The Social Unconscious: A Public Address to Clinicians in the People’s Republic of China

[Editor's Note: Daring to challenge psychotherapists of the People’s Republic of China to uncover the social unconscious in their own culture, an  American Family Psychotherapist, speaking at a conference of psychotherapists in the People’s Republic, presents ideas which may open many minds in both the People’s Republic AND United States’ psychotherapy circles.
-- Rabbi Michael Lerner  rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com]


The Social Unconscious
A Public Address to Clinicians in the People’s Republic of  China 

CREDO: What I believe  

I believe we clinicians of group therapy and family therapy have a special role to play as human beings dedicated to the possibility of creating a  world where freedom, justice, and equality abide not only in the families we treat but also in the world. We have the extraordinary opportunity--by our extensive work in groups and families--to see in a small way the panorama of human behavior and the wide spectrum of action that our fellow human beings take as they live their lives. Every day we witness others struggle within the limits of their freedom and their fate--to make choices and try to comprehend the destiny that limits their choices. It is our chosen vocation to help heal the many ways that families can suffer.  In order to do that we must earn the trust of the families that come to us.  

For most of my adult life, I have been actively opposed to every foreign war the U.S. military has pursued. I never proselytized my patients with my opinions--but inevitably the wars always came home and entered my treatment room as a cause of mental suffering: Perhaps a son or a sister was a combatant or working for the military ...Or a father or mother burdened with memories of war trauma... Or a veteran of one of the wars would come to alleviate the traumatic stress of having committed or witnessed acts of violence. Many suffered from "moral injury"--feeling remorse that they participated in a cause that had no justifiable purpose.  Their children and grandchildren suffered as well through the ineffable transmission of trauma unto the second and third generations. They continue to come to my office in ever-increasing numbers. 

We just saw the collapse of a 20-year U.S. military crusade in Afghanistan to remake in our image an ancient culture we could neither comprehend nor deeply respect. Mental health clinicians and group and family therapists could have shortened that war had we exercised our moral authority and publicly called out the damage being done to our fellow citizens, our patients. We have an ethical obligation to speak out when we witness the gradual and unrelenting traumatization of the society in which we practice. This ethical obligation also applies to the clinicians serving patients in the nations with whom we are at war. In all cultures, we know the traumatic effects will endure for generations within these families and even provide a pretext for a future war.  

We must not remain silent when we see human suffering as a result of these wars. That is my challenge to my colleagues in the healing arts of psychiatry, psychology, group and family therapy. That is why we must come to understand the social unconscious in our own nation as I implore in the public address that I gave online to mental health clinicians in the  People's Republic of China on October 1, 2021. 

*** 

The Social Unconscious in Persons, Groups, and Societies, Volume 3:  The Foundation Matrix Extended and Re-Configured edited by Earl Hopper and Haim Weinberg. London, UK: Karnac, 2017. 262  

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IN PURSUIT OF THE SOCIAL UNCONSCIOUS 

Those of us who have dedicated our professional lives to the study of group therapy and group processes realize the limitations of our work. Group therapists understand that our patients cannot make deep personal changes in a group unless it consists of individuals who are willing to travel with them along an uncertain path of questioning their own beliefs about themselves and the roles they play in their family and culture. Earl Hopper and Haim Weinberg, by editing this book on The Social Unconscious, are challenging readers to do just that: to join with them and explore the unconscious side of the social matrix that influences their behavior in their own culture. 

The authors speak of this social matrix as a Foundation Matrix that encompasses the social interactions, beliefs, and self-defining myths and folklore peculiar to a people or nation and lays the ground for the social unconscious. They quote the creator of the concept, S. H. Foulkes: “The Matrix is the hypothetical web of communication and relationship in a given group. It is the common ground which ultimately determines the meaning and significance of all events and  upon which all communications and interpretations, verbal and nonverbal, rest” 

According to Hopper and Weinberg, “The social unconscious emphasizes shared anxieties, fantasies, defenses, myths, and memories of the members of a particular social system. Its most important building bricks are chosen traumas and chosen glories.”  In compiling this book, they have extended and reconfigured the Foundation Matrix as conceived by Foulkes. This they have done while keeping to the essential meaning and dynamic project of his singular creation—group analysis. 

