As we see our country descend into this destructive polarization, how can we use our orientation to bring understanding to the larger social context?
Psychoanalysis has a long history of creative thinkers that have shed light on important aspects of social and political realities, starting with Freud and developed by many others including Wilfred Bion and Vamik Volkan. They have shown how once we consider how we, consciously and unconsciously, are always embedded in group life, the boundary between the individual and the political becomes less clear.
As we have seen so clearly in the attack on the Capitol, asserting reality with certainty is pathological for individuals and very, very dangerous at the political level. Reality is negotiated.But how each pole holds an important aspect of reality can only be discovered by asking ourselves, “How are they right?” – without surrendering our own perspective. This requires listening carefully and deeply; it is an extremely difficult perspective to hold in mind, particularly when they — these others — evoke our self-righteousness, rage, and fear, and when we think we can see so clearly how they are wrong.
The assault on the Capitol demonstrates that there really are a lot of very bad people. But there are others who, in an unstable society and economy in the context of Covid, the lockdowns, the George Floyd protests, the unemployment, the bewildering Democratic defeat, and the resulting isolation and loneliness, are easily misled. Negotiation of a shared reality requires containment since none of us can think clearly in the presence of chaos. That is why we havelaws. But when our representatives do not support our laws, we have to examine why we elected them. We can then think together about the possibility that we have actually chosen leaders that represent our unexamined vulnerabilities. Recognizing this might help with understanding the political gridlock and our role in maintaining it.
If we can find ways to hold our containing frame — our ongoing effort as Americans to shape a respectful, pluralistic society — we might better understand what is happening and, as psychoanalysts and citizens, begin to consider our own responsibility for contributing to this political chaos.