“Acknowledging Harm and Repairing the World” Transcript
Guest: Dr. Jessica Benjamin
Jessica Benjamin: Their idea of order is something that is a top-down imposition of power and whoever doesn’t have that power just has to knuckle under.
Betty Teng: Welcome to another episode of Mind of State. I’m Betty Teng.
Michael Epstein: And I’m Michael Epstein and together, we’re your hosts. Here at Mind of State, we don’t so much discuss the news as psychoanalyze it by talking to some of the smartest, most interesting minds in mental health and the social sciences. Hi, Betty.
Betty: Hi, Michael. Today, our guest is Dr. Jessica Benjamin. Jessica is a supervising faculty member of the New York University Postdoctoral Psychology Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis and is on the faculty of the Stephen Mitchell Center for Relational Studies, where she’s a founder and a board member. Jessica is a major theorist in the field of relational psychoanalysis and really has defined its path. Some have said, and I would agree, she is one of the most influential psychoanalysts of the last four decades. She is one of the first to introduce feminism and gender studies into psychoanalytic thought, integrating the clinical with the social or the societal. She is the author of several books, including The Influential Bonds of Love and most recently Beyond Doer and Done to: Recognition Theory, Intersubjectivity, and the Third.
Michael: Whoa. Wow.
Betty: I know, right?
Michael: Yeah. I just just got this overwhelming sense that I’ve accomplished nothing of any importance in my life.
Betty: You and me both. Anyway, welcome Jessica. We are truly honored to have you join us. Thank you for being on Mind of State.
Jessica: I’m excited to be here. Thank you.
Betty: Thank you, thank you. And speaking of your most recent book, Beyond Doer and Done to, I want to go back, not yet to move beyond “doer and done to” because we have an audience here that might not know about your very influential concept of “the third”. And you’ve used it very elegantly to talk about how we might move beyond this entrenched impasse of the right and the left. So can you give us some framework or explain your theory of the third and the “doer and done to” concept?
Jessica: Well, I guess to put it most simply, I think that most binds that we get into are ones in which rather than carrying through on a conflict in a way that allows both sides to express themselves, there is a lack of a certain kind of space in which a disagreement or an opposition can be held. So if you think of the conversational space or the space of dialog between, say, two partners, if that space closes, then you get into a kind of “doer done to” complementarity where each person feels that the other is shutting them out. That each person feels my reality is the only reality or each person feels like they think their reality is the only reality, that kind of thing. So that space in which you can imagine that there are two different points of view or two different but equally deserving and equally–
Jessica: Valid but also valued persons is the space of the third. And you can think of it almost as a, if you like, can think of this metaphor of space very literally, in the sense that when that third space is open, you know, each person puts their ideas or their feelings into the middle the way you would sort of throw your chips in or something. And their contribution in some way counts. And when that space closes, it seems like there’s nothing, there’s nowhere to go with any kind of conflict or opposition except, you know, banging up against each other.
Michael: So this is then, sort of, practical application in couples therapy. It sounds to me very much like a kind of couples therapy environment.
Jessica: It could be. But the way that I look at it comes less from couples therapy and more from developmental studies, say, of infants and their parents. I’ll say mother here just for short. That in all the early studies of mothers and infants and the later ones as well, what we noticed was that a certain kind of accommodation pattern, a certain kind of adjustment would be going on between the two partners. But it was not a pattern of action reaction. It wasn’t, for instance, the mother stimulating the infant and the infant reacting. Rather, the two of them would kind of get into a groove, into sync, and create a rhythmic pattern that each of them could at times change or even violate in order to make things more interesting. But within the context of this pattern, they were sort of recognizing each other’s moves. And so the important thing is that when you get something like that going, you have in here we go beyond the idea of simply a space, you have a pattern, a pattern that you can in some way rely on, but in some way, is novel and outside both people’s controls. It starts to take on something of a life of its own if it’s good.
Michael: And if it’s bad, how does, I mean in terms of your patients, Betty, or Jessica, how do you guys, if we can ground this in the real for a second.
Jessica: Right, if it’s bad, you get you get an action reaction pattern so for instance what we saw with mothers and infants was something called chase and dodge, where if the mother didn’t recognize that the infant needed to slow down, which the infant shows by, say, looking away because it’s too stimulating, then the mother moves in even more, she looms in and the infant twist their body and tries to get away, and then the mother looms in even more and we call that the chase and dodge pattern. And that would be an example of the really kinetic early experience of having a “doer done to” relationship. Like, I’m helpless, I can’t get away from this person. But the mother also feels helpless because she doesn’t know what she’s doing wrong. She doesn’t know how to get her infant back online.
Michael: And she yearns for the connection from the infant.
Jessica: Exactly. And so she’s getting more anxious. And so then both people are getting more anxious. So that would be an example of how, rather than creating a third, you get this negative pattern and this negative pattern closes down both people’s opportunities to cocreate and be active in a good way.