Foulkes might be said to have anticipated their work when he  described the transpersonal and suprapersonal processes that come  alive in the dynamic matrix which include: “… all mental processes, including of course, all therapeutic ones, take place in this hypothetical web of communication and communion …” The social unconscious was thus conceived as an intersubjective phenomenon co-created by the social context in which people are embedded. 

From this perspective, the analysis of the social unconscious is a  hermeneutics, or a process of interpretation of social interconnectedness and shared beliefs applied to specific nations and peoples. It is the interpretation of a particular society’s goals, beliefs,  values, and norms, including political and ethical behavior. This is not unlike the analytic group conductor who fosters the interpretation of dreams, fantasies, and enactments in group analysis. 

THE RELEVANCE OF THE SOCIAL UNCONSCIOUS TO CLINICIANS 

The concept of the social unconscious has special relevance to clinicians and group analysts because of its applicability to our own social sphere in which we practice. It is particularly salient by virtue of the ethical questions that inevitably arise in how nations treat other nations and how people of different cultures treat other cultures. 

The social unconscious affects most profoundly the ethical behavior of people and the foreign and domestic policies of the nations to which they belong. Revealing the social unconscious of a nation is akin to the skill of an analyst making an analytical intervention with the tone and sensitivity that does not demean nor inflict humiliation on the patient nor arouse defensiveness that inhibits the patient’s power to listen and interpret for her- or himself. 

It involves delivering a message from deep below to those whose lives have been nurtured on a contrary message. This new image of their nation is foreign to their eyes and ears and yet may seem strangely familiar. But often it is just too difficult to identify with the new image being presented—and so the old image must be embraced all the more fervently. 

So. the task of the analyst of the social unconscious is twofold: to cast doubt on the national foundational myths while still affirming the essential dignity and resilience of the people whose myths are being questioned and deconstructed. One must approach this task with deep respect for the capacity of people to gradually reimagine their foundational beliefs in the interest of making them more in line with the present social reality. 

As Foulkes stated: “Our overall aim is naturally change, but in the  direction of the increased liberty of the individual which enables him  to find himself no longer—to the same extent— dependent on or  hampered by the groups in which he inevitably exists.” 

NAMING THE SOCIAL UNCONSCIOUS IN ONE’S NATIVE LAND 

If I understand correctly how the concept of the social unconscious applies to a nation, there are limits to what a citizen of a nation is allowed to imagine to be true. Regine Scholz defines it as “… matters and operations  that are actively excluded from large scale group communication and thus  from becoming conscious to its members” 

As a thought experiment, let’s see how this applies as I hypothetically explore one aspect of the social unconscious of my country, the United  States. I choose “American” Exceptionalism, which embraces a number of beliefs, including the notion that we are the only“American” state—whereas we share the Western Hemisphere with a number of sovereign states that also rightly claim to be “American.” 

This Exceptionalism had its origin with the the17th-century Puritans who envisioned themselves as “The New Canaan” or “The New Jerusalem.”  These people were “ordained” or divinely called to occupy and inherit the North American continent. The authors of the United States Constitution used the word in their founding document, meaning that the country was “called into being” by divine provenance. Therefore, we are forever exceptional, beyond the reach of human laws and subject only to God’s judgment, protection, and Manifest Destiny. 

The following beliefs flow from this cardinal principle. We are forever innocent since our intentions are always good. If a particular strategy does not work out as planned, we are not to blame. We take no responsibility for the unintended consequences of our wars and military invasions. This disclaimer includes the economic and civil collapse of nations, the dislocation of populations as refugees, or the inestimable deaths and injuries caused by wars of aggression in Vietnam and Indo China (1965–1975), Central America (1980–1989), and Iraq (2003– present). 

