Psychologists on the Front Lines

A lecturer at Acadia University, Jeffrey Sachs, posted the following question/discussion prompt on Twitter:

Here’s a puzzle I think about a lot. If any academic field is associated with the contemporary debate surrounding free speech, it’s psychology. Haidt, Pinker, Peterson, Saad, Jussim, even Lehmann. All specialize or have backgrounds in academic psych. So what’s the puzzle?
If psychology has any core premise, it is that we do not observe or make sense of the world unmediated. Our brains “get in the way”, both for good and for ill. Our biases, habits, and biologies shape what we’re willing to do, say, or believe.
And if that’s an accurate description of psych, why are psychologists so optimistic about the potential for democratic discourse and deliberation? One would expect them to be the least confident in the power of “good speech” to overcome “bad speech”.
I don’t have an answer, just some very uncharitable guesses about psychologists as historically ignorant cognitive elitists who would blanche if forced to grapple with the actual existing nature of American political discourse. Like I said, uncharitable.
So if you ARE a psychologist, I would very much like to know what you think is going on here.

I think he’s made an important observation, and exploring it can tell us some things about the free speech debate, as well as about psychology itself. Though not a psychologist, I am part of the psychology field (as a psychotherapist), and have a few ideas as to why we seem to be the “first responders”, so to speak. This may be obvious, but necessary to say anyway: I do not speak for the field here, rather, I speak for myself. My particular bias is from the area of Jungian and Depth Psychology. Other psychological professionals will not use the same terminology, or ways of describing phenomena, that I use here. The field is nothing if not multifarious.

Now, regarding to Sachs’ assertion of psychology’s core premise, I would use slightly different language, though I think he is close. I would suggest that the root metaphor of psychology; that which structures all of its work; its axiomatic presupposition, is the psyche. The word psyche means something like soul, though in contemporary times it has moved closer to mean something like mind. This redefinition is, as the psychologist Wolfgang Giegerich would have it, a kind of sanitization; an unconscious attempt to cleanse the word of its spiritual/religious connotations and make it more science-y. At any rate, it continues to refer to something like a ghost in the machine; something that drives us and yet is apart from us, or is larger than us, or subsumes us. We might also consider it less as a substantive “ghost entity” and more as a process that occurs in life, a level deeper than the way in which life is a process that occurs within matter. We might say it is more than our ego personality, our conscious experience; it includes that which is unconscious. And whether we consider it as a spirit, or an electric current, or a biochemical reaction, the idea is that psychology assumes that there is more going on within any given individual than they are aware of. Indeed, there is more going on than they can be aware of, as intellectually “knowing” that your neurons are firing and brain chemistry is interacting does not exactly lead to detailed awareness of it as it happens (which is not to say that it isn’t valuable to have intellectual awareness of these things).

To return Sachs’ question: Why would psychologists be optimistic about the potential of democratic discourse and deliberation? Why would a psychologist, who assumes axiomatically that people are too complex to fully comprehend their own behavioral processes, and moreover are more irrational than they are rational, expect “good” speech to overcome “bad” speech? Why would they have any faith in the free market of ideas?

I offer three reasons that psychologists might be inclined to favour free expression, and why they might expect this to bear good fruits; to facilitate psycho-therapy, or healing of psyche.

Firstly, the psychologist--particularly the clinical psychologist, whose work is in the healing (or mitigation) of the psychological distress or pathology of individuals, has seen firsthand the prime importance of the individual. We, human beings, are all, to some extent, small ecosystems. We have smaller systems nested within us--cardiovascular, neurological, and so on, and we are also nested within larger systems, such as our family, our club, and our nation. But individuality is the part that one can relate to; the part that one has some agency over; the part that seems, subjectively, to be “me”. Our consciousness, which is all that we are aware of and which comprises our ego personality, is individual. And though we can participate in families, clubs, and nations, and we can even become leaders within them, they extend beyond us and are ultimately out of our control. They depend upon networks of other individuals and their individual contributions. And while we can be aware of the fact that larger systems involve networks of smaller systems, and can learn a great deal about how that works, we are not able to interact with them in the same way that we can interact with our own inner networks. Actually integrating the processes of a group is an order of magnitude higher than we, as humans, are able to handle. Part of being human is being limited, by our individuality just as much as by our biological form.