Michael: And it sounds to me that then it’s sort of self propagating.
Michael: Which is to say, it’s very hard then to arrest that “doer done to” dynamic without intervention.
Jessica: Yes. And interestingly, though, some very simple interventions often help a great deal. Mothers can learn to be more aware, let’s say, and things will calm down. And this is very important, also. Things calm down. People need to calm down. That is, not be what we call hyper aroused, right. And the more hyper aroused they get, the more the back and forth intensifies, you know, and the more they calm down, the more they can leave each other that space.
Michael: I love this because I think we have a second opportunity here, Betty, like I know here we tend to be Mind of State about the politics and psychology. But if we really went out as a parenting podcast.
Betty: Oh, that’s right.
Michael: Jessica, you’re going to grow our audience exponentially.
Betty: Really, this is where we all begin, right.
Betty: And the attunement.
Jessica: Attunement, exactly.
Betty: What you’re talking about, Jessica. And the resonance that we have with each other, mother to child, in the most basic original sense, is what we can look to in even looking at very complex interactions such as what we’re in right now, the concretization of an impasse that has shut down the government for a historic amount of time. So it’s useful to use developmental theory to look at resonance and look at attunement. So how are we–
Jessica: Could I just interject?
Jessica: If you stop there, it’s the picture is incomplete in a very essential way. And I want to interject that now, if I can. And that is, that there’s another piece to this idea of a kind of a basic rhythm and a basic set of principles of interaction. And that has to do with what I call lawfulness. That is to say that you set up certain patterns or you expect certain patterns with the other. And now, say, from the child’s perspective, the pattern that I expect from you has been violated. What do you do when that pattern is violated? Now, ideally, you acknowledge the violation. So we have something called rupture and repair where many little things go wrong in the life of a baby or a small child. But those many things can be continuously acknowledged by the adults. Oh, that hurt. Oh, you bumped your head and whatever it is. Or those things can be denied, particularly if they’re things that the parent caused, like discomforts that we necessarily cause children, not to mention deeper kinds of pain that we cause. The less acknowledgment, the less there is what we consider to be repair. So this is going to lead into what I think is politically crucial in the resolution of impasse, which is you can’t simply restore attunement. You have to repair the rupture in it. And that means you have to acknowledge what actually went wrong. And that’s where people are going to start to fight again.
Michael: In layman’s terms, own it.
Michael: In effect, own it.
Jessica: Own it.
Michael: Can I ask you, before we move into the political or public space and I guess this is for both of you, if you see this dynamic that you’re describing in a patient or in a psych, you know, in private, how does it manifest then, both in the relationship between the mother or the parent and the child, or just how does a child then carry this into adulthood? What are the consequences of the dynamic you’re speaking about in someone’s life?
Jessica: Well, I will slant this somewhat toward the political by saying that one of the basic consequences has to do whether we can trust authority figures, people with more power than us, to right the wrong that they have done or acknowledge the wrong that someone else has done or whether we grow up with the basic sense that they’ll never really admit anything that happened or they’ll–
Michael: Which feels where we are right now, very much.
Jessica: They’ll never feel empathic to the suffering or injury. And so I’m all on my own when it comes to this and I have to either, you know, constantly rage against it or shut it down completely or just walk around in the world expecting no one to really ever understand anything about how I see the world. And so, in a way, it’s like other people are crazy, but maybe I’m crazy. All of those things go on. If you do not get acknowledgment and if you aren’t in the presence of people who think, when something goes wrong, we try to put it right. If we can’t put it right, for instance, we really can’t pick the ice cream off the sidewalk after your cone fell, then we acknowledge what a dreadful thing that is. It, I mean, really can start with the littlest things versus somebody being told to just suck it up.
Michael: Acknowledge the loss.
Betty: Or that it’s their fault or that there’s blame involved or that that process of mini mourning the ice cream cone is not possible or the realm of the child, they’ve got to suck it up, as Jessica said. And in my field of trauma treatment, that sets the tone of silencing and it can really have some deleterious effects where people don’t know their own boundaries, meaning they don’t have a sense that it’s okay to have my wrongs acknowledged, it’s okay to put up limits to where I end and the other begins. And so it’s a very unconscious entrenchment of habitual state of mind, but it can get people into trouble later on when they meet traumagenic circumstances.
Jessica: Exactly. Where they feel that they can’t protect themselves. See, one of the biggest problems, going back to our illustration of, say, the child and the parent, is that if your protest about something that hurt you or that felt wrong to you is silenced in the way that you’re describing, then one of the main things that happens is that not only you, sort of, lose a sense of your true agency, your ability to protect yourself, but also you do not see the world as having a kind of lawful order. Instead, the world is made up of power relations and power relations have nothing to do with lawfulness, and by lawfulness I don’t just mean the things that we, you know, institutionalize legally, but all kinds of unspoken rules of behavior and civility and so forth. The reason that those can all go out the window for some people is that they’ve never experienced anything but naked power. They’ve never really seen this kind of respect, not only for the person of the other, but for the patterns that you and I have established together, our expectations of each other. They’ve never seen that kind of respect for a certain type of order. So their idea of order is something that is a top-down imposition of power and whoever doesn’t have that power just has to knuckle under.