We are not subject to International Law, since by definition we can never commit war crimes. 

If things turn out badly, we call them “mistakes.” Those leaders in charge are never held accountable for their actions, whether it be war or torture.  If we lose a war, we must never openly acknowledge it. To do so would mean we question our place as the Exceptional nation. As a consequence,  we learn nothing and we become mired in endlessly protracted wars, like Afghanistan and Iraq. 

How does the naming of a nation’s social unconscious affect its citizens?  Does it make them more aware and thoughtful? Or does it cause them to angrily retreat into deep defensiveness and remain profoundly unreflective? The utility of the concept of the social unconscious rests on the capacity of the listener to transcend her or his native cultural prejudice and identification. 

This is exceedingly difficult to do unless one finds a context in which it is possible to question one’s own deep beliefs along with supportive others also engaged in a deep process of reflection and change. Of course, this is precisely what Foulkes’s group analysis provides in a small-group context. But how does one replicate that level of personal engagement on a grand national scale? 

It takes courage for individuals to point out the social unconscious as they see them in their respective native countries. Reflections on a nation’s social unconscious are instructive and enlightening only insofar as a  nation’s citizens can be open to the possibility that such beliefs hold sway over how their nation conducts public policy and foreign relations.  Otherwise, citizens recoil and find shelter in the comforting mythologies of their nation. The practical and ethical value of researching the social unconscious is then lost along with the possibility of change. 

As group clinicians, we often wonder how our work can apply to a  wider world beyond the treatment of our patients. Editors Hopper and Weinberg have compiled an important and challenging book, not just for clinicians and group analysts but also for those engaged in the study and practice of political science and international relations. 

*** 

THE SOCIAL UNCONSCIOUS: QUESTIONS: 

Yong: Before we go to questions from our audience, I have three questions. 

First, from the Social Unconscious perspective, could you please give a hypothetical example of a Chosen Glory and a Chosen Trauma for the United States? 

Bill: A primary chosen glory for the United States was the creation of the U.S. Constitution 1789 following the defeat of Great Britain in 1781. However, that same document specified that enslaved African people were less than human and became the legal justification for the growth and expansion of slavery in the US—thus codifying a pattern of African-American racial bias, persecution, and exclusion for the next 240 years, becoming the primary chosen trauma for the United  States. 

A second chosen trauma for the United States was the Civil War between the Northern and Southern states that threatened the dissolution of the United States. The central issue at stake was whether the new states would be free or slave states. With the military victory of the North over the South—another chosen glory- - the union of the states was secured, and chattel slavery was abolished. 

But as ensuing decades would show, the racial exclusion of former  Enslaved African people from land ownership, civil rights, opportunities for commercial success, and political office and power was kept intact. Systemic racism was the prevailing order. 

Yong: How do you personally feel when you cite these examples of the Social Unconscious in the United States? 

Bill: I love the United States, my country. I believe these criticisms of the United States are upheld by a strong patriotic fervor to get the history right and correct the fantasies we have told ourselves. My mother’s people arrived in North America in the mid 17th century,  around 370 years ago, in Richmond, Virginia. They did not arrive as immigrants. They were settlers who came to occupy and colonize the land taken violently from the indigenous people who had inhabited the land for more than a thousand years and who succumbed to a wave of genocide. 

That same land was worked by generations of enslaved African people who provided the labor that fueled the cotton, sugar, and rum industries that became central to the United States' early financial success. It was not Divine Will that sanctified these events but state-sponsored racism that became the cardinal principle of white supremacy—the presumed apotheosis of God’s plan for His exceptional people.  Acceptance of these facts are necessary in order to be held accountable for our many crimes and misdeeds and in order to take our place as ethical citizens respected among the world of nations.  

