When Facts Are Not Enough: Treating Mass Psychosis
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.