Michael: This is, I think, fascinating. And I can already hear how it resonates with the political world that we live in today. So I have a myriad of questions. The first is, well, what do you say to somebody who says, yeah, but that’s my reality. I’m an African-American male and, you know, I’m a doctor and I get stopped by police thinking I’m a criminal.
Jessica: Yeah, but the doctor, and even if the person is not a doctor, at the most ordinary person who’s going to get stopped in that way has a sense that this is not lawful.
Jessica: The whole point is that they are not lacking an internal representation of what is lawful and whether they got it from their parents or the church or the school they went to, they have a sense of what is right and wrong. So when power is exerted in that way, they understand that something unlawful is being done. Now, at the same time, they also understand that if they were to protest about that, they could come into more harm.
Michael: Correct. Exactly.
Jessica: Right, so they’re in a bind. They have to be able, in effect, to hold on to their own idea of right and wrong while being cunning enough to protect themselves from somebody who might shoot them while they take their driver’s license.
Michael: So the question that I have then is, because you’re obviously both empathetic to the victims in this situation, is then, and you’re not suggesting somehow that I mean that the burden is on them, right? That burden is not. It’s a burden on us. So how do we, Jessica, how do you take your ideas then and find practical application in the political space?
Jessica: Well, just to go back for one moment to what Betty said. Betty, you said, and this is right, that we want to give people practice in being able to, say, disagree with us or complain to us or accuse us without our retaliating. So when the most important things for people to get is a recognition of their protest without retaliation. So now if you look at the societal level where we have the degree of mass incarceration and this discourse of being punitive, that is really overwhelming and compared to any other civilized country just shattering to realize how intense it is, you can see that the idea of punishing rather than recognizing what is behind someone’s behavior must be something that is extremely acceptable, you know, extremely widespread and acceptable to a large majority.
Michael: Otherwise, we wouldn’t allow it.
Jessica: We would say, wait a minute, you’ve got a 16 year old who’s committed some kind of crime, but we understand that, you know, he’s just a kid. We have to find out what’s going on. We have to take care of this person. We have to help them. No, that’s not the attitude in our society. We just have this notion of the super predators, this notion that these they’re, you know, the bad seed, the destructive people. All of that can be seen from a psychoanalytic viewpoint as a kind of projection of badness and to a certain population. Sometimes it’s just onto an individual, sometimes onto populations, in which you’re basically saying these people who are acting out of anger, their circumstances, need to get in line like the rest of us. We’ve knuckled under. We’ve had to suck up things that have made us angry. Yes, we’ve had to give in to things that made us. We’ve had to submit to authority our whole lives. We went to public school and had to submit to authority. Why don’t they submit to authority the way we do?
Betty: And why don’t they comply? Why don’t they accommodate the social structure?
Jessica: And swallow their protest and so the idea is really people deserve to be punished when they step out of line. Because I had to do that. I had to be threatened. I was threatened in that way, so the more authoritarian your own upbringing is, the more you think other people should be punished.
Michael: It’s fascinating to me because what it doesn’t take into account is the humiliation that would potentially come with, I mean forget the practical injustice of having to succumb to a power structure when you’re at the bottom, and I mean, just for for a second the unfairness of it, but the emotional component of the humiliation being completely negated, overlooked, denied. It strikes me funny as you’re talking, guys, that I keep coming back to Trump, who strikes me as this guy who really is about, you know, guilty of all the things that we’ve discussed this morning so far, which is to say his relationships are all about imposition of power. He sees them all in a zero sum game dynamic. There is no third space for him. And you are, as you say, Betty, required to succumb. And he turns other people into criminals. So on and so forth. I’m, am I missing, is that inappropriate leap?
Jessica: No, I think that’s, I think that it’s a very good leap. And I think the point is that we all assume that he had a very authoritarian upbringing, that his father was, you know, pretty authoritarian and frightening and humiliating, and that his older brother was frightened and humiliated and that led to his alcoholism. And so on and so forth. We all make, you know, pretty much, make the same assumptions about that. The issue is, why is his appeal so widespread? And that has to do with the fact that he, on the one hand, has learned these techniques for overcoming humiliation that other people admire. They admire that he’s, you know, been able to play the game in a way to reverse the humiliation, put it onto the others who are the others who are weak, the others who are feminine, the others who are in some way deserving supposedly of this shame and humiliation. So that makes people who feel a lot of shame and humiliation very happy that they can identify with this guy who’s learned how to throw it over onto the other all while projecting.