Yong: How might the paradigm of the social unconscious help our countries face existential issues like thermonuclear war? 

Bill: My hope is that with a profound knowledge of each other’s social unconscious, the People’s Republic of China and the United States will understand that neither the gods of history nor the gods of our religions and cultures have decreed that we, the People’s Republic and the United States, must destroy each other’s magnificent cultures in thermonuclear war. This is not ordained as our fate. We must understand that we have a choice to do otherwise. 

My friend, Daniel Ellsberg, author of the book The Doomsday  Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, says that the People’s Republic of China’s policy since 1964—until recently— was the closest there was to a sane nuclear policy with a minimum number of warheads for deterrence. The United States has vastly more thermonuclear weapons and also continues a policy of First  Strike capability, targeting civilian populations with acceptable deaths in the millions. 

But these policies are immoral and insane.

Why should the People’s Republic emulate the United States’  strategy when any armed conflict between the two nations would likely escalate to a cataclysmic world-ending exchange of thermonuclear weapons? There is no justification for such policies when the enormity of the evil threatening humanity is so great.  National priorities that suggest otherwise must be mutual re examined and revised. 

As mental health clinicians and physicians, we must restore the categories of insane, psychopathic, and evil as fitting psychological descriptions of human behavior that is far outside and beyond what is universally and morally acceptable. We must not acquiesce to a mutual pact of omnicide—the murder of all humans on earth. 

I believe we have a special obligation as physicians and clinicians to help our nations face the stark realities which our social unconscious may hide from our view. 

Yong: One final question: How might the concept of the Social  Unconscious be used by diplomats and government officials engaged in international and foreign relations? 

Bill: The study of a specific nation’s social unconscious may prove to reveal insights about a particular nation’s behavior in international relations. The art of diplomacy is often based on the assumption that states are “rational actors”. 

The hypothesis of the social unconscious puts that assumption in question.  Can knowledge of a nation’s social unconscious help us understand the motives behind that particular nation’s choice of strategies in the realm of foreign affairs? That seems to be an idea worth pursuing.

In diplomatic relations between the United States and the People’s  Republic of China, it would seem vital that we have a deep understanding of the key aspects of each nation’s social unconscious in order to engage in meaningful negotiations that respect both the sovereignty and the closely held beliefs of each of our countries. 

My challenge to our audience is for each person to reflect on how the social unconscious may operate in each of our countries--and also consider how those insights may help us interpret policy decisions by each of our governments. 

The United States is a relatively young country and culture—less than 400  years on the North American continent. With honest self-assessment, we still have time to change our course and learn from our past. Let us hope that China and the United States can learn from each other and help each other as we pursue a path of peace. It is my fervent hope that once we have a firm grasp of who we are and where we come from--that we, the United States and its people will experience a new birth of freedom, ready to forge a true democracy-- envisioned by Abraham Lincoln--a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

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4 thoughts on “The Social Unconscious: A Public Address to Clinicians in the People’s Republic of China

  1. Hi Bill,
    So far I’ve only read the first half of the first part. I look forward to reading the rest.
    It is awesome! You did a really great job. I hope all is well.

    Sadly, by brain isn’t functioning well, but I’m now living in Belmont Village (in Albany) and live is okay here.
    Best,
    Stan

  2. May I pass this talk on to The World Mental Health Coalition, headed by Bandy Lee, M.D. ?
    Members of this group, like myself, will be very interested in the concept of a national, social unconscious, and the need to raise into the wider public consciousness the “glories and traumas” which are unconsciously organizing our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
    Madeline Taylor, PhD

    • Dear Madeline Taylor, I would be please to have you share this talk with your colleagues at the World Mental Health Coalition. Furthermore, if at a later time you would like me to give a talk for your organization, please have Bandy Lee, MD, or one of her colleagues, give me a call or email and we will look at what is possible. Sincerely, Bill Roller, Berkeley, California (510)525-9215 email vivbill@aol.com

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