One might make similar points about consciousness in relation to the unconscious: The unconscious extends far beyond what we can be aware of in any given moment, and the totality of our psyche is ultimately out of our control. However, we all undergo a process that the psychologist C. G. Jung termed individuation. Individuation is a natural process wherein that which is unconscious becomes integrated into the conscious personality over the course of the individual’s lifetime. This happens to different degrees in different individuals, and the psychotherapy that came out of Jung’s work is meant, in part, to facilitate its unfolding. It is the process by which I become more “me”, and you more “you”, as we grow and mature. This does not mean manically mapping and colonizing the unconscious, since that itself is a pathological expression, but rather one can develop receptivity towards it; one can learn to relate.

Individuation is painful, for it involves us reckoning with those things that we might rather not admit to consciousness. These might be dark aspects of our own personality, or fears; they might be aspects of our personality that invite us to greater responsibility, or personal callings. Through individuation, one’s individuality exerts a deep ethical demand on them, to live up to it. To embody that which they are; to live their life. The French author Leon Bloy wrote that “the only great tragedy in life is not to become a saint.” If we can put the Christian associations of this to one side for the moment, we might think of it like this: to become a saint is to follow this ethical obligation demanded by one’s individuality. To be a saint is to follow the call of one’s own psyche, one’s own soul. One’s own unique biological, chemical, and physical expression, if you like.

Most psychotherapeutic approaches deal with this process to some degree, implicitly if not explicitly. The awareness that a patient can gain through Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT), of their own automatic thoughts and assumptions, is an aspect of this. Working to become aware of one’s “stories” in Narrative Therapy is an aspect of this. The dream and imaginative work done in Depth Psychology is explicitly an aspect of this. Therefore, a clinical psychologist, if he or she is aware enough to be able to get out of the way of the patient’s individuation at times, knows from experience that individuation works. It is often all that works. It takes serious time, and is often painful and difficult, but it heals. The expression of one’s individuality heals that same individuality. Sigmund Freud, the pioneer of modern psychotherapy, called his technique the talking cure, in recognition of the fact that verbal expression itself was key to healing.

It was also Freud’s insight that suppressing the expression of one’s individuality leads to its expression through symptoms. Symptoms, after all, are the most observable expressions of illness; they can be considered in terms of what illness they point to, and what they might be expressing on behalf of that illness.

It is essentially a truism to say that the development of individuality can lead to all sorts of idiosyncratic choices on the part of the individual. It can lead to the dissolution of a person’s relationships, particularly those that fail to evolve along with the person. Very often, though, it also allows one to participate in relationships more authentically, and more honestly. It can “cleanse” one’s relationships with the larger system (the family, the club, the nation) that one is a part of.

The unconscious had better not be simply allowed run the show, however. That is what happens in cases of psychosis. The contents that come forth from the unconscious demand a response from the conscious personality, and part of the work is that the conscious personality must learn to stand for its own position while remaining receptive. This is fundamentally how integration and relationship can be undertaken. The unconscious and conscious relate to one another, and through the process of relationship, both are changed.

This relating process is the inner equivalent of free speech. It takes place within an individual; free speech takes place between individuals. Free speech then, is a fundamental aid to individuation, and is in fact a way that individuation occurs at the level of magnitude that is larger than one person. Not only can a person who is permitted to say what they have in their head and their heart begin to make it conscious in a way, but saying it to someone is what allows it to become conscious within the group. And just like on the level of the individual, the listener is called upon to stand for his or her own position, while remaining receptive to what he or she is hearing. The speaker and listener have an ethical obligation to hear one another, and respond. Expressing one’s ideas, feelings, intuitions, and sensations to other people is a way that unconscious contents and processes are brought to the conscious awareness of the group. And only then, rather than being in a state of unknowing or avoidance, can the other individuals in the group relate consciously.

I suggested earlier that a psychologist might conceptualize their work as getting “out of the way” of the patient’s individuation, and this leads me to my second reason that psychologists might be inclined to favor free expression. It is well-known that, within a psychotherapeutic context, simply listening is often enough. It is a rare opportunity in our culture to be able to speak and have someone really listen. Even our most understanding and compassionate relations will interrupt, offer advice and opinions, console, be preoccupied, and so on. The chance to simply speak and be heard is both incredibly uncommon and incredibly valuable. As I have listened to patients, I have observed them sorting out and developing their own thoughts. Through this, they may come to a clearer understanding of what is troubling them. They will, without external prompting, instinctively deepen their understanding of their situation, through relating it to another person. I have held hour-long sessions in which I have said nearly nothing, and yet which seemed to be of obvious value to the patient. Of course this is not a blanket prescription for a good way to proceed in every situation, for there are many times in which phenomena demand a response from the engaged observer. Such situations are precisely what I attempted to establish above when I emphasized relationship and the dialogical process of individuation. What I mean to say with this point is that simply allowing someone to speak and be heard can do wonders for the development of that person’s ideas.