Michael: Yeah. Can you unpack that a little bit more, if you guys don’t mind? Because I think it’s really essential. And I don’t, I want to make sure that people we don’t gloss over it and people don’t really understand, you know, what do you mean by the projecting and what Trump’s doing by placing his own personal shame in your mind on, say, women, for example.
Jessica: Well, I think I mean, you just expressed it, I don’t think–
Jessica: There isn’t that much more to it. At the simplest level, projection is when you take something that is unwanted by the self because it is either shameful or felt to be destructive and you put it into someone else. So Trump, for instance, not only puts things that are humiliating, like, you know, bleeding or being in some way, you know, physically exposed–
Betty: Or unattractive.
Michael: Or in the case of the reporter who he famously mocked on who was, you know, handicapped.
Jessica: Right. Any form of weakness. But there’s another aspect which is also involved in his projection, and that is that these other people are dangerous, rapacious predators. These gangs who are at the border, you know, these are all like gang people and they’re dangerous predators. The projection of the dangerous predators is in a way more interesting to me because whereas I think the media was able to pick up on the obviousness of how he’s shaming other people, I think the media, although it’s against this, I think the media was more helpless in the face of Trump’s projection of harm onto these poor few immigrants, as opposed to owning the way in which the United States government and the powers that he represents have done more harm in the world than these people could ever even imagine.
Betty: On a large, larger scale.
Jessica: On a monumentally larger scale, right. Okay, so that I think has been harder for the media because the media doesn’t want to talk about mass incarceration in that way. They don’t want to talk about drone warfare in that way. They don’t want to talk about that, you know, they don’t talk about the violence of constantly slicing things from the federal budget, like heating for old people, like nutritional support for poor people. They don’t want to talk about those things as violence so that the predation is being constantly projected. And I think that leads us, you know, into the theme that we hope to get to today, is the constant refusal to own any predatory aspects. And at the same time, Trump celebrates. At the same time he celebrates his successful predation, right. At the very same time as he is projecting on others.
Michael: It’s a source of pride.
Jessica: He’s always talking about how he’s really getting the better of other people. And that contradiction, which isn’t experienced as contradiction is, I think, part of his attractiveness to certain people. And part of, of course, what horrifies others.
Michael: Right. And leaves us at an impasse. It’s funny, as you were talking, Jessica, about the media’s unwillingness, and I was thinking about this in terms of those people seeking asylum, right. They’re not immigrants. They’re people–
Jessica: Right. I meant to say that myself.
Michael: They’re asylum seekers. They are leaving an untenable, violent situation. And I was thinking about it most in the context of Honduras, right. Which is a violent mess of a country for which both George Bush and Barack Obama–
Jessica: Bare responsibility.
Michael: Have, bare, meaningful responsibility, not the least of which is Reagan going back to Guatemala and Nicaragua and on and on and on. And the total absence in this entire debate of a quote unquote, caravan, which is not a caravan, right. I mean, I think even that even the way that the media adopts the language of the user, but the lack of any reporting about our complicit actions to create the problems in Honduras that are forcing these people out, seeking asylum and safety for their families, just no, it’s nowhere to be found, at least in the press that I consume, you know.
Betty: And Jessica, you pointed to this in your writings and you really bring it out, this allowance that Trump gets to celebrate his strongman status and yet project this predatory persona onto those who do not have it and and do not have it on the scale of ways in which he and his colleagues and business associates have done. There is a link between those things that you have described in very intricate ways that in order to feel better, you want to identify with the leader, particularly in times of uncertainty or particularly in situations or states of uncertainty. And I was wondering if you could, sort of, draw those lines a little bit more for us, that link between if you are low and you like the strongman to be your leader because you identify with him even if at the cost of your own well-being.
Jessica: So I think that the identification with the strongman leader is a little bit more complicated than people want to admit. Because in the studies I’ve looked at, a large percentage of those who supported Trump, for instance, were not economically insecure people. And they were not even what we would consider working class. And by many definitions, they were, you know, people with a substantially secure income in, say, you know, sales or management or something.
Jessica: So those people are not, they’re not free from being economically threatened, of course, because that what happened in 2008 in particular was no doubt frightening to all kinds of people who aren’t wealthy. But I think that what caused them to embrace him wasn’t that uncertainty. I really think it’s the uncertainty of white male identity on the one side and the uncertainty of not knowing what we really are responsible for. Like in other words, you’re being accused, and they are being accused and they should be accused in a certain sense, but they don’t know what they’re being accused of because as you point out, nobody’s actually telling them what happened in Honduras, nobody is really telling them what happened in Afghanistan or Iraq in a meaningful way. So all of these accusations that are flying around that America has done something wrong, going all the way back to Vietnam, make no sense to people who are not, shall we say, inducted.
Michael: They’re not. If they don’t, they have no exposure to it.
