How are we shaped by the culture in which we grow? How do social, political, historical and economic pressures interweave in the individual, both at a conscious and an unconscious level, and how can we use this knowledge to help explain and bring about social change?
At a conference on Mind and Culture in London in November 2016, organized by the British Psychoanalytic Council, Maxine Dennis reminded us that although ‘race’ is an empty category in scientific terms, it has a powerful hold on us psychologically. In director Paul Haggis’ 2004 film Crash, we find depicted ‘Crashes’. These can be encounters where individuals who may not share obvious affinities (race, creed, class for example) have the opportunity to discover something about themselves, and each other, if both parties can suspend their mutual judging long enough to discover common ground. But an encounter can also just be a ‘Crash’ when one or both parties treat each other according to existing unconscious stereotypes. When this happens, potential ‘meetings’ become ‘crashes’; at best they reinforce unhelpful stereotyping and can be humiliating. At worst they are deadly.
The conference, from the first moment that Maxine Dennis spoke, had sound problems. Lapel mics would have helped, let’s put it that way. Many people at the back struggled to hear what the speakers were saying and in the later group session, their feelings of anger were expressed. Those who couldn’t hear properly were sore about it, understandably. They knew this ‘thing’ was going on and that they couldn’t participate properly. Put simply, they felt excluded. Put more than two people in a room together and one or more will quickly perceive themselves to be, or actually are, being excluded. We are extremely sensitive to it and for good reason because social exclusion is how all mammals bring each other into line.
Mammalian brains’ pain receptors for social exclusion (ie. separation distress) operate using the same neurotransmitters as physical pain, because both grief and physical pain can be treated with opiates. The point is this: everyone hates feeling excluded, as the earliest Oedipal feelings attest. Mammals have evolved into over 5,000 species and have colonized the entire globe by relying on each other. So feeling excluded triggers fear (of social isolation) which all mammals defend against by feeling rage. And, as Yoda (and his drooping ears) tells us in Star Wars I – The Phantom Menace, ‘Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering’.
The key question is this: when we feel excluded, what do we do? Well we blame others because it is someone else’s fault, after all. In this case, the attendees who couldn’t hear properly blamed the conference organisers. But the BPC hadn’t expected the conference to be very popular and had chosen a smaller venue with less sophisticated sound equipment. So the sound was bad. But in the process of blaming others, another emotional current flows not out but inwards and we start to ask ourselves what we did or what we are that got us excluded…we start to ask, ‘Is it because I am different?’
In the wake of Brexit and Trump, as racist and nationalist voices amplify across the Western world, this conference helped me to understand this new political status quo as a reaction to feelings of social exclusion, an idea I had flirted with in articles I had read but felt like I really got to grips with at the conference. Siri Hustvedt, American author and a fellow champion of Neuropsychoanalysis, wrote in response to the Trump election that we now live in an age of the ‘politics of humiliation’. I think she means that Trump has been elected by a lot of people who believe he is prepared to say what has hitherto been ‘unsayable’ by a Liberal Establishment who don’t analyse society’s ills through the lens of racist rhetoric or class inequalities.
What she means, I think, is that according to the politics of humiliation, Mexicans are rapists and Muslims are terrorists and Rust Belt America’s problems will be solved by expunging the contaminants…it all sounds rather uncannily like Hitler’s speeches to his countrymen suffering the deep economic pains of late 1920s doesn’t it? Except it was Jews and Gypsies who were to blame then. It is scary to think that all it would take to convert Trump’s presidency into a genocidal mania is a vigorous national media campaign to define all Muslims and Mexicans as some form of insect – ‘flea’, ‘cockroach’, ‘lice’ – i.e. vermin requiring ‘elimination’ and before they know it, America could be following Rwanda down the road to horror.
Genocide is the most serious form of social exclusion, but social exclusion of a slower, more turgid kind HAS come to large swathes of America’s industrial heartland. No longer is Made in America the label; Made in China has replaced it and this has eviscerated scores of American towns and cities, just like it has done here in the UK where the policy of de-Industrialisation, especially in the north-east, Wales and the north-west where Brexit votes stacked up, left millions of people dependent on state subsidies and humiliated by their lot. Here psychoanalysis has something to add to the debate, as I learnt on Saturday. For as we all know, splitting and projection are powerful mechanisms and because social exclusion is such an aversive experience, there is profound relief to be found when the pain can be split off by, let us imagine, a Welsh ex-miner who has seen his once-proud community wither and die, or be ‘invaded’ by immigrants. He can project his fear, anger and suffering into said immigrants, both those on his high street and those standing at the border and living in the erstwhile ‘Jungle’ (note the unconscious slide in our discourse from humans living in a shanti town to animals living in a jungle), who are conveniently seen to be holding out their (rather than the Welsh former-miner’s) begging bowl. And then he is free to hate them, which provides much-need relief, temporarily anyway, for his own suffering. Are you seeing Nigel Farage standing the other side of a wall behind which is a straggling line of ragged black and brown people in the Brexit poster yet? I am…
In the marvellous nature documentary, The March of the Penguins, the sonorous voice of Morgan Freeman narrates the daunting task of the male Emperor penguin whose job is to incubate an egg beneath his feet through the months of an Antarctic winter. As 120mph winds whip their colony, the penguins at the outermost edges slowly waddle towards the centre, their single, precious egg always carefully kept warm under them, while those at the centre are slowly pushed out to the edge. This ingenious solution – a thermodynamic flow – ensures no individual penguin freezes to death in the -50°C temperatures. All share in the unpleasant business of spending time at the edge of the colony before returning back to its warmer heart. Perhaps it was the black and white colour of the penguins that brought this memory to my consciousness, after I attended Paul Kassman and Carine Minne’s break-out session about their work with black and ethnic minority (BME) men now serving decades of time for gang-related offences in a high-security prison in the UK.
