When Facts Are Not Enough: Treating Mass Psychosis

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One of the biggest, long-lasting delusions of progressives is that people are moved mainly by rational arguments. Consequently, to get people to accept a particular policy such as universal health care, all one needs to do is to present strong and persuasive arguments in favor of it.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

As George Lakoff and many others have pointed out, conservatives are highly effective in getting their views across and their policies adopted not just because they control major media outlooks and think tanks, but because they have powerful narratives that appeal directly to gut emotions. Until progressives not only have a better understanding of how emotions fundamentally shape political issues, but also incorporate them into their appeals, they will continue to lose the hearts and minds of the wider populace.

Progressives don’t need to abandon rationality altogether. Instead, they need a better theory of it that shows how emotions and reason not only influence one another, but are interdependent. In this regard, psychoanalysis is one of the most powerful theories humans have ever invented.

Take the important and thorny issue as to how should one treat mass psychosis. From the hateful and incendiary rants of the Tea Partiers; to the unrelenting, over-the-top behavior of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh; to the ceaseless paranoia of the extreme left with regard to business, we are surrounded by out-and-out paranoia.

Splitting is one of the first and most powerful mechanisms that the pioneers of psychoanalysis discovered. Splitting is how very young children cope with a reality far beyond their ability to comprehend. The minds of infants and young children are not yet developed enough to grasp that the “good mother” who meets the child’s every demand and the “bad mother” who disciplines the child are one and the same person. As a result, young children literally split the mother into two distinct and separate beings. They project all of their good feelings on to the good mother and all of the bad ones onto the bad mother.

Splitting does not apply only to young children. Indeed, it occurs throughout all of life. For instance, we regularly split the world into “good guys” and “bad guys,” “friends” versus “foes.” As a result, from time to time, our projections get seriously out of hand as when, for example, one views all Muslims and immigrants as inherently dangerous, and far worse, as evil. For another, we constantly project our unconscious dreams, hopes, fears, and fantasies onto our leaders. To live up to the projections of others is one of the most difficult demands of being a leader.

Stronger still, projections are highly contagious. To be a member of a group is to share its mutual projections, positive and negative. This more than anything else helps to explain the phenomenon of the Tea Party, which goes far beyond mere opposition to President Obama and his policies. The Tea Party’s vicious attacks on Obama — including their allegations that he is a “socialist” (one of the worst imaginable identities for many on the Right), that he “somehow hates white people,” and that he is comparable to Hitler – reflects the Tea Party’s projections. Groups accentuate the best and the worst of our impulses.

From the standpoint of psychoanalysis, how then should any president or leader respond to raw and hateful projections?

Long ago, Wilfred Bion, one of the early giants of psychoanalysis, discovered that one couldn’t reason with psychotics. In an even more general sense, Bion also discovered that there was a psychotic part of everyone’s personality.

Psychotics literally hate reason and thought for if one has to engage in rational thought, one then has to face the true, underlying reasons for one’s immense psychological pain. As a result, they choose unconsciously to run away from pain by avoiding thought altogether. This helps to explain why facts alone are insufficient to dislodge someone from strongly held positions. Without dealing with the underlying emotions that undergird our beliefs, facts and counter-arguments only serve to strengthen a person’s beliefs.

This doesn’t mean that leaders shouldn’t attempt to reason with those who disagree with them. It means that reason devoid of emotion won’t even persuade those who are in fundamental agreement with someone to begin with. The task of a leader is not merely to seek out and reason with those who can bear rational thought but also — much more taxing — to live up to our positive projections.

Projections are never stable. They are not only exceedingly fragile, but constantly in flux. If a leader does not constantly live up to our initial positive projections, then they can quickly turn negative. When this happens, we feel betrayed to our core. The feelings of betrayal are so deep that we are unable to articulate clearly why we feel betrayed.

In abandoning the soaring thought and passion of his campaign for compromise, President Obama has not only lost the enthusiasm of his supporters, but far worse, he has lost the moral authority that is necessary to stand up to mass psychosis.