Jessica: Yeah. If you’re not inducted into a whole panoply of ideas and information that our media shut out, then these people really don’t have a way of knowing what they did wrong. And they also don’t have anybody offering to show them a way to make it right. So let’s go back to our original point. If you do something wrong and you know that you did, but you’re able to acknowledge it and put it right, that’s very important, not just for the other person who gets the acknowledgment from you. It’s important for you. Otherwise, you walk around feeling destructive and like you’re harmful.
Betty: Without even knowing why.
Betty: It’s very anxiety producing.
Jessica: Exactly. So now you’ve got this person who says, oh no, we’re not destructive. We’re great. But they’re telling us we’re destructive. And what we actually have to do is be stronger and be even more powerful. Well, they don’t, I mean, there are many different reasons for this, but among other things, I really hold responsible not so much the individuals, although, of course, as I said earlier, they are used to a certain kind of pattern of authority relations. But I also hold responsible a very intentional media conspiracy to keep them in the dark and to obfuscate the harming that America has perpetrated for many reasons, especially economic reasons, to keep them in the dark about what they’re actually responsible for.
Michael: You know, it’s funny, as you’re talking, I was thinking even about the aftermath of the war in Iraq and how little we know about the hell that was unleashed on that country, which is not to say that Saddam Hussein was a good man, he was a murderer and a tyrant. But it’s as if the war didn’t exist in American culture. Nobody, I mean, to the extent that nobody who wants to talk about PTSD.
Jessica: Right. They won’t talk about what happened to our own veterans.
Michael: Much less what happened to Iraqi civilians. So, okay, so what is in your estimation then, and it’s a fascinating analysis of Trump and the people on why some people are drawn to him, because the classic media analysis is, oh 2007 economic crisis. People feel marginalized. There’s economic insecurity. The liberal elite or neoliberal elite didn’t pay attention to the rising income inequality and therefore you end up with Trump. And that may be part of the equation for you.
Jessica: It is.
Michael: But you’re saying it’s more. You’re saying there’s other elements involved as well?
Jessica: Well, there are elements that have to do with trying to understand why the neoliberal elite, in fact, ignored the inequality and ignored the suffering of the American people. And what I think is really important is to, that I’ve written about and that you know I’ve said this, I think is very important to underline, is that the elites did not want to confront certain kinds of responsibility for harm. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m just going to make a leap here because I want to get to this idea. You’ve used the word impasse a number of times. I don’t think what we have is an impasse. Not really.
I think what we have is a deliberate attempt by a certain part of the American ruling elite and led by Mitch McConnell to make sure that they stay in power by any means necessary. And the means that they have chosen, as we all know, is the starving of the beast of the government, making sure government is dysfunctional, making sure the government doesn’t give people what they need. And so they’re willing to cause any amount of suffering in order to be able to manipulate in this way. That’s been going on for quite a long time. What concerns me is the inability of the other side, whichever part of the other side you belong to, except for a very small, very small group of determined people who are now becoming much more vocal. With the exception of those determined vocal people, the other side was not able to confront or deal with Mitch McConnell. I’m just gonna use something here. They couldn’t actually call out Mitch McConnell. They couldn’t, you know, Obama in particular could not say Mitch McConnell is evil. And I don’t mean to say he should have literally gotten on television, said Mitch McConnell you’re evil, but–
Michael: It would’ve been nice.
Jessica; Something close to that. And he was much more eloquent than me, so he could have figured out a really good way to say it, and he didn’t do that and he didn’t do it every day the way he should have. But then the other piece that we should consider is that those people who we’re designating as the elite are in this peculiar position in between where they are, they have something that those people were just protecting their own little tiny whatever, they have something else, which is they have access to the big power. They have access to the big wealth by being their most trusted servants. And they don’t want to lose that position either. So there is a lot of investment in not calling out the harm. But at the same time, there’s a sort of internal conflict or contradiction, because many of those people who are liberal and educated really don’t want to do harm.
Michael: And espouse equality. You know, it’s funny because as you’re talking and as I was reading some of your papers, I as a lay person, came back to the idea that, you know, so much of this is about the stories we tell about ourselves and stories that we’re capable of telling about ourselves. It’s very hard to tell a story about yourself, whether as an individual or as a nation that, you know–
Betty: That we’re the bad guys.
Michael: –factors in, you know, things that are terrible.
Betty: Done wrong.
Michael: And this may be a moment of my own.
Jessica: Excuse me, but it’s not just hard, but it’s also wrong politically–
Jessica: –to go around saying we’re the bad guys. And that has had a very deleterious effect, which people like Trump can use to their–
Michael: Correct, that’s the left’s narrative, which is we’re the bad guys and just you’re not going to win anybody over with that, right?
Jessica: No, you have to win people over with the idea of, like, harm has been done historically, but we’re going to make it better and we can make it better. And we, there is enough so we don’t have to fight in this way.
