Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Couching Language

David Hirsch asks kindly: "Do not confine Jews to the couch".
A therapist guides us on a journey to the frightening places inside ourselves and helps us to find ways to live with our demons. While we might do well to examine our own crazinesses with our therapists, we do not expect to have to answer for them in public and we expect our therapist to be on our side. Philosopher Michel Foucault warned that the sciences of the mind are also techniques of power and they have hostile as well as healing potential.
I think critics of Israeli policies should make their arguments politically and with reasons. They should avoid ascribing to Jews collectively a pathological inability to act rationally. Israel is a state and acts according to what its leaders and its electorate calculate to be its national interest. Israel may be wrong. It may even be very wrong. But making peace with its neighbours is a matter for politics, not for therapy.

I actually am somewhat conflicted on this. I agree with Mr. Hirsch that we should not ascribe "to Jews collectively a pathological inability to act rationally." And I agree that some branches of the "psychoanalytic" critique of (Israel? Jews?) walks into this territory. Certainly, we should not confine Jews to the couch. There is more to this story than merely mind games and hallucinations.

However, I believe that psychology matters, particularly when we recognize that certain resposnse mechanisms are rational responses to abuse and oppression. Growing up Jewish, with all the opportunities and burdens that represents, makes certain outlooks of mine vis-a-vis non-Jews rational and reasonable.

It is reasonable for me, for instance, to not assume that any random person off the street is an ally of Jewish liberation. I'm under no obligation to assume that non-Jewish speakers -- even ever-so-progressive ones, even ones with Jewish friends -- know what is required to put Jews in a position of equality, or even particularly care about it. To some extent, this is "psychology" -- it is a schematic construction I use to order the world in absence of complete information, based on how I perceive my position and standing as a Jew in it. But I don't believe that is an illegitimate social behavior on my part.

Still, Hirsch is correct in referencing Foucault and noting the potentially pernicious power of this sort of analysis when it is being used to inferiorize. The discourse becomes not a tool of healing but a weapon of war -- a justificatory mechanism for viewing the target class (in this case, Jews) as morally and mentally defective, removed from the realm of rational discourse and consequently ripped from the fabric of normal societal norms and boundaries. Our beliefs on how to relate with the other are premised on the idea that she is a rational creature. When dealing with others who are not conceded to have that property, well, we can hardly be faulted for resorting to "the type of language she understands", which is to say, either force or none at all. This is fundamentally dehumanizing.


chingona said...

I feel like similar types of language or similar ways of thinking get used against the Palestinians, even by their nominal supporters, mostly of the "beaten dog" variety. I think it's a really poisonous way to think about the conflict, both because it removes any agency from any of the actors and, perhaps ironically, removes any basis for an eventual political settlement. If everyone is just flailing about emotionally or lashing out or whatever, then how can you negotiate anything?

David Schraub said...

Part of me thinks that the argument is motivated primarily by the speakers desire to assure everyone that she's read Freud and Lacan. But that's too pat: there is a political purpose behind this. Psychoanalytics can be used to diminish responsibility ("they're just lashing out") and try and negate one sides legitimate grievances, or it can be used to dehumanize ("they're damaged people -- rational arguments and ethics don't mean anything to them"). The indeterminancy makes it just another tool in the advocates toolbox.

PG said...

If everyone is just flailing about emotionally or lashing out or whatever, then how can you negotiate anything?

Very much agreed. While we should acknowledge people's emotions, we shouldn't use them to excuse bad or unhelpful actions. It's perfectly understandable that someone living under U.S. occupation in Iraq would want to assault President Bush; it's still assault and still not a good idea.

On the other hand, I think the annoyance at being put on the couch has a lot to do with some Hindus' animus toward Martha Nussbaum, because she analyzes the Hindu hard right in highly psychological terms, especially sexually psychological (which for some of these folks is just one more enraging thing, talking about Teh Sex). But she's doing her analysis based on the explicit rhetoric and images employed by the people she's talking about, so it's not like she's having to dig real deep here.

So I'm OK with using psychology as an explanation of why people may do such-and-such. But I don't think it should be used to excuse nor to assume away someone's agency. Nussbaum thinks that the saffronists can get beyond their angst regarding Mother India's need for her Hindu sons to engage in nuclear testing, and is very much in favor of doing so.

chingona said...

I think some of the motivation is a misplaced desire to be "understanding," but it ends up being patronizing and ultimately dehumanizing. But David's right that it's also a tool and even a weapon (by both sides and sometimes in counterintuitive ways). Which we're talking about depends on both the sophistication and the power wielded by the speaker.

I certainly don't think psychology is irrelevant. I think it plays a role in our motivations, and it also plays a role in the way we project on to the other side. (As for Nussbaum, well, there are psychological analyses of American political phenomena that don't bother me in the least when they come from Americans, but do bug me when they come from Europeans.) But at the end of the day, people are responsible for their actions.

Jack said...

Psychoanalysis is right next to nonsenses anyways. Given that nothing resembling science is ever done to back up the claims of psychoanalysts I don't really see why we should distinguish their disempowering claims from those made by Joe activist who blows off your suggestion that he might be complicit in antisemitism.

If actual psychologists have reasons to make similar claims then take them more seriously but I've seen no evidence to think the psychoanalysis is of help to the cause of Jews or any oppressed people.