If the ideas are something we might consider “bad” or “wrong”, allowing them expression can also depotentiate them. A person whose ideas have been suppressed will continue to hone them in their inner darkness, where they may mutate and grow more severe. The negative affect generated by the suppression itself aids in this. These same ideas, let into the light, might dissolve of their own accord. They can be seen nakedly. A person who speaks out of some unresolved psychological complex will often reveal themselves; that is, they will reveal something of the actual unconscious motivations for their speech, and thereby undermine the apparent “objectivity” of their reasoning. Furthermore, the therapeutic benefit of being heard itself can heal the wound of having been suppressed. In short: The mutative power that negative affect can have on ideas which have been suppressed can be negated by the therapeutic power that comes along with those same ideas being heard. Once again, this does not preclude the listener responding, but it does suggest that in order to respond properly, one must first actually listen. You must listen without preparing a counterpoint or a rebuttal, for to think about what you want to say next, while you are listening, is to fail to fully receive and appreciate what you are hearing. And, as often as not, there will be something you actually need to hear within an apparently opposing viewpoint; there will be some truth that it is critical to become aware of.

My third reason is grounded in research on trauma and avoidance. A significant amount of the calls for the limitation of free speech is ostensibly in the service of protecting psychologically fragile individuals. It is suggested that exposure to ideas with which they do not agree, or which they find totally abhorrent, can cause trauma (or re-traumatize). In the case of a person who has suffered a serious trauma, and for whom this trauma is not resolved, there is sense in this. For someone who is suffering from a severe and unresolved traumatic wound, “triggers” can come not only from obvious situations, but from unexpected and tangentially related topics as well. Such an individual, therefore, may do best to take a cautious approach to what they are exposed to.

That said, however, it is well-established, both in psychological theory and in the research literature, that exposure to triggers is precisely what heals the wound underlying them. In severe cases this exposure may be best undertaken through a controlled and graduated process, and with the aid of a psychological professional. But healing is not in the direction of shutting out offensive phenomena; at best that is a viable strategy in the short term. The disturbance felt by the person who is triggered is the symptom; avoidance of the triggering phenomenon is part of the illness, insofar as it prevents the person from living in the world. The healing process involves learning to live in the world, with all of its unpredictable and potentially dangerous phenomena.

Sachs, in his tweet, identified psychologists as forming the de facto front line response to the free speech issue. If that is indeed an accurate representation, it is due to the fact that psychologists know the value, and indeed the necessity, of freedom to speak. Perhaps more than that, however, they know the danger posed by suppression and repression of ideas, both within an individual and within a society. It is a basic psychoanalytical principle that what is suppressed or repressed comes back in different form. What you try to throw out the front door comes in again through the window, and what you try to banish down the basement stairs bursts up later through the floor tiles. In Jungian thought, these areas of exile are known as the shadow; a metaphor for what we don’t want to see or deal with. The image makes clear that the shadow is a direct result of the light; the poet Robert Bly wrote, “The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.” One can perceive, in the apparent light of the desire to protect vulnerable people from dangerous words, the totalitarian controlling impulse which lurks in the shadow. This is the desire, individual and collective, to limit what is appropriate to say according to one’s own opinions about what is right and wrong. It is a fundamentally hubristic position, as it places the individual’s subjective judgment hierarchically above the natural process of the members of the system relating to one another, from their own subjective and individual places. The impulse says, “I know better than the group what is good for the group.”

Seen from this perspective, freedom of speech is not only a sociopolitical issue, but an issue that cuts right to the heart of the tension of being human; the tension of not only having an ego consciousness and an unconsciousness that comprise our psyche, but being aware of that fact. Investigation of that is psychology, in its essence. And so the free speech issue might be seen to ask us: Do we believe that we, in our seriously limited conscious personality, which we know to be seriously limited, know enough to judge what is good and what is not? Or had we better give some credit to the unconscious processes which structure our consciousness anyway, and let the free marketplace of ideas take its course, of course keeping in mind that we must still engage with what we encounter as conscious individuals?

The psychological answer is that, for integration to be possible, we must develop receptivity to relationship with that which we don’t understand, know, or like.