Michael: Exactly. Which is to say, it seems to me that what we’ve lost is the possibility for redemption. The redemption does not negate the facts, right. But it allows for a path forward. Maybe the third space that you’re talking about. I was thinking, if I can, but I’ve mentioned this to Betty, this may be in my own personal space, but when you were talking about the liberals and, you know, they get access to it. I was thinking about, we just went through waves of early decision for colleges. And I personally hate them, right. Because they are, to my mind, engines of economic inequality, because you have to sign a contract and those, you know, you don’t know about financial aid or if there’s going to be any. So those means that those are, first of all, just self-selecting wealthy people who can afford 65, 70 thousand dollars a year, which is an absurd amount of money. And on top of that, you know, often they’re products of, if not private schools, well-funded public schools in suburbs. They’re the product of tutors and classes to help you get your test scores up. But when that decision comes in, they don’t see it as a function of privilege or a driver of economic inequality. They see it as validation of their own merit. They see it as, right, they earned it. They earned it. And that paradigm, that conflict, is that what you’re talking about?
Jessica: Yes, thank you. I’m talking about the distinction between the individual point of view and the systemic point of view. And what I’m saying is, that the systemic point of view is not being presented in a way that makes it something that people can own because, as you say, there’s no redemption. There’s no way for them to really get out of just being an exploiter or privileged person. So that is an extremely destructive way of putting it. But I actually think that Bernie Sanders and people who are now gathering around him are finding much more positive way to put this so that it’s not about primarily blaming, but nonviolent way.
Betty: And this goes back to your point about acknowledgment that there is no space for the acknowledgment that one can be self-interested and for the collective at the same time. And so what I look at when I think about all of these things is time, that we’re in a 24 hour media cycle which promotes or privileges conflict. And we’re in a space where–
Jessica: No, not conflict. It promotes and privileges certain kinds of disruptions and certain kinds of–
Michael: And profits from them.
Jessica: Yeah. And certain kinds of excitement, but doesn’t actually allow the underlying conflicts that are involved to be analyzed and worked on.
Betty: Maybe drama.
Jessica: Yeah. Drama, thank you, drama, yes.
Betty: Drama of reactivity, but no space and no time to even get to what we need to acknowledge.
Michael: Sound and fury signifying nothing.
Jessica: Right. And we call that in psychoanalysis, we call that enactment. So the drama enacts the conflict, but what the actual conflict that’s behind that drama that is being enacted never gets revealed. So you never actually find out why the actors are motivated in the way that they are. And we never find out why McConnell is motivated in the way we are. We never find out, we find out, for instance, that Cheney had all the oil executives come into the White House and tell him, you know, what, their desiderata were for an energy plan. But nobody ever actually looks at that as part conflictual situation where the other people, that is to say, the whole rest of the society whose interest is in keeping fossil fuel limited so that we don’t burn up the planet, that’s never presented. You’re not allowed to actually have that conflict be presented. Instead, you have a pseudo conflict, which is, well, why shouldn’t he be allowed to bring those people into the White House? Why are you negating his right to do that.
Betty: And what I appreciate about psychoanalysis is that, as a different lens upon this, is to look beneath the enactment or to look beneath the drama of what’s happening, because there’s a lot of drama.
Michael: There’s something else going on.
Betty: There’s something else going on and we need to apply those tools to even get at them, to find, we don’t have the language right now. We don’t have the time. But there is something else going on in the ping pong back and forth. I think you’ve even used that language, Jessica. But this back and forth baton, the baton of blame, back and forth. I’m blaming you, you’re blaming me, is even itself a signifier that something more than what we see is in play.
Jessica: Right. It seems to be about blame rather than actually, for instance, being able to say, well there are different interests involved here and legitimately there’s an opposition between those interests and you, the American people, should get to decide which you think is your interest.
Betty: And I see this as a traumatogenic response. We’re frozen. We’re frozen in this wordless spin of not being able to speak to these wounds.
Jessica: Or we’re frozen in fear of the powerful people who would really come down on us if we tried to do this. I’m not sure whether we can leave out of the trauma the fact that–
Michael: The McConnells of the world.
Betty: Of course.
Jessica: And that these–
Betty: It could happen again.
Jessica: –powerful, abusive figures frighten people. They frighten them unconsciously in a certain way, but they do frighten them. And I’m not sure exactly how to think about what, other than saying we have to become a we. We have to become not an individual. You have become part of something larger to not be frightened. But there’s a level at which people are frightened of being shamed if they, and they will be shamed, like this is what happened with Kavanaugh, that a woman comes forward, Blasey Ford and she says–
Michael: Dr. Blasey Ford.
Jessica: Right. And she says I’m not going to let myself be frightened here, I know that everybody’s going to try to shame me and frighten me and attack me if I come forward and say that one of these denizens of power really was a destructive person. Now, I think that there are all kinds of problematic things about, sort of, singling out somebody who is really part of a whole culture of destructiveness, but nonetheless, he was supposed to be on the Supreme Court.