Paul Kassman is a mixed-race youth worker turned policy-maker who has spent decades working with BME youth in London’s inner city boroughs. In the 1990s as knife and gun crime began to mow down many of his clients (and former classmates), he grew increasingly disenchanted with government funding for gang-related prevention programmes. They seemed to him underpinned by painful racist stereotyping (‘get them DJ-ing’) or sport (‘black men run fast’). And he spent many years searching for a psychodynamically-minded clinician with whom to develop and deliver a properly useful intervention. Wisely, he teamed up with Dr. Carine Minne, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst with decades of experience treating violent and sexually perverse patients at Broadmoor and the Portman Clinic. She has the psychoanalytic language to help these men understand how the early deficits they have suffered (poverty, parental mental health problems, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse etc.) predispose them to have inner worlds in which the violent (gang-sanctioned) behavior is generated. But alone she would have been unsuccessful in reaching them, for the simple reason that these men would immediately, and correctly, identify her as slap-bang in the middle of the warmest part of the penguin huddle (white, middle-class, educated) and make a stereotyped assumption that she has nothing of value to say to them – they who have grown up on the meanest streets where the social winds blow coldest.
But that doesn’t happen because the other half of the quasi-parental couple before them is Paul; a man who grew up feeling those Antartic blasts too (as a young boy walking down Upper Street in the 1970s, his mother would be shouted at for being a ‘nigger lover’ and at his North London school, white boys supporting the BNP from one postcode fought pitched battles against the BME kids from the adjacent postcode just up the road). He has used his brilliant brain to develop a way of sharing his insights about how a dangerous identity gap lurks at the heart of BME masculinity in the UK. He, unlike Carine, knows what ‘light colour pressure’ means to these men, and how the terms of ‘whuppin’’ and ‘violation’ echo down the generations from the days of slavery – and he can bridge the gap. His thesis, put simply, is that gang-related violence has oodles to do with being BME in our inner cities, because it is a way to belong when you live in a wider society that doesn’t apparently want you.
The problem, as he sees it, is that what you do not understand you are condemned to repeat. If you can name something, you can study it and scrutinize it – in short you can think about it. His programme with Carine, called Changing the Game, is doing this at two levels of unconscious functioning by giving these men a language to get hold of the unthought knowns that have conditioned them to behave in violent and unhealthy ways towards others. This is a population often labelled ‘hard to reach’; a laughable term which places the blame not on the designers of the interventions on offer (where it actually belongs) but on those already feeling the Antarctic blast at society’s edge. Changing the Game got 100% attendance figures, now has a waiting list and the effects on their attendees was so significant that gang-related violence fell steeply outside the gaol in the territories ‘belonging’ to the gang bosses on the inside. Today, of the 3,500 gang members in London, 90% are BME and yet, in the 2013 Home Office report entitled Ending Gang Violence there wasn’t a single reference to race or ethnicity. Why the deafening silence?
This question brings me back to the penguins and to something the then-Chair of the BPC, Helen Morgan, said in the morning session. She said it took her a long time to see that her whiteness was invisible to her and that she even had a white privilege! If you can’t see something, of course you take it for granted. The truth is that the closer you are to the edge, the more you are aware of what puts you there (the wrong accent, the wrong skin colour, a bad education, the wrong postcode). Meanwhile if you are warm in the centre you unconsciously want to keep it that way so you deny there is a centre or an edge, using platitudes like, ‘We are all the same,’ or, ‘I’m colour blind, that’s me’. Those at the edge shout to be heard and end up sounding shrill. This flares the unconscious guilt of those at the centre, so they become even deafer, at best using political correctness as lip service and at worst, mocking it altogether. As she put it, ‘whiteness casts a shadow’ and its weight falls onto those who can bear it least – those at the edge.
Now, isn’t it our job to point out and challenge internal dictatorships so we become less deaf, dumb and blind? It should not be those at the margins who must educate those at the centre: we must attend to our racist thoughts, explore their origins and find the anxiety behind them. Only by acknowledging our part in those freezing to death at the edges can we begin to ensure, as the penguins do, that our society’s thermodynamics operate for the benefit of all. Incidentally, mathematicians have modeled the way the emperor penguins shuffle in their huddle and have concluded it is in a manner we might call ‘little and often’. When just one penguin moves a single step, the entire huddle of thousands of penguins must move to accommodate that step in order to keep themselves close to each other and therefore warmer. One penguin shuffling just two inches to the left starts a wave and when this meets another wave in the huddle (started by another penguin) the two waves merge, rather than passing one another. Penguins keep moving. So must we.