Right of Reply: The Limits of Therapy

Citizens traumatized by bombshells must understand that their fate does not depend on finding a good psychologist, but on the policy of their government.

Psychoanalysis and psychology − true gold mines for understanding the unconscious dynamic of our emotional life − teach us to be attentive to the reactions of people who are confronted with an unfamiliar mirror, whether that mirror is held by an analyst, a sociologist or an intellectual. It is therefore with great interest that I read the reaction to my text published in Haaretz ‏(A properly managed mind, June 15‏) by three members of the Israeli psychoanalytical society, Dr. Itamar Levy, Dr. Anat Palgi-Hacker and Dr. Eran Rolnik.

As a sociologist, I find their text interesting for the same reasons a psychologist would find a violent reaction to his interpretation of a story interesting: it is the distortions, the aggressiveness, the defensiveness which are meaningful and which indicate that something important is at stake.

But before I respond to them, I want to dispel a possible misunderstanding: I have genuine respect for the many psychologists who are struggling to improve this world by caring for people in distress. Without them, many people would live far more difficult lives. Let me add that I have myself benefited more than once from psychological advice. In no way did my text intend to suggest that psychology does not help. On the contrary. It is because psychology has effects that it matters.

Freud ‏(and especially his daughter, Anna Freud‏) developed a well-known concept of “denial” ‏(the concept has been famously attacked both for scientific and political reasons because it is not falsifiable, and because it gives unshakable power to the psychologist‏). Freud viewed the ego as being structured by defense mechanisms to protect itself against unwelcome psychic experiences. When these defenses are threatened, the subject denies the existence or the validity of what is threatening her. Denial often takes the form of anger and contempt for the person or object threatening these defenses.

That Dr. Levy, Dr. Palgi-Hacker and Dr. Rolnik are unable to engage creatively and respectfully in a debate that raises genuine and worried questions on the social role of psychology, suggests that they have been unable to overcome their own defensiveness. As these three doctors and psychologists undoubtedly know, rage and contempt are only rarely intellectually impressive or emotionally effective.

If anything, rage and contempt usually bear witness to the aspects of the psyche that have remained raw and unprocessed. ‏(It is interesting to compare their response to the reactions my work has received in Europe, where several psychological groups have engaged me in a very fruitful debate.‏)

I am a sociologist and as a sociologist, I am trained to look at the world differently than psychologists do. Sociologists believe that people are fundamentally shaped by political structures, by inequality, by the norms around them, by what is collectively valued. In short, sociologists believe that a great deal of the psyche is shaped by things that are collective, not only and not primarily individual.

This is, I am sure, a statement most psychologists would accept. But I go one step further: psychology has become a part of those collective structures sociologists want to understand. Psychology is not only a professional practice, a diploma obtained in a university degree, a form of knowledge exchanged in academic conferences.

It has become an entire worldview, recycled endlessly in television series, movies, self-help books, workshops and psychologists’ offices. It is the ordinary slang spoken by people when they have to share their experiences with each other. In that sense, psychology has entirely transformed the ways in which individuals conceive of their relationship to society.

Self-appointed experts

Both as a profession and as a worldview, psychology has played an important role in making citizens conceive of themselves as individuals with unique and even idiosyncratic life stories; as individuals whose difficulties in life are due to their deficient psyche, and who think of improving their self primarily in terms of their own psychic well-being and self-realization.

Psychology as a worldview has played a fundamental role in justifying the view that individuals are responsible for themselves and have only themselves to change if they want to improve their lives. Traditionally, psychologists and psychoanalysts have been the self-appointed experts in the analysis of the unconscious. They must now face the fact that a sociologist is doing to them what they routinely do to others: analyze their unconscious, only here it is a social unconscious.

I believe that one of the main reasons why three members of the psychoanalytical establishment reacted with such disproportionate fury to my article is that they felt sociology threatens to expose the social forces which shape psychology without psychologists’ awareness and yet have dramatic consequences on their lives.

Sociology, then, is bound to provoke in the groups it analyzes the same kind of defensiveness and denial which a good psychoanalyst is supposed to elicit in her patient.

I will leave on the side some of their objections to claims I never made. Rather, I will try to do as a sociologist what psychologists are supposed to do: that is, understand the reaction of the three psychologists and grant legitimacy to their anger because my sociological perspective indeed seems to pose a threat to the interests and identity of psychologists.