Michael: He’s going to have real power.
Betty: And he still holds power to ascend.
Jessica: That’s right. So her idea of speaking truth to power, if you look at the way that that was treated, you see that part of how her efforts were vitiated and undermined had to do with the notion that what she was saying was unfair to him. That he, as a powerful person, should have his shot. He should get to have his day where he has an interview. He gets to have his interview, as it were, for his job without somebody coming along and ruining it for him. Now, that has to do with people identifying with the king, with the powerful person, and not wanting their power to be spoiled.
Michael: So how does the narrative in the case of Dr. Ford and Brett Kavanaugh factor in when you hear people say things like, well, now anybody can just come out and say anything, right. This notion that somehow it’s uncorroborated and it’s such a long time ago, and I’m not ascribing to this, but the argument against Dr. Ford being now there’s no center of gravity anymore, right. Anybody can come up and say anything and ruin anybody’s life.
Jessica: Okay, but those kinds of arguments are sophistry. And I’m interested in what’s underneath this sophistry and what’s underneath the sophistry is an appeal to a certain mentality within the American culture, which says that what was being done to him was unfair. And that’s what I’m trying to look at, is when you try to ask somebody who has done harm in a culture that is so built on this kind of harming, especially in this case, patriarchal, sexual harming, but then we have all the other harming we’ve talked about, when you ask them to bear the onus individually of having done this, it’s like saying to them, well you know, you’re the great, great grandchild of slave owners, so you really can’t be on the Supreme Court. You know what I mean, it’s like asking someone to bear the–
Michael: It seems unfair.
Jessica: –onus of a kind of historical responsibility that the society at large is not taking. And I think that–
Betty: And the stakes are that high.
Jessica: Yeah. So then what happens is that people start to feel like, well you can’t put this enormous burden on any one person. But the problem with that is that the link between that burden of harming and the actual political policies that this individual Kavanaugh was planning to carry out was thus undermined and was totally made invisible by the media, I think, in the way that they portrayed this, because they simply refused to connect the dots and say, look here’s a guy who’s obviously against women’s right to choose. This is not unrelated to how he treated women. You cannot, in fact, make–
Michael: Separate them.
Jessica: Yes. And so that’s part of the splitting that I’m talking about. And as long as we are involved in that splitting and we deny that peoples–
Betty: And we don’t take the time to consider the connecting of the dots. We’re going to perpetuate this.
Jessica: That’s right.
Michael: And then Dr. Ford is re-traumatized, assaulted yet again.
Betty: And other survivors looking at her and identifying with her are re-traumatized themselves.
Michael: Right. So how then, if we look back last year at the confirmation hearing and all of the anger, the sense of powerlessness, I mean even the way that Lindsey Graham responded, which I just found abhorrent, the ranting, and then women who were accosting people in the halls of the Senate. You just saw a break.
Jessica: I wouldn’t call that accosting. I would say confronting.
Michael: Confronting. Fair enough.
Jessica: They were legitimately confronting lawmakers. And that’s what I mean. I think that you, that legitimate confrontation with lawmakers is then confused with–
Jessica: –a form of attack.
Michael: Okay I’ll let you know what, I will own that. In the notion of actually trying to find a third, I will own that.
Jessica: But wait. But that’s a perfect example of how something deteriorates into the “doer done to” framework. You see, that’s how we get into the “doer done to” complementarity, where the accuser is felt, by the accused, to be hurting him. And so now the accuser is also a harmer. And now everybody feels caught in this cycle of harming. And then the American people say, well she’s also harming him. And that’s what I was trying to get at before, which I didn’t articulate.
Michael: Great. So to that end–
Jessica: Wait. And then you have what you are calling an impasse. But in reality, that impasse isn’t, it looks like it’s just a “doer done to” conflict and nobody’s right and nobody’s wrong and both people are harming. But in reality, there has been a harm done.
Jessica: And I’m just going to assume, you know, for the sake of this–
Jessica: –that Dr. Ford was definitely right. But so harm has been done. But you can then turn that around into a “doer done to” situation where you now can say, well everybody’s being harmed, right, so forget about it.
Michael: So then the harm goes without being addressed.
Betty: Right. And a moral equivalent, equivocation–
Michael: A false moral equivalence is created.
Jessica: Which our media specializes in creating because they’re hooked on the “doer done to” mentality which, in the “doer done to” mentality, anybody who protests, anybody who opposes injustice is always going to get sucked into being a part of the problem, not the solution, because they’re accusing someone, you see, and then then they’re sucked in.
Michael: Okay, so in the hope of trying to ground this for our people, how then, because whether it feels like an impasse, let me say that, right. It feels like an impasse. It feels like we are arrested.
Betty: And we are stuck.
