CPPNJ - The Center for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of New Jersey

Sunday, April 18, 2010

All the rage

April 15 was particularly taxing this year, what with having to survive another round of Tea Party protests steeped in anger. The sound and the fury that ratcheted through the country after Congress passed health care reform has subsided a bit, but it is clearly still simmering. As psychoanalysts, trained to understand the complex workings of the mind, how do we comprehend the fear and loathing?

From a psychological lens, change frequently stirs anxiety. The bigger the change, the greater the uncertainty. Even when there is much to be gained, it's easy to fixate on all that might be lost. We see this in individuals as well as in the larger social system. There's something safe and familiar about the status quo, even when it isn't working. Change becomes equated with danger, and a fight-or-flight mechanism takes over.

Much has been written about how the Tea Party movement is dominated by white men terrified about the country's changing demographics -- especially about a powerful African-American in the White House. Psychoanalyst Neil Altman has written that those who are different frighten us with their foreignness. Through a process called projective identification, they become convenient receptacles for disturbing aspects of our own psyches. In this mechanism, parts of ourselves we cannot tolerate are unconsciously projected into somebody else, and then railed against. We can then cling to an image of ourselves as all good, devoid of malice or aggression, since these aspects are now found in others. We are not dangerous, angry and out of control, black people are.

Although many minority groups have served this function throughout history (including Jews in Nazi Germany), African-Americans are convenient receptacles for our disowned dark sides because their skin color is, in fact, darker. Black-and-white thinking -- literally -- has a temporary advantage of creating order in a dangerous world. With an us-versus-them mentality, at least we know where we stand. The problem is, where we stand is actually shakier than before since now the world is even more threatening, and the messier parts of ourselves more dangerous than ever.

Prejudice is endemic to the human condition. To rise above it we first have to locate ourselves in it. By staring at our own fears and prejudices -- by tolerating our own dark sides -- we become more human in the process.

-- Eric Sherman, LCSW