Moving Toward a Theory of Difference

By Dr. Alice L Maher

As Presented at the 53rd Congress of the International Psychoanalytic Association: “Mind in the Line of Fire”

Does psychoanalysis have anything to offer to alleviate toxic polarization?

Not only does it have something to offer, it has everything to offer. Political, scientific, and moral arguments don’t work. Debates don’t work. Getting out the vote doesn’t work. Calling out and canceling doesn’t work. Teaching empathy doesn’t work. Each political collective is so blind to the communications of the other that leaders are massively compromised by the time they arrive at the top of parties driven by large group dynamics.

These problems are PSYCHODYNAMIC in origin, and in solution.

This is OUR purview. We can and we MUST lead the way. But how? We try, but the people in our field regress to the same polarized conflicts that every other large group has. The president of APsaA, and other members, resigned because of this split. Everyone on APsaA’s listserv began calling the other a racist. 

Given that this is happening, what can we possibly do?

In this short presentation, I’m going to outline a theoretical model and a technical approach that I sincerely believe will work. 

Two directions will be necessary, one toward our own field and one toward the outside world.

In the outside world, a movement needs to begin – a large-scale social movement to stop mocking, accusing, blocking, canceling, and unfriending people who see the world differently from the way that we do; a movement to find new ways to communicate effectively across vast human divides. Psychological differences must be treated like racial differences before integration and problem-solving can happen. But certain kinds of differences threaten our hard-won identities, and therein lies the problem.

What’s happening now is not good, but it’s not a moral failing. Human nature is fight, flight, or freeze, behaviors that have been seriously magnified by the emergence of internet technology. If your differences threaten me, I can make you go away and pretend you no longer exist by pushing a button or changing a channel. It may be gratifying and relieving to behave that way, but our species won’t survive if we keep it up. Robots may already be more psychologically intuitive than we are. 

Our field could catalyze this movement with a simple defense interpretation that would be advertised widely to the masses. Memes and articles might say something like this: “Approaches that we presently use to fight ideological differences don’t work. If we yell at someone to stop thinking what they’re thinking, they’re not going to stop thinking those thoughts. They’re going to think them more, fueled by rage that the other side believes it’s superior and is trying to stop them. It’s human nature to behave this way and band together in groups that support our points of view. This approach may work for personal self-regulation, but it’s ineffective and harmful when done on a large scale.”

I’m talking about using analytic techniques to slowly shift human nature’s default position. It can be done, but motivation must emerge on a substantial scale, fueled by shared insight, peer pressure, curiosity, and excitement about new possibilities. 

But we can’t advocate for this yet. Something else must happen simultaneously or we will be leading society toward a dead end. 

What happens when people try to stop fighting and talk? Dialogue and diplomacy efforts exist in many arenas with minimal success. Agreeing to disagree or compromising are typical “nice” solutions, but they don’t adequately address intergroup conflicts that reach the core of our being. When our identities are threatened, empathy and compromise will not be enough. A complex methodology will be necessary.

REAL dialogue necessitates entering and tolerating uncharted, unsafe territories, and remaining there for long periods of time. Our field needs to offer the world safe containers in the form of new theories, new rituals, and new techniques.  We’ve done this before in individual arenas. We can do it again on a larger scale.

To accomplish this, our field will need to transition from a model based on pathology to a model based on difference; a three-dimensional model that includes self, other, and our sociopolitical world.

Psychoanalysis worked with a one-person paradigm for almost a century. When we realized that it was impossible for an analyst to remain neutral without personal dynamics interfering, we transitioned to a two-person model. Relational approaches have been around for a long time and new problems are emerging. From my perspective, that model is less dangerous than the original, but it’s also less potent. In the United States, psychoanalysis is now considered one of many “talk therapies,” less worthy of reimbursement than medication management and behavioral approaches. The two-person model is struggling.

Because our existing models center around pathology, we take that prejudgment into the sociopolitical arena. The person who doesn’t agree with us is the one we feel free to label narcissistic, defensive, traumatized and triggered, with anger problems, or otherwise unstable and unworthy of being taken seriously. Because we react this way, we can’t make sense of the differences between liberals and conservatives, God-fearing people and atheists, supporters of Israel and supporters of the Palestinians, people who embrace or reject racial and transgender dynamics, abortion, and models of equity vs equality. When faced with sociopolitical problems, “What’s wrong with them?!” is the way we typically pose the question. We need to reframe it as, “How do their psychological differences impact me, my people, and our world, and how do our psychological differences impact them? Is there a creative, forward-moving solution for this moment in time?” If I dislike, fear, and maybe hate you, if I wish you would disappear off the face of the earth, I need to be able to speak those words, and you need to be able to tolerate hearing them, before true dialogue can begin.

A personal experience led me to the conviction that, with the development of theory and technique, these bridges can be erected.