Michael: How then, in our final moments, right, what do you see as a path forward? Maybe, I mean, I was going to suggest maybe what’s the solution, but that may not be even possible. But what can we do differently or what should we be demanding differently of the media, of ourselves, of our politicians to break this very destructive dynamic?
Jessica: Well, I guess my argument was that in order to really have a vision of a societally embraced third space where we can carry out conflicts, we also need to have a vision of repair like what you called redemption. We have to have a notion that these things that we’re talking about that are so problematic in our history that we collectively as Americans, both those who did participate in this through their ancestry and those who did not, all, in a sense like the Germans after World War Two, have to take responsibility for reparation, for making amends, for making sure this doesn’t happen again, for changing what’s happening. But the thing that is vital, I think, is to keep saying we can do this. We don’t have to sit with this system of mass incarceration like the one we have. We don’t have to keep attacking, you know, other countries in the way that we are. We don’t have to keep using fossil fuel the way that we are. We can make all of these changes if we agree that the point isn’t about blame, but about responsibility.
And that there will be conflicts of interest that we have to carry out to do this, but we on our side of things, let’s say, are completely, legitimately interested in making solutions available that will be probably friendly to the majority of people and that those solutions will involve fighting tooth and nail against those who are profiting from not having those solutions. And that’s unavoidable. So that level at which we face, look those people are going to want to keep harming us and we’re going to have to nonviolently stand up to their harming. We need to take inspiration, say, from those Standing Rock water protectors. We need to think about how we can take an idea of protection that’s not about only one can live and them versus us, but an idea of protection that really is so much more embracing of the earth and of all people. And that has to do with believing that there really are, you know, as they would say, some original instructions that are given to us about how to conduct life on Earth.
Betty: And what you’re both speaking to is there’s an anxiety in this stuck dynamic and there’s no movement forward.
Jessica: No responsibility. There’s no taking responsibility
Betty: And this, as difficult as taking responsibility can be in the short term, in the long term it’s a relief. It’s a way to move. It gives motility.
Jessica: Right. Right.
Jessica: And that’s very good.
Michael: Yeah. Well done. I think it’s great because we are recording this on the celebration of Dr. King’s birthday, and he seems to have pushed us towards what you’re talking about. His is a narrative that is that third space.
Jessica: He had an inclusive narrative.
Jessica: He believed that when white people gave up doing these things that they were doing, that they would actually be the happier for it. He didn’t believe this was just black people making white people do this thing that they would hate and that would make them unhappy, he actually thought white people would be happier if they, like, saw the light about how we need to treat each other, what kind of society we need to create. And he was able to actually convey with conviction this vision such that against all odds, he was heard by many people who otherwise would not have heard this message. And we have to remember then he was killed.
Michael: Was killed.
Jessica: And he was killed, but whoever did it killed him precisely because he was giving the one message, shall we say, the one message that could really help us to save ourselves.
Michael: Making America live up to its promise. I mean, that’s–
Jessica: I wouldn’t call it that because I think its promise, as you pointed out earlier, was flawed from the beginning. But making America live up to certain strands of its–
Michael: Well, certainly the ideal that all people are created equal and deserving in rights. Which we constantly fail to live up to. He was calling us to the mat, as it were, and, you know, in colloquial terms, to live up to how we see ourselves and to demand of ourselves that we live by the notion that rights are inalienable. That their natural rights, that they are a product of being a human being, whether you’re a woman or African-American, whatever it is, that they’re not rights granted to you by the government. And therefore, we live in an immoral world.
Betty: And power statuses that you hold.
Michael: Right. But his narrative was one, as you point out, Jessica, an inclusive one and one that everybody can inhabit in that space.
Jessica: But at the same time, he understood that some people are going to have to take responsibility for painful realities.
Michael: Oh, for sure.
Jessica: And so that’s what, it wasn’t that we just had to live up to our promise. We had to live up to facing our own history and our own painful reality. That’s all I was saying.
Michael: For sure. I mean, even in the way he talked about the Vietnam War, which was not, I mean, he has a falling out with Johnson and with many people on the left. I mean, he was a great man. And maybe a, I mean, endlessly a model for us all. Do we wrap it up?
Betty: It’s time.
Michael: It’s time.
Betty: Past time.
Jessica: Thank you.
Betty: Thank you.
Michael: Jessica, that was great. Thank you very much. We have reached the end of yet another session. And as my analyst likes to say to me, take your problems home with you. Mind of State is a production of Mind of State Media LLC and Hangar Studios NYC. Our crackerjack producer is Caroline Kwash. Our engineer is Jack Dixon. Mind of State’s original music is composed by Joel Goodman, courtesy of Oovra Music. I’m Michael Epstein.
Betty: And I’m Betty Teng. You can connect with us on Twitter at Mind of State Media, on our Facebook page, and at our website, MindofState.com. You can also subscribe to our show at iTunes podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. And we’ll see you next week.