Einstein, Freud, And Our Fractured Politics
In 1932, the League of Nations asked a number of intellectuals to confer with a peer of their choosing on a pressing matter of the day so that their correspondence might then be published. Albert Einstein wished to discuss the question “is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?” He sought his answer from Sigmund Freud.
Over the last half-century, Freud has lost his status as the great sage of human psychology to whom the smartest man on Earth would turn for answers to the problem of war. But perhaps at this political moment, when an acute tribalism roils the globe, a return to Freud’s ideas would after all do some good. Freud’s great contribution was to bring rational understanding to irrational passions, and in so doing to help free us from them to make better, more rational choices.
The great science educator Carl Sagan believed that in the nuclear age a Freudian awareness of our unconscious and irrational passions was all that stood between us and extinction. The angry ‘Us-Them’ rhetoric now resounding on both sides of the Atlantic will not, one hopes, lead to armed conflict, but the xenophobic atmosphere does bear some resemblance to the political climate that led to the World Wars of the 20th century. Can psychology offer us a way out of the extreme partisanship, ultra-nationalism, and in-fighting now afflicting Western democracies? This was the very question Einstein and Freud pondered in their letters. Their correspondence was published as an essay called “Why War?”
It’s hard to imagine the predominant modalities in the mental health field today curing anyone of irrational political tribalism or helping to forestall the conflicts that may arise from it. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, the most widespread form of psychotherapy today, asks patients to practice new, healthier thought patterns and behaviors. Psychiatric drugs, which were prescribed to an estimated one in six Americans in 2013, work by tamping down emotions like anxiety and depression. Neither CBT nor drugs, however, clearly address the root causes of irrational thought or emotional interference. Instead, these treatments attempt to relieve symptoms after the fact. And while some may fantasize about putting an entire state on Zoloft, drugs and CBT aren’t practical solutions to the irrational behavior of large groups. Even if they did work magic on large groups, partisans of the left and right would of course never agree to such treatments. Red State or Blue, we can all agree that it’s the other side that has mental problems.
A psychoanalyst could no more put a million people on the couch than a cognitive-behavioral therapist could, but Freudian psychology does provide insights that may be more applicable to political irrationality. For one thing, psychoanalytic theory offers at least a running start at some cogent explanations of this sort of group pathology, where cognitive-behavioral psychology and biochemistry do not.
In his 1921 book “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego,” Freud sketched an idea of certain group behaviors as byproducts of defense mechanisms. The theory of defense mechanisms is the cornerstone of Freudian psychology. It says, in essence, that people defend themselves from painful thoughts and feelings by lying to themselves in intricate ways, without being aware of it. “Denial” is a defense mechanism and, as Al Franken said on “Saturday Night Live,” it “ain’t just a river in Egypt.” “Identification” and “displacement” are two other defenses that Freud described and applied to his work on group psychology.
When individuals feel powerless to satisfy their aims, Freud said, they identify with a group that shares their needs and frustrations, and with leaders who they perceive to be in a stronger position than they are to do something about those grievances. In this way, through identification with a group or a tribe, aggrieved individuals abolish feelings of inferiority and envy, and empower themselves to achieve their aims vicariously through the group and its leaders. From group identification to racism and xenophobia is but a small step. When we feel aggrieved, ashamed, or inferior and we don’t want to blame ourselves for our misfortunes (and who does?) we tend to want to blame a group with which we don’t feel psychologically identified. We crave a villainous ‘Them’ so that we can imagine a virtuous ‘Us.’
Is there anything we can do with this Freudian wisdom at the current political moment? I confess that my first instinct is to blame the other side for their partisanship, racism, xenophobia, and irrationality. But then it’s I who’s quickly turned xenophobic and partisan toward my own countrymen. In that case, I myself fall prey to the irrational identifications and displacements that constitute group psychology.
It’s no easy problem to solve, and Einstein and Freud did not necessarily end up in an optimistic place. In 1947, Einstein told photographer Philippe Halsman, “As long as there will be man, there will be war.” Freud wrote in 1933, “There is no use in trying to get rid of men’s aggressive inclinations.” The only way forward he envisioned for civilization was discouragingly vague: “a strengthening of the intellect, which is beginning to govern instinctual life, and an internalization of the aggressive impulses, with all its consequent advantages and perils.”
But Freud had his own unconscious defense mechanisms, and they often manifested in unintended pessimism. Perhaps he was too bashful to suggest that his creation psychoanalysis could lend a hand in pacifying humankind. He needn’t have been. Surely, the best way for humanity to succeed in governing its instinctual life is to follow the dictum of the Oracle at Delphi, “Know thyself” — and to try to do it even when it means acknowledging our own worst impulses. We must try to bring understanding and compassion to the conversation with our fellow human beings, too, even our enemies. But our understanding can only proceed so far without a knowledge of the pernicious defense mechanisms described by Freudian psychology.
Austin Ratner is an M.D. and winner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. His latest book is The Psychoanalyst’s Aversion to Proof.