Ian I. Mitroff is a university professor at the Marshall Goldsmith School of Management and the co-author of Dirty Rotten Strategies: How We Trick Ourselves and Others into Solving the Wrong Problems Precisely (Stanford, 2009).
 
tags: Culture, US Politics   
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6 Responses to When Facts Are Not Enough: Treating Mass Psychosis

  1. karen stefanski-pascale March 31, 2011 at 5:27 am

    Wow, what a POWERFUL article!!! I search my mind and heart for the answer to why apathy is so prevalent among liberals…while conservatives seem so fired up and sure they are always right, they never have self doubt or an ounce of introspection….and of course all motivation teachings extol the power of emotion and passion…but is it just a lack of passionate leadership…aren’t world wide economic collaspe, total enviormental degradation, plurocratic class warfare and ever decreasing personal freedoms issues that incite emotion and passion?? Maybe liberals have faced the underlying pain and we have retreated into inllusion that some magical person will fix it, it will all work out…but one thing is very clear…It WILL NOT BE OBAMA AND NOT JUST FOR HIS LACK OF EMOTION AND PASSION. We know why we feel betrayed and now we know we need to get emotional and passionate about it! Thank you for a great great piece!

  2. Cyndy Chase April 1, 2011 at 5:13 am

    Fantastic article. I am a Democratic Legislator in a 3 to 1 Republican House. We just passed a budget that will hurt just about every family in NH, along strict party lines. I believe my colleagues are passionate about progressive values but we cloak our work in carefully reasoned arguments. It looks like we could benefit our constituents more effectively with more passion and emotion. Thanks! CC

  3. Timothy April 2, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    Are we, spiritual progressives, also guilty of hateful projections? I can think of some political celebrities that send me into orbit. And, often, I label them as “evil.” Am I the only spiritual progressive guilty of this?

    Meanwhile, here is how I was converted to a spiritual progressive perspective. I heard stories of people who were suffering. I went to see them. I lived among them. Perhaps we need to take people on field trips. Maybe we need storytelling documentaries.

    I agree– we need to tell a more compelling story.

  4. Cris July 11, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    Progressives lost their way when they engineered the killing of children, there is no moral justification for the mass slaughter of unborn children. Hasn’t history taught that dehumanizing one person dehumanizes all? You speak of wanting to get in touch with your fellow human beings yet progressives allow billion dollar corporations free rein in killing the children of the very people you seek to help, so who exactly is out of touch? And you wonder why people are not happy and form tea parties? Here is your story, you are pharaoh’s counselors passionately discussing why the Hebrews are unhappy you are killing their children.

  5. ST October 3, 2012 at 2:19 am

    This is one of the most important topics for activists to understand on several levels.

    1) Much – in fact, most – of politics is run not on rationality (isn’t that obvious) but on emotion.

    2) The psychological aspects that underlie people’s viewpoints are more powerful than whatever rationale they hold for those viewpoints. The rationale is often nothing more than a rationalization. Activists must have a deep understanding of psychology to be most effective.

    And one that this article doesn’t get into:

    3) There are a significant number of people with conditions that cause them to value – and sometimes even enjoy – exploitation and domination. Research is increasingly showing a biological basis to many of these conditions. Those who have them cannot be reasoned out of their views with appeals to cooperation and care since they lack such values and, in some cases, may literally be incapable of them.

    I highly recommend the study of the field of ponerology for those worth considering the much deeper roots of our unsustainable systems.

  6. Future Jim January 4, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    Thanks for providing such a lucid example of Americn Progressive thought. I plan to link to it in some of my future articles at EndOfInnocence.com.

    In fact, Tikkun itself is new to me, and it sounds like a source of many excellent examples of Progressive thought.

    I found it by searching on “mass psychosis,” which is a term I just used for the first time in my recent article: “Why Focus on Obama”

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