken to analyzing and critiquing forms of ethnocentrism and prejudice that involve dis-identifying with certain other people: immigrants, people of other races or cultures or ethnic or socio-economic groups.  The idea is that people can defensively maintain a preferred self-image, or preferred in-group identification, by contrast with a degraded or demonized group of people defined as "other".  A counter-ideal of multiculturalism has evolved, one that seeks to break down prejudice-driven barriers to communication and understanding.  I myself have promoted, and continue to subscribe to, this point of view.

It has become apparent to me, in the wake of the 2016 election, that there is another form of "othering" at work here: the "othering" of those who "other".  The ultimate form of othering takes the form of rendering those others invisible.  The shock that I and many others with whom I identify feel that all those people voted for Trump  and other politicians on the left speaks to how invisible those many millions of people had become for us.  Well, folks, Trump sure knows how to make people visible.

The conundrum I am describing is one that is familiar, on an individual or dyadic level, to psychoanalytically inclined psychotherapists.  We have learned, and keep learning the hard way, that when you try to address a problem, you first reproduce it.  As the psychoanalyst Edgar Levenson pointed out, if you try to point out a person's sensitivity, you hurt his feelings. You become, for the moment, insensitive. This is the phenomenon that Freud led us to call transference, though Freud misleadingly saw transference as derived solely from past experiences and relationships, rather than reproduced by the analyst in the present interaction with the patient.  One doesn't facilitate therapeutic change by scrupulously avoiding insensitivity, though one must try, or by commenting on the patient's problem from afar.  Rather, one must recognize that insensitivity and other forms of hurtful behavior on the part of the analyst are inevitable despite one's best efforts, providing an opportunity to work on a problem in vivo.  The therapeutic process, from this point of view, occurs as one reflects on how a hurtful pattern, in which both parties are implicated, has evolved.  This reflective process accounts for why psychoanalytic therapy can take so much longer than cognitive behavioral therapy in which the therapist is, to a large extent, a technician rather than fundamentally a participant-observer of the interaction of self and other.

I take this digression into the theory of psychoanalytic therapy to set the stage for a jump from the individual or dyadic level to the political level.  People like me who are shocked that so many misguided people voted for Trump must start by recognizing that we had rendered millions of people invisible and inferior.  We must start with this recognition.  In the therapy room, one could then go on to inquire into the process by which this situation evolved.  Such a concerned inquiry, in which one takes responsibility as a therapist for one's own role in creating an impasse, is in itself a big part of the cure or resolution.  If there is a parallel path to resolution on the political level, surely it involves listening and difficult dialogue.  If one finds oneself referring to millions of people as a "basket of deplorables," one does not backtrack, or clarify what one really meant, or claim to have misspoken. Rather, one must acknowledge and take responsibility for the prejudice and condescension that was revealed in what was said, without overlooking the fact that forms of violence emerged among some people at Trump rallies that was indeed deplorable.  People feel condescended to regardless of whether the speaker recognizes his or her own attitude.  Its best, in therapy and in politics, to get these undercurrents out on the table where they can be addressed forthrightly. 

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