I entered training in 1978 as a young, soon-to-be-pregnant Catholic woman in a world almost entirely populated by older Jewish atheist men. I felt, and I was, different from the start, not unlike the people of color entering the APsaA community today. But no one noticed because those kinds of differences weren’t part of our theory or technical approaches. I read the Freudian “bible” differently from the way my teachers did. I responded to Freud as a creative artist rather than an analytic scientist. My analyst helped me tolerate the dynamic tension, but something always felt wrong. 

After I graduated and gave birth to my second child, I wrote a paper entitled, “Creativity: A Work in Progress,” about the consequences of Freud’s blind spot to all things creative – art, femininity and fertility, God, and the dynamics of his own genius. The paper won an award and publication in my favorite journal, but there was no traction. I felt as if I had just reinvented analytic theory around my personal dynamics, and no one seemed to notice.

I went to a man that I believed could help. A senior analyst, he embodied the theory and standards of the times but was also a gifted, creative clinician. I told him that I needed help differentiating my personal, idiosyncratic, possibly defensive way of thinking from a new perspective that could be developed into new theory. He asked how I thought we could do that. I suggested meeting 5x/year and asking him to read letters that I would write between meetings. He agreed. I asked how much he would charge. He said nothing. 

I don’t have time to go into detail about the experience except to say that it moved, it came to closure after ten years, it allowed us to separate while preserving our identities, and it was wonderful. My theory about what happened is outlined in my 2018 book. In his discussion, Heward Wilkinson, an analytic therapist from the UK, used “transformational reversal” as a way of theoretically framing the ending. 

I left that experience with confidence that the process I stumbled on could be replicated. 

Here is how I think we can do it.

Dyads – two people who come from different ideological centers – co-create a structure for ongoing dialogue. They agree to meet, talk, write, in a rhythmic way analogous to the analytic ritual. My process was 5x/year with the exchange of written letters between in-person meetings. Other rituals can be different, but they should be agreed upon and adhered to.

Each dyad will be different because each individual is different. But if enough people agree to try it, universal themes will emerge that can be studied and developed into theories and technical approaches. 

In recent years I’ve been developing a series of pilot projects – an emotional literacy curriculum for an afterschool program and a series of dialogue projects including one at a community college. I only have time to go into detail about one of them. 

If you go to YouTube and search for Alice Maher and Bobby Powell, you will see me engaged in a Zoom dialogue with a man who was at the US Capitol when it was stormed by Trump-supporting Republicans on Jan 6, 2021. (VIEW VIDEO) He was convinced that the event was set up by the FBI and representatives of the Left. Later a group of analysts discussed our conversation in a meta-dialogue and met him in a Zoom conversation. He and I met in person when he came to New York for a rally. We have become Facebook friends, proud to know and survive one another. 

When I talk to friends on the far Right, arguing that they’re wrong about the rigged election is a setup for offense, counterattack, and alienation. But when I say something like this, the response opens a pathway for continued dialogue: “The Left may have wished they could, but I don’t think we’re smart enough to rig an election of that magnitude without getting caught.” Tools that we use to bridge divides with our analysands can easily be reimagined for these arenas. 

That said, it’s essential to imagine a level playing field, one that focuses on difference rather than pathology. My errors in understanding Bobby and his friends were just as obvious and just as essential to correct. For example, “white supremacy” is a serious misreading of their meaning and intent, and anti-abortion is not about power over women. One brilliant man told me he supported Trump because he represented the Jungian archetypal trickster, a necessary shape-shifter for this moment in time.

Referencing the horrific conflict represented by the Lara Sheehi situation at APsaA, I’m imagining a co-created psychoanalytic “homeland” with supporters of Israeli Jews and supporters of Palestinian Muslims attempting to bridge their political and religious divides by talking and writing and talking and writing for as long as it takes to develop insight, empathy, and imagine creative political solutions that can be shared with the outside world. Lara’s thesis that dialogue doesn’t work because it is a tool of the oppressor will emerge and will need to be creatively addressed. That happened in my experience as well, but it’s too complex to develop in this short presentation. 

Won’t personal dynamics interfere? Absolutely, but they’re as much a fuel as an interference. That said, it would be better to begin with several dyads attempting the same process. Each pair will be different, but similar themes will emerge that can be understood at a different level of abstraction. An overarching theory can be developed by studying individual dyads. 

At present, I’m allying with a researcher who would analyze data and help with reproduction of methods and theory development, and I’m also working to ally with several larger dialogue communities. Consider this a direct request to ally with the IPA and/or individual members.

What can psychoanalysis do to alleviate toxic polarization? Develop a theory of difference and a methodology to address it, invite the world to look in a new direction, and excite them about new possibilities and new hope for the future. We have it in our power to do it.