As a psychoanalyst, I often try to understand psychosocial phenomena from a psychoanalytic perspective. For this brief overview, I will discuss the current state of our socio/political climate from a developmental viewpoint as well as from the perspective of current neuro-psychological research. I will attempt to shed some light on how we have reached our currently dysfunctional social and political climate; one in which there are great polarities in thinking and where racism, bigotry, hypocrisy and hatred seem to be openly promoted and endorsed by some politicians.
Developmental Theory: Early separation/individuation theory describes how early in life, a young child experiences ‘part-objects’: mother of gratification and mother of deprivation. When mother gratifies a need, she is experienced as ‘Good Mother’, and when she deprives or frustrates the child, she is experienced as ‘Bad Mother’. Their early world consists of these two extremes and is split into objects that fit these two paradigms. Healing the split is accomplished when the child developmentally achieves ambivalence; the ability to experience these feelings at once, within one object. This developmental milestone enables the child to experience a wider range of feelings for others. Their ‘black and white’ world suddenly becomes filled with the richness of nuance. Distinction between self and object (other), comes later and leads to the capacity for empathy and compassion for others.
A note about Regression: Regression is an ego defense mechanism that seeks out earlier levels of function to avoid extreme anxiety. We regress to find an earlier level of functioning where we once felt more safe and secure. Some psycho-pathologies, such as the Borderline Personality Disorder, manifest a developmental arrest at this part object level which tends to cause a fixation at this point of object relationships, where they live in a world of primarily seeing their world through extreme distortions of idealization or devaluation. Even though we have all (hopefully more successfully) gone through these developmental stages, under extremely stressful situations, we can regress into seeing the world as, once again, polarized through this ‘black and white’ filtering perspective.
Neurological Research: A second concept to be considered here derives from more contemporary neuropsychological research. We have learned that when faced with events that trigger overwhelming fear, our most primitive brain, corresponding to the amygdala, responds ½ second before the more evolved brain system, corresponding to the hippocampus, is able to process the same experience. This delay can have serious consequences. The latter brain system moderates archaic fight or flight impulses, bringing in objectivity and context, allowing us to digest data, leading to less impulsive and extreme reactions. If this slower, yet more evolved system is overwhelmed by the more primal system, we risk being at the mercy of our primitive, fight or flight impulses that don’t allow room for more rational processing. The most common trigger of our more primitive brain is primal fear. We see this clearly in trauma victims. Once this fear response is triggered, the more rational part of the brain, has no time to place the fear into a context that can enable it to be modified or digested. This can lead to impulsive and irrational behavior.
The current proliferation of fascistic, charismatic political leaders who thrive on instilling fear, can mobilize this primitive part of our brain function, which in turn can cause an ego regression that leads to earlier levels of ego functioning. These, often sociopathic political leaders are masters at manipulating, instigating, promoting and using this potential ‘splitting’ among their constituents as a means to attain power and control. This type of catastrophic, fear driven rhetoric can mobilize primitive brain systems that then trigger splitting, along with a rigidly polarized view of the world that is unaffected by actual reality.
We then have a primitive, fear driving a mechanism that splits the world into two distinct groups. Us vs. them or our ‘tribe’ vs. ‘other’ tribe!
For example, previously marginalized groups such as Neo-Nazis or the KKK, along with other ‘extremist’ individuals who promote hatred, bigotry and violence, have been given new sense of support for their pathological views by these charismatic figures. But while these extremists are easy to point at as taking advantage of this political climate, we must also be introspective and examine our own reactions and perceptions to these events.
It is easy to point a finger and blame others, but we all may be functioning, to some degree within a system that distorts the nuances within our reality. When we surround ourselves with only like-minded people, we create a bubble that insulates us from being able to take in and integrate differing opinions, points of view and new ideas. Even among more highly evolved people, through this regressive process, it can begin to feel like it’s “us vs. them”. Our current political climate of extreme polarity, can lead to this kind of distortion and breakdown. Our political system was designed for dialogue between opposing viewpoints. When this dialog breaks down, we have a dysfunctional system.
So, if ‘splitting’ is so prominent within our culture, does it have some functional basis for our species, as a genetic component, and does it still serve some purpose as a survival mechanism or is it an archaic mechanism that is driving us towards destructive impulses? Is there some other more positive reason for it’s prominence today, beyond simply being an early stage of object relations, that, under the proper circumstances, allows us to be universally triggered into regressive experiences that polarize and create ‘warring’ factions within our society?
500,000 years ago, one’s ability to respond instantaneously to any threat was a significant and necessary genetic trait that enabled our ancestors to survive, thus creating a genetic pathway that has led to the evolution of modern man. We are all here today because our ancestors, (the ones who survived), were able to react instinctively and instantaneously to danger, without having to stop and think about it and we have inherited their genetic structures that ensured their survival. That 1/2 second quicker response to danger enabled you to be here right now, reading this article! But, as a species today, have we outgrown this once genetically adaptive neurological mechanism that originated for the survival of our species, but may now contribute to the kind of dysfunction we face today as a society?
As in any formal psychoanalysis, I offer you no definitive answers to these questions. I leave these questions for you to reflect upon and hopefully find your own authentic answers and insight. Introspection leads to personal growth.
Dr. Robert Irwin Wolf
461 West 43rd Street, Ground Floor
New York City, NY 10036