I want to explain some of the assumptions behind the analysis I have offered. I hope that making explicit these assumptions will better explain my claim that psychology has contributed to the privatization of political problems and of the human soul.

One: Sociology assumes that people’s intentions do not always and necessarily correspond to the effects of their actions. More than that: sociology is chiefly interested in what are called “the unintended effects of action” − how what we do has effects very far from what we intended. For example, the English nobility had a rule that firstborn males were the ones to inherit a large part of the land. Throughout the years, this rule had the result of increasingly dividing smaller and smaller plots of lands, leaving many sons without land and thus without any possibility to marry. The result was that, in the course of the 19th century, more than a quarter of the nobles disappeared, because they remained without descendants.

This is certainly not what the rule of primogeniture had in mind. Or still: Zionism intended to give a national homeland to the Jews. It ended up creating a vast humanitarian disaster by dispossessing Palestinians of their land and their human rights.

The same goes for psychology. Many psychologists − most, in fact − do their work with great care for the suffering of their patients. Many psychologists are actually quite preoccupied with social issues, and have been remarkable figures in many social movements and political combats. But what they do privately has had the effect of privatizing the soul: that is, creating a culture in which individuals are thought to be the basic unit to understand society; in which individuals conceive of their identity as a particular life story grounded in the history of their family; psychologized individuals think of their problems as being entirely particular to who they are. They are taught that the psychological conversation conducted in the privacy of an office is viewed as a sufficient response to solve such individual problems.

It is the overall cumulative effect of these many private ways of solving problems that brings people to think of their soul and their problems as their own private responsibility, not as a problem which must be thought about in a collective, political language.

|Two: Sociologists think there are strong cumulative effects to individual actions. Think, for example, of what you feel when you go shopping for a dress: you feel excited to try on many different shapes and colors. But think of the cumulated effect of all the individual consumer acts in a given society. All these acts create what we call consumer culture − a collective way of thinking and feeling.

And this is my point about psychology as well. The cumulative effect of the view that individuals’ psyche is the prime site to understand and to heal human distress makes us increasingly oblivious to the larger political structures and to their responsibility to us. This is what neoliberalism most wants. It does not mean psychologists are neoliberals. It simply means that the worldview promoted by psychology is compatible with neoliberalism.

Three: Some psychoanalysts think that sexuality lies at the heart of the unconscious. Sociology thinks that power and interests lie at the heart of the social unconscious. Quite often, someone can feel oneself to be moral when one is actually defending some specific interests. Think of a liberal intellectual like me. Why are intellectuals more likely to be liberals than people working in the private sector? Sociologists would say this is because they do not have property to defend, and because to defend the weak provides them with a public legitimacy which they must display since they are paid by public money.

The same goes with psychologists. Psychological practice is tightly connected to powerful professional interests. Self-help culture; workshops in education training; workshops in leadership; workshops in improving sexuality, and communication; the consulting industry ‏(providing advice to organizations such as the army or to economic organizations‏); social work; and private psychological consultation. All of these represent economic interests which grow when we enlarge the spectrum of “dysfunctions” or “disorders.”

Four: If our three authors who have joined the best of their forces to respond to my article had taken 30 minutes to read only a few pages of my book, they would have found out that Freud and psychoanalysis are not by any means the target of my attack. I claim very forcefully that Freud has been the greatest and most enduring cultural innovator of the 20th century.

However, many of what were his revolutionary insights were translated into a powerful economic machine and industry through ego psychology and Humanist psychology. ‏For instance, the view shared by Lacan and Bion − that the purpose of the cure is not happiness but rather truth − has become a very minority one in the popular understanding and translation of psychology.‏ This is not a new point, but psychologists have not taken enough notice of what it means for their discipline to have been translated in such a fantastically well-oiled economic and cultural machine, the purpose of which is to incessantly fix what our institutions are breaking down.

I call on them to think about the social meaning of their discipline, regardless of the particular schools of thought and practice they are involved in.

Five: Finally, psychology is not and cannot be a moral framework, and that is both its greatness and weakness. Greatness because it contributes to delegitimize the old rules of morality based on obedience to authority, to scripture, to tradition. A woman who comes to a psychologist and does not know whether to divorce or stay in her secure but dull marriage will not receive an answer such as: “A woman should never prefer a selfish search for excitement to the stability of her children’s lives.”

A psychologist will look for the answer to the woman’s dilemma without presuming to know it in advance. A psychologist who would listen to a man telling her of his marital infidelities and who would convey to her patient her moral discomfort and condemnation would be either a bad psychologist or one who needs more training.

Reuven ‏(Assi Dayan‏) in the TV series “Be Tipul” ‏is perplexed by Yadin ‏(Lior Ashkenazi‏) precisely because he has no technical tools to make the pilot who bombs Palestinians see the immorality of his actions. It is because we know in the first place that our psychologist will not use moral and moralizing judgment that we are able to tell her about our murderous fantasies, about the jewel we stole in a store, about the fact we betrayed our best friend, or about the fact we take a sadistic pleasure in mistreating a Palestinian at a checkpoint.

Without the implicit contract that the therapeutic relationship is not one in which we will be rebuked for being immoral, we would not enter that relationship. But the weakness of the therapeutic worldview is that it relies on the Socratic view that self-knowledge brings higher morality. Such an equation cannot be proven, for two reasons: one is that we do not know what self-knowledge is; the second is that introspection cannot bring greater morality if one does not already own a moral language.

Loss of moral outrage

The demise of morality from our own self-evaluation has had the cumulative and unintended effect of pushing the morality of our actions to the side of public discussions. Had I been living in Europe, I would view this with a sense of relief. But since I live in Israel, I view this with worry.

The lack of moral clarity, which is a precondition for being a good therapist, is collectively and cumulatively disempowering in the face of the repeated and daily assaults on morality by our institutions and governments. Many Israelis simply no longer feel the force of moral outrage, and it is urgent to understand what are the many causes for this, and how the privatization of the soul plays an important role in this. My purpose is not to attack psychologists as such, but rather to ask if the psychologization of problems has played a cultural role in making it difficult to find a common public language to articulate our collective sense of powerlessness, our anxieties, the sense that citizens are erased, and no longer know how to make forceful moral demands on their institutions.

As Dr. Eyal Chowers has claimed in his recent book, “The Political Philosophy of Zionism,”‏ we acutely lack such a public language. One of the main reasons why we lack such language is that too many conceive of their lives as a private war of the self against a dysfunctional childhood; too many think that professional success is a sign of a mature psyche and that a mature psyche is visible in professional success, and that the private path to self-realization is to find authenticity.

When processed in the private rooms of psychologists, collective anger and powerlessness go nowhere. In a spirit of dialogue and concern for the direction for this society, I suggest that psychologists think whether their discipline − however effective at the individual level − has not played an important role in the depolitization of society.

Psychologists who are worried not only about their paycheck but about the fate of society should think about the ways in which they can and should repoliticize psychic problems and refuse to let the institutions that govern our lives off the hook so easily.

Citizens traumatized by bombshells must understand that their fate does not depend on finding a good psychologist, but on the policy of their government; an unemployed man who wants to commit suicide because he was laid off must understand that his suicidal tendencies are the normal response to powerlessness, and that his fate does not depend on psychologists but on government treasury policies.

In a country ravaged by war and by the constant abuse of human rights and contempt for ordinary citizens, we do not need more psychologists; we do not need people who will calm our fears and anger with pills and therapy sessions. We need to understand the social basis of that fear and anger, and take them from the psychologist’s office and put them back on the street, where they rightly belong.

Let me remind Dr. Levy, Dr. Palgi-Hacker and Dr. Rolnik of a concept they are undoubtedly familiar with: that of “attacks on linking.” Wilfred Bion, the great English psychoanalyst, had a striking view of emotional growth as being dependent on the capacity to recognize and process truth. That process would be one that would be frustrating to the patient, he claimed. Because it would be so frustrating, the patient would prefer to focus on her love or hatred ‏(for the analyst, for example‏) than on truth about herself. He called that “attacks on linking.” The response of our three clinicians is, alas, reminiscent of that concept. Let me modestly suggest that, in the spirit of Bion, we psychologists and sociologists focus not on ‏(mutual‏) hatred or on love ‏(of the country‏), but on the knowledge of our condition, on the knowledge of what it means to be an angry and disempowered Israeli citizen.